Monday, July 4, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick – Pablum

Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly in Top Gun: Maverick.

Top Gun, which came out in 1986, was a Reagan-era special if there ever was one. It harked back to the flyboy epics of the late silent and early talkie era but eliminated everything that had made the best of them – Wings, Hell’s Angels, Only Angels Have Wings – witty, exciting and romantic, like three-dimensional characters and actors who drew on their own dimensionality to make them memorable, and substituted high gloss and displays of masculinity that would have looked embarrassing in Medieval times. There was plenty of action, but I can’t remember a single flying sequence that truly engaged the senses, let alone the brain. I would have skipped the long-delayed sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, but the director is Joseph Kosinski, whose true-life firefighter picture, the 2017 Only the Brave, is an unknown gem. So I opted to check it out. And it’s perfectly well directed, which is to say that you can sit through it without dozing off or looking for excuses to visit the lobby of your local Cineplex. But aside from the pristine cinematography by Claudio Miranda (who also lit Only the Brave and Kosinski’s Netflix sci-fi film, Spiderhead, which came right on its heels) and the climactic dogfight, Top Gun: Maverick is a stupid movie and a desperate exercise in picking the bare bones of a one-time commercial success that wasn’t any good to start with.

Naturally Maverick – the moniker of the hero, Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise, who created the role in 1986) – treats the original film as if it were a Hollywood classic like Casablanca. Kosinski and Miranda burnish the flashback images of Cruise and Anthony Edwards, who played Pete’s best pal, Goose Bradshaw, the character who dies halfway through. His memory hovers over the sequel like a ghost. Three and a half decades later Maverick is still flying planes for the Navy, now in the Mohave Desert, pushing the limits to satisfy his personal sense of adventure. (Imagine Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff without any personality.) But he’s never been promoted higher than captain because of his arrogance and tendency toward insubordination. The only reason he hasn’t been thrown out of the service is that Iceman, his buddy from the Fighter Pilots School near San Diego, known as Top Gun, made it to admiral and keeps bailing him out. So when Maverick infuriates his boss, Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), by crashing a plane in the midst of pulling off a reckless stunt, he winds up back at Top Gun, this time as a flight instructor. A crew of highly skillful young pilots has been assembled to train for a mission to eliminate a uranium enrichment plant that poses a threat to an unnamed U.S. ally. (The enemy that dropped the uranium is also unnamed – Paramount and Jerry Bruckheimer Films were taking no chances with international distribution.) One of them is Rooster (Miles Teller), Goose’s son, who resents his father’s old pal for pulling his flight papers and sending him back to the Academy, thus delaying the start of his career. Pete did it as a favor to Rooster’s mother, who was terrified that her son would end up a casualty like her husband. She has since died, and Pete won’t tell Rooster the truth because he doesn’t want the kid to resent her too.  So Maverick has to get the pilots in shape in three short weeks – only half of them will make the cut – while the writers, Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, figure out a way to move him into the action so that he can demonstrate his expertise and bond with Rooster. (Let’s just say that their solution is not convincing.)

Cruise has been fun to watch in the Mission: Impossible series because the part of Ethan Hunt doesn’t require him to act, just show off his athleticism while the special effects team builds ingenious stunts around him. But no one with the exception of Brian De Palma – in the first Mission: Impossible (1996) – has ever, to my recollection, coaxed a genuine emotion out of him, and I’m afraid that notwithstanding the terrific performances Kosinski got out of his cast in Only the Brave, he can’t manage it either. Whenever Cruise has to play a scene in Maverick that’s meant to be moving, it’s best if you can find something else on the screen to look at. The ones about his friendship with Iceman (played by Val Kilmer, the only other alumnus from the first movie) are excruciating. Kilmer battled throat cancer in 2015 and had two tracheotomies, so in the picture Ice is dying of throat cancer and communicates via computer because speaking is so painful for him. Pete doesn’t find this out until his old friend sends for him and they have a soppy reunion. A few scenes later, Ice dies and Pete attends the Navy burial.  Cruise’s idea of how to play these moments amounts to a lot of manly grimacing. And there’s something creepy about the way the movie uses Kilmer’s real-life cancer as a melodramatic ploy.

Teller (as Rooster) and Jennifer Connelly (as Penny, Cruise’s romantic partner), were among the many high points of Only the Brave, but there’s nothing worthwhile for either of them to do in this picture. Penny is an old flame of Pete’s who now runs a bar where the Top Gun pilots hang out, and though she tells him she doesn’t want them to start up again, she can’t stick to her convictions. Connelly looks beautiful and imports her usual warmth, but her striking talent for sculpting complex, unconventional female characters is nowhere in evidence.  Teller has the second lead but his scenes are so basic they barely require screenwriters. I think he’s a marvelous performer but he’s a straight arrow; what he’s great at is unearthing the neurotic underpinnings of ordinary young men. He isn’t an inventor – if the depths aren’t there, he registers as merely sincere. (Regrettably, his role in Spiderhead isn’t much better, and the movie is flashy, vacuous and ultimately incoherent.)

The actors who play the other pilots out to test their mettle are photogenic and some of them (Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman) are colorful, but the writers let them down too – their banter lacks wit and edge. Harris gets away with a stock part by parodying it lightly; I don’t know what else you can do with lines like “The future is coming and you’re not in it” and “Your kind is heading for extinction.” Jon Hamm, as Coyote, the other hard-ass admiral, Maverick’s boss at Top Gun, has nothing to fall back on but his presence. I liked Bashir Salahuddin as Honcho, the associate Maverick brings with him to Top Gun (I never figured out exactly what he’s supposed to be doing there), and Charles Parnell as Warlock, the gentlest of the movie’s trio of admirals; it seems a tad less bland when one of them shows up. Bland is certainly the word for an action picture/coming-of-age story where nothing serious befalls anyone except for the one character who’s suffering from cancer, and he’s on screen for less than five minutes. I thought I knew exactly how the tale of Maverick and Rooster would end, with redemption through sacrifice, but Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t even provide that cliché because some kind of loss might make the audience feel bad. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a Happy Meal.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

No comments:

Post a Comment