Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The need for speed


TOP GUN: MAVERICK

2022
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie

Spoilers: moderate


The short version is "no, it isn't 'so much better' than Top Gun," though I was surprised to realize that Top Gun: Maverick could have only gone in two waysand before we go down a negative road, let's agree it's "good," insofar as "bad" was never that likely an outcome, given the competence of its makers at their particular jobs, namely star and producer Tom Cruise, director Joseph Kosinski, and the McDonnell Douglas corporation via its successor-in-interest Boeing and the US Navybut it did only have the two options, "every inch as good as Tony Scott's Top Gun and maybe a little better if it uses its resources as well as Top Gun" or "not especially close if it doesn't."  It chooses "not especially close."

There is, very obviously, a lot to love about it anyway.  Above all, there are the sentimental appeals that the screenplay makes, not quite so frequently that they become a burden, on behalf of Tom Cruisenot even on behalf of his character, Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, but on behalf of Tom Cruise, our Last Movie Starand the cinematic ideals of practical stunts and human physical spectacle that Cruise committed to as their champion, pretty much at the exact moment those ideals began to go extinct.  "Extinction" is, indeed, the word the script uses to describe the human pilot in a digital age, standing in as an extremely unsubtle metaphor for the human element of an action cinema that has spent the last thirty years transforming itself into CGI cartoons.  It places the word in the mouth of a hostile admiral (Jon Hamm, or maybe it was the other hostile admiral, Ed Harris), and MaverickCruiseturns back, acknowledging that it's true.  "But," he adds, "not today."  And though I prefer to believe I'm less inclined to being swayed by pandering appeals to cinephilic nostalgia, despite running what amounts to a nostalgic cinema website, I am not made of stone.  I'm made of meat and bone and blood, just like the new generation of actors whom the slowly-aging Cruise drafted to play a new generation of Top Gun pilots, strapping them into jet planes with airframes that might be older than they are in pursuit of a sequel to a movie that's almost invariably older than they are, so that he could subject them to the flesh-affirming punishment that Cruise has made the core of his brand.

And so Maverick lives up to its legacy in that regard, ornamented with some of the best aerial photography and aerial choreography ever attempted, just like its predecessor 36 years ago.  Unlike its predecessor 36 years ago, this is also mostly jammed into the middle of the movie (one can assume the Darkstar experimental aircraft and F-14 are CGI, and one doesn't need to assume that the Sukhoi Su-57s referred to five or six times, extremely irksomelynot least because it's a chewy fucking mouthfulas "fifth-generation fighters" instead of even by a lame "don't hurt the Russians' feelings!" fake designation, are CGI), and though aspects of this profound tactility survive into its action climax, it isn't nearly as insistent on its own undeniable physical reality as Scott's film.  (There are certainly tradeoffs here: it's only in the past few years that I've finally been able to shake my immersion-breaking awareness that Top Gun's "MiGs" are F-5s.)  As for whether it matters that the actors were compelled to fiddle with their own cameras while being subjected to REAL G-FORCES! in REAL PLANES! rather than in gimboled mock-ups like in Top Gun, in most cases it probably doesn't, certainly not as much as Cruise would have you believe.  But even then there's at least one close-up, probably the longest-held close-up of the film on anybody other than Cruise or Val Kilmer, and here Cruise's pursuit of in-camera reality absolutely made all the difference.  Of course, it also means that to accommodate the actors we're using two-seater F/A-18s instead of single-seat F-35s, something explained rather poorly by the script, but it's not like any explanation was going to be good.  That may likewise be down to the F-35 being kind of ugly, and the Super Hornet looking real fine.  Plus, as noted, it's thematic.

