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Top Gun: Maverick

Year: 2022
Studio: Paramount
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer/Tom Cruise/David Ellison/Christopher McQuarrie
Writer: Peter Craig/Justin Marks/Ehren Kruger/Eric Warren Singer/Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Tom Cruise, Ed Harris, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Val Kilmer

This movie doesn't break the record for the longest time between a film and its sequel by a long shot (that distinction is said to go to Bambi and Bambi II, which came out in 1942 and 2006 respectively – a gap of 63 years), but the 36 years since we last saw the fighter pilot hijinks of Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise) and his cohorts puts it high up on a lot of top ten lists.

Of course, it might have been with us a couple of years sooner – it was one of the films completed and ready to release when COVID shut the world down. But unlike the gamble Warner Bros lost on Tenet, hoping the worst was over but releasing Nolan's Bondian epic in the midst of the pandemic's second wave of lockdowns, Paramount seems to have been smart or blessed, holding Top Gun: Maverick in their vaults until mid 2022.

So far it's overtaken several of the big names on the US domestic box office records list, and it's threatening the billion dollar mark, still in cinemas after almost two months. And the reason why that is might not just be because there was little else around. It's actually a very good film. It's an update, and it's an update.

By that I mean it doesn't just put a much older and wiser Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell back in the saddle of up-to-the-minute fighter planes. I mean it still lives in the Top Gun universe even though we now know how the masculine trappings of the original veered somewhere between toxic masculinity and homoeroticism.

In the late 80s we didn't think to smirk as we watched Maverick, Goose (Anthony Edwards) and their squadron mates' sweating, ripped bodies playing beach volleyball, Tony Scott's camera almost stroking them in lust as Kenny Loggins' Playing With the Boys pounded forth.

Today that's as passé as 8 track cartridges or floppy disks, and both director Joseph Kosinski and the gaggle of writers (Ehren Kruger and Christopher McQuarrie among them) are smart enough to know that.

Ironically, there is still a half naked beach sport scene when Maverick has his crew play football at the water's edge to encourage them to think of themselves as a team, but the tone is handled very differently – and it involves some girls.

As the irate Colonel (who else but Ed Harris?) chides Maverick about during an official chewing out, after decades of military service he should be an Admiral or even a Senator. Why is he still a mere fighter captain?

That's after Maverick and his technicians have virtually stolen an expensive warplane to test its capacity, knowing their program has been shut down but launching anyway, Maverick skimming the Earth's atmosphere at Mach 10 before breaking up.

As penance he's ordered back to the Top Gun flight school to select and train a handful of recruits for a mission. He's still got friends there, not least current commander Iceman (Val Kilmer, who gamely shows up in the role despite his own health issues). But others, like the Admiral overseeing the mission (Jon Hamm) have no patience for Maverick's history of insubordination, just itching for the chance to discharge him.

To make matters worse, one of the recruits under his command is Rooster (Miles Teller), the grown son of Maverick's best friend Goose who was killed decades before.

Rooster's wanted to join the Corps since he was a kid, but at his mother's insistence for fear of losing him as well as his father, Maverick held him back so he wouldn't graduate. Rooster now knows this and hates Maverick for it, unaware of the position he was put in.

As Maverick takes the cocky younglings through their paces he has to navigate their prejudices and preening against and within each other, all jostling for positions on the final mission group. He's also finding a new spark in his relationship with Penny (Jennifer Connelly), the single mother and local bar owner he had a fling with years before.

But the USP of the movie is jaw dropping footage of fighter jets from both inside and outside the cockpits, IMAX cameras set up to capture Cruise and his costars actually flying – one of the last movie stars left with the clout to make such a thing happen.

The mission is to approach a missile placement through a low, narrow and twisting canyon, unable to rise out of it because of antiaircraft missile batteries patrolling the skies, clearing the lip of a mountain range upside down to stay close to the ground and plunging into a deep valley for the bombing run.

When it comes, you know it's going to be breakneck and armrest shredding, and it's another example of a movie built from the ground up for a cinema screen and sound system. The action scenes are beautifully staged, the geography constantly making sense and the flying too fast and furious to know how much of the action or backgrounds are CGI (apparently as little as possible – at Cruise's insistence).

But there are a couple of very appreciable differences that elevate it even above the original quite aside from the technical artistry. I saw a tweet from a critic I admire saying he preferred this Cruise over the one in the original movie and I couldn't agree more.

One of the best scenes in the movie is where he goes to visit Iceman at home (after making up at the end of the original film the pair are now longtime friends) to talk about the conundrum he's in, Maverick so torn by it he starts to cry.

After singing to girls in bars, going against orders to buzz the control tower and getting the hot instructor into bed in the first film, this is Pete Mitchell as an adult where there are far more complicated problems in the world that can be solved by his afterburner, guns or confident charm. It's a character bought low, made human, and it's beautiful to watch.

It's especially the case because Cruise doesn't look vulnerable, whatever Faustian deal he made to be eternally youthful still intact. He's the same age as Kilmer, who looks like the years have very much taken their toll, and the occasional joke about how much older he is than the new generation of recruits fall pretty flat – he looks like he could take any one of them (and more than proves his worth behind the controls).

There's just one element that stands out a bit far for the wrong reasons. It's a film about fighter jets and aerial warfare so there obviously needs to be a fight with some enemy force (like there was at the end of first movie), but they're constantly referred to as 'the enemy', there are no flags or insignia on any of their equipment and we don't see any of their faces.

To be fair to Cruise, Kosinski and company they were damned if they did and damned if they didn't. Making Iraq or Iran enemies of America is a bit passé after this long, North Korea's been done to death, no major Hollywood movie would pit American forces against China in an era when Chinese audiences are so crucial to the box office, and the movie was made before Russia was the global bad guy du jour thanks to Putin's war against Ukraine.

But it still comes across a bit on the nose to so blatantly not name who they're fighting against. Even making up a fictitious country might have been smoother.

But that's not really enough to take away from the amazing visuals – the same movie with a lesser star would all be done with VFX – and the emotional honesty of a former hero who's learned that no man who's got complicated relationships with other humans is every truly a Maverick.

And for trivia hounds of the Hollywood business scene in the 80s, the Bruckheimer ident includes the name of his long-dead partner Don Simpson, this being the franchise that cemented their status in the industry.

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