New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: SPECTACULAR AERIALS RESCUE “TOP GUN: MAVERICK” FROM ITS SCHMALTZ

TOP GUN: MAVERICK is a film that wants to have its cake and eat it too. The sequel, hitting theaters 36 years after its jingoistic predecessor, would like to say serious things about agism, obsolete ways of fighting wars, and military stuffiness. But then it also wants to ogle tan flesh, laud aerial dog fights, and fetishize Navy hardware. Some of this movie is fun, but too much of it is overly slick, and a lot of it feels dated, far too close to the aesthetics of the original. Still, its incredible aerial photography is breathtaking throughout and probably worth the price of admission.

Tom Cruise, now 59, has let his aging add gravitas to the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE film franchise, and at first, it seemed that TOP GUN: MAVERICK would be doing the same. The story starts with Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell flying a scramjet to the untested level of Mach 10 to prove its investment value to a budget-cutting Admiral Cain (Ed Harris, playing exactly one character trait: hard-ass.)

Maverick’s veteran pilot, still a Captain since he likes flying so much, impresses the brass with his derring-do and thus gets employed to teach younger pilots how to fly a super-secret mission to destroy an enemy’s uranium processing plant. But as soon as Maverick gets back to the Top Gun school, he becomes an omnipotent know-it-all, showing all the young whippersnappers exactly how it’s done all by his lonesome. So much for a serious look at the vulnerability of aging and fear of obsolescence.

Maverick’s new boss is another hard-ass (Jon Hamm) and the recruits are supposed to be “the best of the best” even though they all seem to have less seasoning than a bag of popcorn. They are also single trait ‘types’ more than characters and the silliness of their nicknames (Hangman, Payback, Fanboy) starts to almost push the film into parody. 

And as the training kicks into gear, the film starts to trade off smart storytelling for buckets of overt gloss and schmaltz. Everyone is too trim, too tan, and too perfect looking, especially an excessively coiffed Jennifer Connelly as Maverick’s love interest. The whole cast seems to have the exact same tan hue too – – are they all sharing the same bottle of bronzer? Even worse, the dialogue starts to get exceedingly vapid. (“I don’t know what to do.” “You’ll find a way.”) And the schmaltzy cues throwing back to the original start to grate. We not only get too many 80s songs on the soundtrack, including a reprise of Kenny Loggin’s “Danger Zone”, but the film does a hamfisted redo of the first film’s notorious, shirtless beach volleyball game. Here, the oily homoeroticism is served up via touch football, but it’s still irritatingly gratuitous.

Why did the filmmakers insist on harkening back to so much of the original TOP GUN? The motorcycles, the songs in the bar, the competition with Val Kilmer’s Ice Man (he makes a poignant if heavy-handed cameo) – it all feels overly nostalgic. It’s one thing for the film to include a resentful son of Goose (Anthony Edwards) who blames Maverick for his father’s death, but did they have to give him the same cheesy mustache as his old man. Miles Teller does what he can with the overwrought part but the character’s still too on-the-nose by half.  

Thankfully, the action sequences are spectacular. It looks like all the actors are actually up in the air flying all those expensive machines, and the editing and sound design make it all feel incredibly immersive. The dangers of the mission are palpable and when it plays out in the third act, the storytelling turns utterly visceral. Some of the last 10 minutes push way too hard, lapsing into schtick that seems wildly out of place, but at least it gets the laughs. 

It’s true that a critic must review the film that is presented, not the one that could’ve been. In this case though what the film becomes after its first 20 minutes is a letdown. It seemed that this TOP GUN wanted to go deep, but the more it spools out, the less serious it becomes. Additionally, the longer it plays, the more it echoes the original film and starts to belittle its new ideas. The aerial scenes soar, for sure, but too much of what’s on the screen here is hopelessly tethered to the past.

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