Saturday, May 28, 2022

Cruise Control: TOP GUN: MAVERICK

The secret sauce of Top Gun’s appeal is that it’s hard and soft, mechanical and sentimental, gear-headed and soft-hearted. There’s militarism and macho posturing among students at a Naval flight academy, with as much attention to glistening bodies as the planes’ chassis. But it is balanced out with a cocky young pilot’s attempts at wooing a woman out of his range, and his wing-mate’s loving relationship with a doting wife and son. Sure, a mysterious Other is out there, and the military needs to train these men to fight it. But there’s the homeland to be tended in the meantime, too. Tony Scott made this movie of fast planes and smirking retorts drip with montage and soft rock, an extended advertisement for itself. But the sneaky romantic core is surely what made it popular. And embracing that is what makes the long-awaited sequel Top Gun: Maverick even better. This time around, director Joseph Kosinski—whose great resume is a perfect preparation for the task, with a belated and much-improved sequel to an 80s favorite, Tron: Legacy; a Tom Cruise action spectacle, Oblivion; and a men-at-dangerous-work, process-oriented tearjerker Only the Brave—precisely calibrates the requirements and delivers a movie that’s muscular, delicate, and relentlessly, manipulatively satisfying.

The 36-year gap between the original and this sequel has necessitate a more mature approach. I’m glad they didn’t try to claim Cruise’s hotshot pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is still a youthful paragon of gleaming, arrogant precociousness. That was the typical Cruise role at the beginning of his stardom, but Maverick finds him willing to admit to his age. Much like the Mission: Impossibles’ later entries really took off once Cruise was willing to make his hero small in the frame, a perpetual underdog just scraping by in, well, impossible tasks, this sequel finds Maverick at the other end of a long career. We hear that, after graduating Top Gun, he served overseas multiple times, and is now working as a test pilot for experimental planes. He also still bristles at authority, which means he remains a Captain after all these years. He knows he needs to placate the brass (Ed Harris, Jon Hamm) just enough to keep him in the cockpit of really cool, really fast planes. But he’s also enough of a hotshot to want to push the limits wherever he can. This brings him back to Top Gun as an instructor, a punishment, perhaps, for one more clash with a direct order, or salvation, perhaps, on the part of an old friend (Val Kilmer) who sticks up for him one more time. Is there still room for a hero like Maverick, in a program for a kind of air combat that’s less a pressing issue in a world of drones and insurgencies? And does he have what it takes, not merely to prove himself, but to prepare the best-of-the-best for a dangerous mission that’d be certain suicide if they can’t master his techniques?

This allows for a movie that’s a more relaxed and gentle story about fathers and mentors and hoping to make up for old mistakes and prove one’s relevance to a new generation. (The movie’s definitely self-aware there.) The youthful energy of the first picture is now off to the sides, and centered on others. Throughout it leans on Cruise’s age by letting him play something like a normal person instead of a gleaming hero. He’s surrounded by younger trainees, including one (Miles Teller) who is the son of a fallen character from the original. This complicates the emotional valances of the training. Cruise wants to help these students survive by teaching them to pull off nearly-impossible maneuvers—tight, vertiginous dives and steep, face-melting climbs. But his understanding of the costs of this job, and this mission, makes him reluctant to put them in danger at all. He feels like he owes it to his late friend’s son. But here’s a movie about making things right from your past, and finding people to help along the way. It’s most expressive in the warm middle-aged romance on the margins, as Maverick reconnects with an old fling, an admiral’s daughter who is now a glowing, bar-owning, single mother (Jennifer Connelly). This is just one more way the movie sets up cliche and diverges into unexpected heart. What in the previous film would be a quick flirt is now a slow smolder, and where the lovemaking montage should be is instead a montage of small talk. How sweet. Later, as he sneaks out, the woman’s teen daughter stares down the old man and, right when you think she’d snark, instead says, “Don’t break her heart again.”

Because the movie so genuinely believes in the emotions of these cardboard types, it sells the stakes. It builds setups and pays them off with aplomb. The training sequences, shot in convincing aerial stunts, are a beguiling mechanical spectacle. And even if the ultimate mission is geopolitically preposterous, it’s still a gripping and tense spectacle of planes and missiles for an extended action climax. It comes down to a militaristic fantasy of faceless bad guys from a nameless country to whom consequence-free violence can be committed without larger global complications. (This is the way it has to be for our global film marketplace, but recall the original was similarly cagey; they both have all the specificity of a recruitment ad.) But because the picture is so elegantly manipulative, with its gooey warm sentiment powering the interpersonal dynamics, and the hard-charging dogfights and explosions of the finale so muscularly deployed and crisply cut, that it’s hard not to get swept up in its concussive artifice. All that and a soaring power-ballad pounding over the end credits, too? That’s the perfect combination of hard and soft for which you go to a movie like this.

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