But the choreography of these aircraft is awfully great, and in certain senses exceeds its predecessor: Scott and his editors were constrained by their footage and their budget and the Navy's more ambivalent feelings about the endeavor, and, clearly, Kosinski and his editors weren't.  (Kosinski has bragged that the movie was carved down from fully 800 hours of raw footage.)  The upshot is some jaw-droppingly cleanly-presented aerial stunts with the F/A-18s, especially but by no means exclusively in the "training" section in the middle of the film, bolstered by some nice and loud visceral sound editing; it loses the impressionism of Top Gun's chaotic airborne encounters, but gains everything in clarity.  (Which is a good thing, since Top Gun's iconic readability is surrendered in many ways as well, starting with the way that Top Gun put its instructors in A-4s, which you wouldn't mistake for an F-14 at a mile, whereas Maverick flies the exact same aircraft as his students with, I think, some blue markings; but even something as easy as a helmet can be an issue, with one pilot, "Phoenix" (Monica Barbaro), for opaque reasons deciding that the graphic representation of her mythological pseudonym will be playing cards.)

Anyway, Kosinski and Cruise are dedicated to your comprehension of the way these beautiful objects move on complex trajectories through three-dimensional space, and if this isn't by absolute necessity "better" (the argument that it is better is very strong), it's very distinct and very wonderful.  Even when the film is obliged to take recourse to CGI, it's cunning in a really curious wayit may be a happy accident, but the CGI on the explosions and some of the missiles is not entirely persuasive (SLCMs get a part to play on the Big Mission, and it's a gorgeous image Kosinski effected of the Tomahawks sailing over our pilots' heads, yet not necessarily persuasive), whereas the CGI on the phony aircraft is fantastic, so whether by design or not, even if you're aware they're not real, your brain is tricked into believing in them, maybe not as utterly as you believed in F-5s with red stars painted on them, but certainly more than satisfactorily so.  And there is one scene, where Cruise actually is flying (nobody but Navy pilots were allowed to fly Navy jets, in case that was in question), piloting the vintage P-51 that Maverick owns because Cruise owns one, too, and that scene is deeply felt: its paean to the miracle of aviation and the miracle of filmmaking brought a little tear to my eye.

It has a plot, too, which should seem like an objective improvement over Top Gun, though having an extremely dumb plot is not always better than having none, and this is where things start going awry.  I could make an argument that Top Gun still has significantly more story, but let's begin where the movie does.  Top Gun was, whatever else, an original, and Maverick opens on the worst first impression possible before getting better, with what I expect was intended to be a reverently nostalgic squeeze, opening exactly the way Top Gun opened.  I mean exactly: other than using F/A-18s, it is essentially a shot-for-shot remake of the title sequence of Top Gun, the exact same Harold Faltermeyer anthem, the exact same hard cut at the exact same time to Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone," and even the exact same fucking text block that explains that in 1969 the USN began the Fighter Weapons School, though in replicating the precise paces of the original film, they accidentally suggest that its pilots call it "TOPGUN MAVERICK."  This is a useful way to begin Maverick, however, since it tells you one thing you'll need to know: the entire film is going to be built out of secondhand parts, not even entirely Top Gun's secondhand parts.


Now, it is surely maniacal in its hollow Top Gun fanservice, from minor points like the apparent genetic inheritance of unstylish facial hair in the form of a mustache, to the more aggravating beats, like the genetic inheritance of unstylish musical cues in the form of "Great Balls of Fire," all the way up to insulting nostaglic handjobs like the eventual appearance of an F-14.  But no, it ranges much further afield, cannibalizing other aviation film touchstones so blatantly and completely that you can taxonomize the movie into four distinct acts based on what movie it's currently ripping off.

