Sunday 10 July 2022

Top Gun: Maverick soars

Top Gun soared at the box office when a material girl and moonwalker defined the popular culture zeitgeist of the 1980s.

The sequel has been a long time in the making, further delayed on the release runway due to the pandemic. Was the wait worth it?

Nick Smith, our US-based hot shot critic, experiences a thrill ride for the ages.

Guest post by Nick Smith

I’m slammed back into my seat as my jet ascends, tilting left and right, thrusting into the sky, banking down through an underground trench, spinning into a zero-G roll and slamming through a wall of steam with breath-taking speed. For a few brief minutes, I am Maverick, a Top Gun pilot, flying along the border between North and South Carolina.

I’m on the Top Gun rollercoaster ride at Carowinds, Paramount’s theme park in Charlotte, North Carolina. The feeling of being chucked about in a jet is exhilarating (I jump in the ride again and enjoy it twice in a row). The icing on this adrenaline-centred cake is the movie it’s based on, a Tom Cruise vehicle from 1986 that did rather well at the box office.

When I first saw Top Gun on TV in the ‘90s, I appreciated the iconic music and the energetic flight sequences, the key ingredient to the film’s success. Rotten Tomatoes spells it out. ‘Though it features some of the most memorable and electrifying aerial footage shot with an expert eye for action,’ the site summarizes, ‘Top Gun offers too little for non-adolescent viewers to chew on when its characters aren't in the air.’

Some viewers beg to differ. The characters are considered memorable and relatable enough to be revisited in the 2022 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick.

My friend Terri Moore, who lives in Northwest Florida, has been waiting to see the follow-up film for a long time. Years, in fact (it was originally scheduled for release in 2019). She’s watched the original 50 times – she was stationed at a remote base with her husband and it was one of the only films she had on VHS! As soon as my girlfriend Dana and I saw a giant poster of The Cruiser as Maverick in our local movie theatre, we snapped a pic and sent it to Terri.

We were lucky enough to see the new film with Terri and other friends. We were all enthralled by the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it plot. Top Gun: Maverick takes the plot of 633 Squadron and gives it a twist. A group of elite pilots are tasked with destroying a nigh-impossible-to-hit target in a heavily defended valley; their chances of getting out alive are slim. Switching off their targeting computers is not an option. The twist? They’re trained by Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, a cocksure son of a gun whose stubbornness could be their downfall.

The target belongs to some bad guys of some indeterminate nationality; although this is understandable – the movie wouldn’t play well in, say, Russia if the antagonists were Russians – but as Stanley Kubrick said of his own first feature, Fear and Desire, a film’s reception can suffer from lack of such specifics. We’re given just enough clues to who the foes might be (enemy territory is snowbound and Siberia-level chilly) to help make the situation fly.

Val Kilmer makes a bravura appearance despite his throat cancer but more than that, his presence is felt throughout the movie, tying it closely to the first film. Cruise balances his act between everyman and action hero with seasoned aplomb. As his love interest, Jennifer Connelly (The Rocketeer) gives the right level of intensity and sass to make her character matter without stealing the show.

Top Gun: Maverick has been well received and has earned over half a billion dollars worldwide at the box office. I have no doubt the Terris of this world will see it more than once. To watch it with her was a true joy, her eyes wide with excitement and happiness. That excitement is palpable, thanks to the ‘real F18s, real Gs, real speed,’ as Tom Cruise made a point of mentioning in his intro that appeared before cinema screenings. You can see the actors being lurched around in genuine cockpits, giving that same sensation that the little Carowinds ride tries to muster.

The Top Gun ride has a new name now, Afterburn since Paramount Parks was bought by Cedar Fair. The jets got repainted and they just didn’t seem as fast after that. Cedar Fair didn’t think the original Top Gun had enough magic left to keep the name, little more than a throwaway Gen X joke about riding tails. I’ve heard a few comments from new viewers who’ve gone back to the ‘80s film and are inclined to agree that Top Gun doesn’t hold up. Call it a wingman to the new movie at best.

The step from Hollywood blockbuster to satire is a small one; the tentpole movies are self-referential because that’s what the audience wants – familiar stars, situations and motifs (cocky hero put through the wringer, taken down a peg or two, earns the respect of supporting characters). Those big budgeters retell stories, following tried and tested oral and theatrical traditions. It’s easy to knock commercial, masses-friendly summer films. Top Gun begat Days of Thunder, which spawned Talladega Nights; Top Gun itself had its own spoof, Hot Shots!

To avoid being considered popcorny by future audiences, is it time for a more canny, cynical take on Hollywood movies? That was tried before, most recently in the late ‘60s and ‘70s after the runaway success of Easy Rider, with lower budgets, less predictable situations and more emphasis on characters filling our screens. Box office returns were hard to predict. The success of Jaws, Star Wars and their crowd-pleasing ilk shifted the industry back to the model we have today.

In 2058, will Top Gun: Maverick seem fresh and original to the hologram-watching, interacting audiences of the day? Probably not. But they’ll always appreciate Cruise’s drive, his maverick archetype, and those real Gs.

Have you seen Top Gun: Maverick? Let me know in the comments below.

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