Great movies are great movies. The oldest trick in the movie-reviewing book is thinking you have to surrender your cinematic soul to the popular awards-savvy fare: aka, the usually depressing or preachy period piece that gets adored most years at the Oscars. Sometimes, you just need to reward the movie that made you feel good.
“Top Gun: Maverick” was highly impressive upon first viewing, but it was the second time through that cemented it as a true awards contender. That is, if the voters want to reward the movies that people actually watch. Most indie films start at an unfair position of “this could be sad” rumor fare, something that usually isn’t true. They stand a better chance, however, than the overly beloved box office blockbusters.
Don’t hate on Joseph Kosinski’s sequel to the 1986 breakout hit that helped turn Tom Cruise into a movie star. It made a lot of money and was adored by critics, scoring a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and a very nice 76 on the harsher Metacritic scale. After two viewings, covering four hours and twenty minutes, I can say it’s an extremely well-crafted follow-up that exceeded expectations and hits even harder than the original, which only scored a 58% on RT.
With a cast boosting Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell (the new ICEMAN), and Miles Teller as Goose’s song Bradley, “Maverick” had a nice runway to jet across before the credits even started. But it’s the nostalgia that connects with the much-improved dogfighting and aerial combat sequences that made this one hit so hard with both fans and critics. Kosinski has worked with Cruise and Teller before, which makes their scenes resonate more emotionally due to the rapport built up between storyteller and player.
Val Kilmer’s cameo is every bit as soulful and sad as one would expect, especially since they subtly work in unfortunate parts of the actor’s real life into Tom “Iceman” Kozinsky. He’s the former rival of Maverick who went on to become an Admiral, something that Harris’s superior burns Cruise’s protagonist with due to the fact that Pete Mitchell is still a Captain. Kilmer and Cruise carry a scene together, and the onions were sliced during watch #2. Something about the character’s history and Kilmer’s history gave it something extra.
The fighter jets racing against time to thwart a foreign country’s attempts at operating a functioning uranium plant provide the third act with plenty of visually arresting action that only heightens when the hype factor is taken out of the equation.
Cruise is just terrific as Maverick, improving on a compelling character that was built in the late Tony Scott’s original film. He adds new layers that bring extra conflict to Maverick’s assignment in the sequel, which is training six young Top Guns for a mission that could be fatal. Among the team sits Teller’s Bradley Bradshaw, aka Rooster, the son of Maverick’s fallen partner in the skies and best friend on the ground, Goose (Anthony Edwards, seen here in flashbacks).
The sequel soars especially high due to the bitter conflict between Maverick and Rooster, two men bound by a horrific tragedy that places them at odds the minute Teller’s young hotshot strolls into the bar. But it’s the way the actors play it out over the course of the movie that helps the subplot become something more than a trailer gimmick. While Cruise’s elder pilot was cleared of any wrongdoing in the crash from the ’86 film, a missing dad and recklessness of Maverick causes extra resentment. The fact that the ice didn’t cool fast in the Maverick/Rooster relationship gave it time to grow, splinter, and then develop into something cohesive. Without this dynamic succeeding, the rest of the film falters.
Peter Craig’s screenplay gives ample time for supporting character development, including solid turns from Bashir Salahuddin (Maverick’s right-hand man in the control room) and Lewis Pullman as the silent yet charismatic new pilot simply named Bob. Monica Barbaro shines as Phoenix, the lone female Top Gun on the new team. The entire cast sells it remarkably, and the production is first class from top to bottom.
There’s laughs, throwbacks to the original, and just the right kind of pacing. In the end, I wanted more and appreciated the extra work and changes Cruise and company made that necessitated the first delay in release. The U.S. Military gave notes on the film, and the Navy worked with the actors. All the actors who played pilots in the film went through extensive training.
As I finished the second viewing and thought about a third, the idea of something this big and grand, yet so soulfully done, winning the big awards seemed real. Or it should ring around the room at the very least as a contender. If we don’t reward popular movies that score high with audiences AND critics, what are the awards shows really doing outside of seeing the creators mingle and grab-ass each other for three hours on television?
Reward the blockbusters who stand out, signed sincerely by Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.”