Top Gun: Maverick – Film Review
by David Turpin
Director – Joseph Kosinski
Writers – Ehren Kruger (screenplay by), Eric Warren Singer (screenplay by), Christopher McQuarrie (screenplay by)
Stars – Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Val Kilmer, Jon Hamm, Ed Harris
In one of the few lulls in Top Gun: Maverick – the 36-years later sequel that returns Tom Cruise to the role of maverick pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell – this correspondent found himself musing on Liza Minnelli. There’s a moment in the singer/ actress’s 1972 concert special, Liza with a ‘Z’ at which she climaxes what has begun as a simple ditty with an extraordinary sustained note that clearly pushes her to the limit of her lung capacity. The performance ends with thunderous applause, and a strange little sound from Minnelli – something between a yelp, a sob and a giggle. What is galvanising about it isn’t the sheer prowess of her delivery – though there is that too – but the all-consuming intensity of her need for the audience’s adoration, approval, and affirmation. One feels that without these things, she may not know she exists.
Tom Cruise is a lot like that, in every way but one. He struts through Joseph Kosinski’s technically brilliant sequel with nothing on his mind but securing, at all costs, the astonishment of the audience. He’ll fly his own planes, ride his own motorcycles, inexplicably turn the act of sitting in a chair into a feat of athleticism – and all so that you will surrender, despite any reservations you may have (and this correspondent has many reservations about Cruise). So what’s that one difference between Cruise and Minnelli? You’ll never see Tom crack. He’ll never yelp, sob or giggle. All you’ll get is another death-defying stunt, another air-punching speech, another flash of that Tom Cruise smile, precise as surgery.
The story – or, more correctly, the pretext – sees Lieutenant Maverick brought back to teach at the Top Gun Academy, after irritating a stickler general played, of course, by Ed Harris. Another stickler, gamely played by John Hamm, wants him to train a team due to undertake what is effectively a suicide mission in a conspicuously unnamed ‘hostile country’ (although the snowscapes and enemy aircraft design strongly hint at where it might be). A few mind-boggling aerial feats later, Maverick has won the respect of his juniors – but tensions remain with Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller, committed as ever), the son of ‘Goose’, whose death in the first Top Gun film is recapped here. So, once again, the driving force is Father Issues – but then, it is a big-budget American film (very big budget, in fact, and very, very American). What did you expect?
You expected action sequences, of course. And those action sequences are extraordinary, irrespective of who is flying the planes. Kosinski puts them together with razor accuracy and the kind of spatial clarity that almost nobody, except maybe James Cameron, has delivered since film went digital. In fact, the action is so precise throughout, and the ‘big mission’ set-piece so ruthlessly laid out, there is a strange sense of sameness between the preparations and the life-or-death bombing raid itself – as if the barrier between simulation and reality has dissolved. Certainly, when the film indulges in a little old-fashioned ground-level action in its closing act, it feels no more real than watching a video game. Perhaps this unreality is the film’s strength. Void of any aspirations to real-world ‘commentary’, it feels unexpectedly… clean.
There is little room for women in these skies. Original leading lady Kelly McGillis does not appear and is not mentioned. Meg Ryan has been killed off-screen by causes that are not defined but may have to do with being sixty years old. Monica Barbaro has a tokenistic role as the lone female pilot on Maverick’s team.
A somewhat synthetic romantic subplot involves Maverick’s rekindled relationship with bar owner Penny, played by Jennifer Connelly. Connelly is never not charismatic, and she brings life to this part that can’t have been on the page. Nevertheless, her role is simply – like all the rest of us – to adore Tom Cruise. She has a weirdly poignant moment in which she is glimpsed at a picnic table, apparently ‘journaling’ or doing her tax return, while Cruise and his posse play a glistening game of shirtless volleyball. It put this correspondent in mind of the ninth section of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (‘Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore…’). Touching, also, is the contrast between Cruise’s hyperbolic promotional anecdotes, and a recent Variety interview in which Connelly emphasised how important it was for her to learn to ‘authentically’ tend bar. Such is the world of Top Gun.
None of this is really a criticism. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine anybody who buys a ticket for a Top Gun sequel will leave anything other than elated. If you’re craving a turbo-speed trip back to 1986, with all the technology the 21st-century can buy: strap in. Your reasons for wanting such a thing are your own.
Lady Gaga (who else?) contributes a power ballad that is appropriately blowsy, but a touch parched on the chorus.