Maverick: Top Gun (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

And just like that Old Hollywood thumped a nose at super-heroes and jumped back to the top of the tree. Of course, that’s if you discount Tom Cruise as being a super-hero of box office dimensions and one with his own franchise Mission Impossible which at times has single-handedly kept his marquee value alive.

Unusually, for a sequel, this has taken account of the passing of time. No shoe-horning Maverick (Tom Cruise) into the role of current hot-shot pilot and there is a past he has to deal with, two relationships in fact, with Rooster (Miles Teller) the son of Goose, whose death Maverick is accused of causing, and with Penny (Jennifer Connelly), an on-again off-again affair too often too easily fractured. But, of course, the main thrust of the picture is Maverick taking on everybody, the top brass in the shape of Admiral Simpson (Jon Hamm) and Admiral Bates (Charles Parnell), his pupils and the unnamed bad guys.

It’s pretty nifty in using character flaw to justify the plot. That Maverick is anywhere near being recruited as teacher and not gainfully employed as a high-flying Admiral somewhere – as is former-rival-cum-buddy Iceman (Val Kilmer) – is down to the fact that he has resisted well-justified promotion in order to keep flying and because, well, he tends to piss off his superiors. But he still has the juice, in the opening sequence taking an experimental plane way beyond its capabilities (another plot point, by the way).

Somewhat older, not necessarily that much wiser, Maverick’s introduction to the Top Gun base is a tad humiliating, drummed out of Penny’s bar for not being able to pay his tab, watching wistfully as younger guns batter out his favorite tune on the piano, and aware that he has personal bridges to mend, that maybe, just this time, he might have the maturity to manage.

There’s the usual cocky bunch led by Hangman (Glen Powell), Phoenix (Monica Barbaro)  and Payback (Jay Ellis) plus Bob (Lewis Pullman), his call sign apparently a contraction of first name Robert but in reality standing for baby-on-board. In true reality television style there are heats, only four pilots making the cut to fly the desperate mission against the enemy.

And here’s where the picture takes off (pardon the pun). The aeronautics are just breathtaking and if you happen to catch it in Imax or an equivalent you’re going to be rocked by the sound  as well. It’s unbelievable stuff.  If there’s any CGI in there it’s not in the shapes of aliens, and looks distinctly old Hollywood. The kind of epic airplane stunts for which you run out of superlatives. And in best James Bond fashion the clock is ticking.

A resoundingly human story, relationships that looked cut-and-dried proving more fluid, until a band of brothers are properly worked up. Even as you wonder just how they are going to involve Maverick in a finale in which he should be a back-seat driver, a deft screenplay provides the answer. Maverick stands up for older guys everywhere, like an ageing pro brought back to save a football game.

Nostalgia has never been more vividly utilized. In terms of satisfactory denouement this is along the lines of the resolutions in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015) rather than the desultory reappearance of Decker (Harrison Ford again) in Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Some great scenes from the original have been touchingly reinvented, snippets of the original themes inserted at vital points plus a Lady Gaga offering.

It could easily have sunk not so much from the weight of expectations (and the long Covid-induced delay) but from a clunky re-boot, as producers determined, story be damned, to get all their ducks in line. Instead, there’s enough recycling to catch satisfy the previous generation of fans and sufficient whip-smacking wizardry to pull in the new generation,  which determinedly steers clear of anything non-CGI.  

Cruise is just superb, potentially an Oscar-nominated performance, as the guy who refuses to be jaded, who requires not one wingman but a whole team of them, with still the individuality and self-confidence that manuals cannot deliver. Given a job that set him up not to be a scene-stealer (teachers just ain’t action heroes) Cruise effortlessly steals the show, and its maturity more than double-balls-out cojones that does the trick.

Full marks to Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, 2103) for fulfilling those weighty expectations, for keeping the movie focused when the temptation must have been to insert more romance, buff up issues facing the rest of the gang, add too much more when what this always needed was so much less, let the action show the way and Cruise carry the story. Much as I like Miles Teller in this I was hoping he would go on to better top-billed parts after Whiplash (2014).  Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some, 2016) is another one Hollywood should be trying to make more of. I could say the same for the gutsy Monica Barbero (The Cathedral, 2021). This is the kind of movie to make the next generation of stars, especially as it solidified the reputation of the last of the older generation in Tom Cruise.

Incidentally, while I was at the cinema for this I saw a cracking trailer for the next Mission Impossible picture so cruise is going to continue his box office roll for a while.

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