Yep, I said it: "Top Gun: Maverick" has the chops to compete for the Best Picture of 2022.
And why wouldn't it be considered? Sure, it's not even June and most "award-worthy" films don't see release until the Fall season. Action-blockbusters are not often - if ever - remembered at year's end.
But I think this one has what it takes. This is as thrilling and fun as movies get, folks. "Top Gun: Maverick" pushes the envelope of filmmaking in ways that no other films have, truly. Tom Cruise is in a league of his own when it comes to Hollywood superstars, and he shows here - even as he approaches age 60 - that there is nobody who can command the screen quite like he can, with just a look or that iconic smile.
If not Best Picture, it will surely be recognized in a slew of technical categories, from the breath-taking cinematography, to the score, to the sound that puts you right there in the cockpit.
But it also deserves a look for Best Picture.
In an age of cinema where new ideas seem few and far between, and massive corporate conglomerates scour over their film library to find lost franchises to squeeze some final drops of blood out of, "Top Gun: Maverick" strikes the perfect balance between the old and the new. It dabbles in nostalgia without relying on it. It takes the spirit of the first beloved film and instead of giving us the same motions as before, it expands the story and its characters. It takes a few chances. It pushes the limits. Like Maverick, the film isn't reckless, it just is willing to do whatever is necessary to be the best.
"Top Gun" was the biggest box office success of 1986 and is one of the most highly-regarded films of all-time. Just seven at the time I first saw it, it scarred me for life...when Goose died (spoiler alert!), it was maybe the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to me at that point in my life. It crushed me.
A recent re-watch of the classic "Top Gun" had me see it with a bit of a different perspective. First of all, the supposed "villain" pilot known as Iceman (Val Kilmer) was...pretty much right about everything? Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Cruise) really was taking unnecessary risks and was not to be trusted, despite the film manipulating us into rooting for him. Mav wasn't all that developed of a character...other than being a hot shot pilot with ego to spare, there was little chemistry between he and his co-star Kelly McGillis, and little else to go on. His selfish approach ended up costing his co-pilot Goose (Anthony Edwards) his life, and by the end, it seemed that Maverick did become humbled and learned some very hard lessons.
The Goose/Maverick relationship was the best part about "Top Gun," so it smartly is used as the nucleus of "Top Gun: Maverick." Some 30 years after the events of the first film, Maverick still holds the rank of Captain, never having climbed the ladder in the U.S. Navy due to his reputation and his continued rebel-streak. Iceman though, is now an Admiral, and has looked out for his old friend time and time again, and is basically the reason Maverick is still even allowed to remain in the Navy. Adm. Beau "Cyclone" Simpson (Jon Hamm) doesn't care for Maverick and isn't afraid to show it, but unlike countless antagonists from other films, Simpson at least has a reason to doubt Maverick's abilities as a "team player," being that he's never really been one.
Even the normally 2-D character types like Cyclone are well written? Color me intrigued.
Maverick ends up back in the "top gun" program, this time to be a teacher to a crew of new pilots - the best of the best that the Navy has to offer. He is to train them for what is a seemingly impossible mission (a "Mission: Impossible" perhaps?). There is "Phoenix" (Monica Barbaro) and her wingman "Bob" (Lewis Pullman), "Payback" (Jay Ellis) and "Fanboy" (Danny Ramirez). Then there is the pompous "Hangman" (Glen Powell), who seems to be an amalgam of Iceman's arrogance and Maverick's selfishness from the first film.
But it's "Rooster" (Miles Teller) that propels the drama. Lt. Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw is actually Goose's son who has now grown and has followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a top pilot. The man who was flying with Rooster's dad is now his instructor? That seems ripe for drama.
Filling in the romantic beats this time around is Jennifer Connelly, who stars as one of Mitchell's old flames, Penny Benjamin (Penny's name was actually mentioned in passing in the first film, even though the character never appeared). Penny has returned and now owns the iconic bar where the top gun pilots all hang out. Maverick, who has been flying solo most of his life (pun intended), might finally be looking to put down the proverbial landing gear once and for all. And unlike the lack of chemistry between Cruise and McGillis in the first film, Cruise and Connelly smolder.
In an early scene in the bar, Hangman approaches a jukebox to play a song, and I winced...surely, he was going to play "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," which was one of the most memorable scenes of the original film. But it doesn't play...it ends up being a different song. I exhaled in that moment, realizing that this film was not going to simply try to rehash the first "Top Gun." Phew!
"Top Gun: Maverick" soars mostly because of its heart. The story feels like a natural progression from the first film, and unfolds realistically. There is a tearful, powerful scene in the film where Maverick visits an old friend, and it brought sniffles and cheers from the packed theater that I saw the film in. It is earned, like every other moment in this film, and never feels like it's pandering to its fans.
With some real stakes and characters that we care about in the cockpit, what the movie accomplishes in the sky is nothing short of amazing. I sat in awe through most of the film, and nearly fainted in preparing to write this review when I discovered that there was very little CG used. At. All. All of these actors endured intense physical training for months, and actually flew these jet planes! They directed themselves with cameras in their respective cockpits - while actually flying fighter jets, people! - and the result is a rush of realness unlike anything I've ever witnessed before in a movie.
Where "Top Gun" was exciting, "Top Gun: Maverick" is a more cohesive, more thrilling and ultimately a more impactful overall film. There's no reason to disparage the first film though, to raise this one up...both were ground-breaking for their time, to be sure.
"Top Gun: Maverick" brought me back to being a kid again, watching impossible dreams unfold on a big-screen as I stared wide-eyed at the utter amazement of it all. For a film critic who watches several hundred movies per year, let me tell you how rare this feeling is. I wasn't thinking about how the movie was shot, I wasn't noticing the score and sound (until later). In the moment, I was in the plane with Maverick, on this mission with the Navy, and sharing in every twist and turn the movie offered up to me.
There is no greater argument FOR the continued existence of movie theaters than "Top Gun: Maverick," the sort of theatrical experience that simply will never - EVER - be matched at home. Don't miss this one in theaters, folks!
Why not an "A+" for "Top Gun: Maverick"? Call me an optimist, but I wanted to leave room in case something exists this year that might possibly be better.
I can't imagine what that would be. But "Top Gun: Maverick" has restored my faith in the movies, with one supersonic swoop, and perhaps a charismatic smile from are greatest living superstar.
Genre: Action, Drama.
Run Time: 2 hours 11 minutes.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Ed Harris, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro, Val Kilmer.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski ("Only the Brave," "Oblivion," "TRON: Legacy").
"Top Gun: Maverick" flies into theaters on Friday, May 27th, 2022.
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