Friday, May 20, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick manages to soar

In 2007, country music icon Gary Allan released a song entitled "Watching Airplanes" in which he harmonizes about a man whose girlfriend just left him. This lady is taking off on an airplane to go somewhere far away, to start a new life. Now, this man is just peering up at the sky, vessels soaring across the blue canvas hovering above us all, wondering about "which one you might be on...and why you don't love me anymore." Yes, he is indeed "Watching Airplanes." Moviegoers around the globe are bound to do something similar once Top Gun: Maverick hits theaters, though given how much fun this long-awaited sequel is, they're bound to be much happier with their experience of witnessing aerial vehicles "take off. and fly."

It's been decades since viewers last saw Maverick (Tom Cruise), but he's still just a captain and as reckless as ever. He's also maintained his skills at flying any aircraft to its maximum potential, to the point that, despite the fact that he can't follow the rules to save his life, he's been recruited to teach a new group of young cadets fresh out of the Academy. Specifically, he's supposed to teach them out how to pull off an impossible task of taking out a facility overseas housing dangerous nuclear weaponry. It'll already be a challenge to fulfill the role of a teacher, but Maverick's got an extra hurdle here. One of the people he's teaching is Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of his deceased co-pilot Goose. Maverick being alive while Rooster's dad is lying in the ground is only the tip of the iceberg in their fractured relationship, which will play into every facet of this critical operation.

Top Gun: Maverick isn’t so much a revelation of a blockbuster as it is an especially good preparing of dishes you know and love. It won’t win points for originality, but it’s hard to complain when everything’s so tasty. Part of that tastiness comes down to the screenwriters (which include Ehren Kruger and Christopher McQuarrie) showing a fondness for the original Top Gun, right down to basically recreating that films opening credits scene. Thankfully, though this is not the equivalent of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King to the first Top Gun. Maverick has something new to offer primarily in the form of a wistful melancholy tied into getting older.

This ambiance is established in an opening scene of Maverick subverting orders to push a jet to 10 G's, all in the name of preserving all the jobs of his co-workers on the base. In the first Top Gun, the characters recklessness was informed brash youthfulness. Now, it's defined by an unspoken sense that Maverick wants to do some good as the elder statesman around these parts. This persists throughout the rest of the movie, in which the passage of time and wistfulness are always hovering on the margins of the frame. These thematic motifs echo other legacy sequels like Creed and The Muppets. Granted, Top Gun: Maverick isn’t as good as those two movies, but channeling the vibes of such features is never a bad thing in my book. 

You get all that thoughtfulness plus lots of jets going super fast across the sky! Which is almost certainly what any reasonable person buying a ticket to Top Gun: Maverick is really coming here for. If the screenplay is a mixture of the old and the new, then director Joseph Kosinski embraces primarily the latter element with how he renders the airborne sequences of Top Gun: Maverick. That’s a solid decision since nobody can replicate the unique fast-paced rhythms of the late great filmmaker Tony Scott. Instead of making a pastiche of Scott’s work, Kosinski embraces the visual traits that have defined his own films. 

Lots of wide shots, crisp editing rather than Paul Greengrass-style frantic cuts, and his affinity for daytime shooting as established in his works from Oblivion onward. It’s cool to see Kosinski confident enough to bring his own style to an established franchise. It’s even better to see that distinct aesthetic realized in such an often stunning fashion. The jet-centric set pieces are framed in a coherent manner that allows you to appreciate the practicality of how they pulled all these incredible stunts and flight patterns off. The screenplay offers up plenty of cogent and smartly stripped-down set pieces for Kosinski to put these visual sensibilities to good use.

While the filmmaking and melancholy are strong in Maverick, not every element in the film soars as gracefully as a jet zooming across the sky. A subplot revolving around a new love interest for Maverick played by Jennifer Connelly has its sweet moments. However, Maverick fails to fully overcome the awkwardness of trying to give this character a new romantic partner while never referencing Kelly McGillis's Charlie from the first Top Gun, despite leaning so heavily on that film in nearly every other way. The 146 minute runtime is also a touch excessive while initially prominent young pilots like Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) and Bob (Lewis Pullman) end up disappointingly vanishing from the main plot.

Primarily, though, Top Gun: Maverick works like a charm and just wait until it gets crackling in its final 40 minutes. While some blockbusters get swallowed up by spectacle in their respective finales, the climax is where Maverick metamorphizes from a largely enjoyable blockbuster to become an especially captivating one. This stretch of the story serves as the apotheosis of how Maverick can whip up familiar beats to make them feel fresh as a newly-plucked daisy. I'm not even a super fan of the original Top Gun (I prefer Crimson Tide and Unstoppable among Tony Scott joints) and I still found Maverick to be a lot of fun. Die-hard fans of that initial film, then, are bound to be over the moon "watching airplanes" in a sequel that turned out to be worth the wait. 

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