Top Gun: Maverick has a need, but it’s not necessarily for speed.

Top Gun: Maverick Review
Score 8

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to be the punchbag of choice of cinephiles and gatekeepers, to quote Yoda, “there is another” – a phantom menace which, while undeniably delivering the bums on seats that various factions either embrace or dismiss depending on their agenda, poses just as much of an existential threat to the vitality and diversity of cinema as an artform as Disney’s seemingly unstoppable comic book based juggernaut: the legacy sequel. Awkwardly straddling the old and the new, the likes of GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE, THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS seek to fuse weaponized nostalgia and IP recognition with enough of a spark of the new to please both existing fans and ensnare a whole new audience. STAR WARS has, of late – on the big screen at least – struggled to keep its increasingly fractious fan coalition together, and very few franchises have truly achieved that breakthrough balance of delighting moviegoers old and new. TOP GUN: MAVERICK is that breakthrough film – a deserved success that will nevertheless, for better or worse, embolden other studios and filmmakers to dust off their eighties and nineties back catalogues and fire the afterburners on the “requel” production line.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK finds our hero Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) exactly where we’d expect to find him some three and half decades after we left him. Still the cocky, hot-shot pilot pushing limits and his superiors’ boundaries as he pursues his unquenchable need for speed. But when his hypersonic flight programme is shut down by an administration that sees unmanned drone warfare as the future, he finds himself reassigned back to the Top Gun academy to train a new generation of the best of the best for an urgent and extremely challenging objective; an impossible mission, if you will.

One of the touchstones of the legacy sequel is the deliberate repetition of story and character beats – George Lucas’ oft-maligned “poetry” – and after the bravura opening, TOP GUN: MAVERICK initially appears content to settle comfortably into revisiting its old stomping grounds. Director Joseph Kosinski brings a modern and stylish polish to the visuals, honouring yet enhancing the legacy aesthetic of Tony Scott’s proto-Michael Bay hues and although the incessant and impatient needle drops of Harold Harold Faltermeyer and Glenn Frey occasionally push the nostalgia into the danger zone of cliché, the film never quite crashes and burns thanks to Cruise himself, turning his undeniable star power up to the maximum.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK may come to be known as the peak of Tom Cruise’s mid-life crisis period (2011-to date) because as well as being the most impressive example of his admirable if narcissistic neo-method approach to stunts and filmmaking but it’s also the first one to really acknowledge the passage of time, an inevitability that even a level eight Operating Thetan must eventually concede to, an acknowledgement that lends real emotional stakes to Maverick’s story.

Infamously, of course, there’s a new “old” love interest for Maverick in the form of Jennifer Connelly, but she’s essentially there to provide the necessary emotional nudges to keep Maverick on course for a finale which thrillingly recreates the finale of the original before utterly transcending it in some of the finest aerial combat scenes ever committed to film. Before we get there, though, the film focuses on picking up two lingering threads from 1986’s TOP GUN, both of which require Maverick to examine and confront his legacy, and brings them to a satisfying conclusion. One is Iceman (Val Kilmer) confronting his own mortality, adding an edge to Maverick’s own sense of a ticking clock and the other is the ghost of Goose, ever-present in both Maverick’s thoughts and the presence of his son (Miles Teller).

The ageing warrior returning for one last mission is something of a mythic trope and it’s used cleverly here to give texture and substance to what could have, in less capable hands, have been a formulaic and banal re-tread of the original. In some ways, TOP GUN: MAVERICK flirts with the same themes as the early STAR TREK movies namely, how does a legendary warrior deal with growing older and the pressure or expectation for them to vacate the seat where they can make a difference? Like Kirk, Maverick has little interest in rising up the ranks, preferring to remain where the action is and where he truly belongs and the same is true, I suppose, of Cruise himself. There’s a need in Maverick to still matter, to still be the best and to prove that the human factor still makes a difference and Cruise – along with Kosinski – rises to this thematic challenge by judiciously using CGI enhancement to create a movie rooted in augmented reality, filming real aircraft carrying out real manoeuvres, oft-times with the cast inside them. It brings an authenticity to the action that’s breath-taking and likely the driving force behind the rapturous – and mostly justified – reception this otherwise rather formulaic movie has received.

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