We reunite with Maverick in The Right Stuff act, and, truthfully, this seems more like fair homage.  Capt. Pete Mitchell has become a test pilot in the long interim, and risks his life and career one more time to push a new hypersonic aircraft that looks like a black dagger thrown through black-and-blue skies up to Mach 10.  He succeeds, but this is Maverick, so a fuck-up is at all times just an impulse away, and fuck up he does.  Like many times before, the only thing that keeps him in the Navy is the protection of his ancient wingman, Admiral Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Kilmer, and while this counts as "fanservice" it goes well beyond that; I have zero, repeat zero, objection to this performance or its shattering resonance, both real-world and fictional, and even while mute and heartbreaking, Kilmer also gets to have the movie's best joke and its best character work simultaneously, simply by pointing at a computer monitor).  Iceman sends Maverick back to Top Gun, but not for peaceful instruction: his mission is to take a team of former Top Gun pilots and train them up for a ludicrously dangerous mission against an unnamed enemy developing a nuclear weapons program that, if left unchecked, will destabilize the whole world.  (The geopolitics make them most-easily identified as "not not Iran," and I genuinely wonder what the Film Twitter reception would've been like had it been released as intended during the Trump Administration.  But then, they're cagey: the topography and climate of the enemy equally suggests that the United States will never countenance a nuclear Norway.  Meanwhile, the goofy roundels on the enemy planes suggest the Targaryen Air Force.)

This begins the ripping-off-Top-Gun phase which is very successful, thanks to the airshow it serves to facilitate, and it transitions with the screenplay's one extremely clever gambit (not an extremely unpredictable gambit, maybe not even unpredictable in how it happens, but extremely clever nonetheless) to the Star Wars phase, insofar as the mission Maverick's been preparing his aviators for involves running down a big canyon lined with anti-aircraft emplacements and dropping laser-guided bombs into, seriously, a ventilation shaft; it would not have been much more shameless about it if Anthony Edwards had shown up as a disembodied voice from the Force, and for all intents and purposes he does.  (If you were casting about for new ideas for a Top Gun sequel, how about this in a movie about modern air combat: somebody actually eats it from BVR for once.  Shock me.)

And this is all, I happily admit, pretty cool (even the part after that, which continues to lift from other movies, albeit in this case from the very-much-not-an-aviation-film-touchstone Tomorrow Never Dies, of all the damn things, is still pretty cool).  It is, however, pretty ordinary, and Top Gun was never ordinary.  Outside of the great stunt flying (and if great stunt flying = great movie, then Top Gun is great, Q.E.D., and that is a minority opinion amongst people who think this is great), it is any 20XX legacy sequel.  It's not a superlative example of that, either, doing a number of productive things with Cruise's 59 years on Earth and his place in pop culture, but otherwise content with another aging hero and the pleasures of recognition, framed by lazy cartoonish bullshit. The "pleasures of recognition" aren't all unwelcome, at least: I'm legitimately impressed by Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda for things that don't even have anything to do with flying, and before this I never would've guessed that stylistic mimickry was one of Kosinski's skills, but he and Miranda do an amazing job of reviving Tony Scott's 80s color sense and love for Venetian blinds within the geometric cleanliness of Kosinski's own aesthetic.  That this dovetails terrifically well with a narrative that, after all, winds up being about the increasing emptiness of Maverick's existence once being "Maverick" stops being cute is, indeed, a bonus; but there's a very solid case to be made that Maverick is a better-looking movie than Top Gun ever had the chance to be on the sole basis that Scott's old-time fetish for slathering orange on everything is effected here by Kosinski and Miranda with modern color correction, rather than Scott's own method of plopping stupid graduated filters on every exterior shot.  (The saturation is... well, it's a 2022 movie.)  And there are just some terrific uses of subtle and not-so-subtle dramatic lighting, generally, in the film's quieter moments.


Kosinski is not Scott, of course, and more importantly neither is Cruise, and very little about this Top Gun sequel other than some choice sunsets actually wants to be an extension of Scott's worldview.  For good and ill, sure, but mostly for ill, in that it doesn't replace that worldview with something compelling and new.  Top Gun was bodies and airplanes, sex and metal.  It was a music video; Kosinski uses pop music poorly (somewhat astoundingly given his filmography), and barely tries (the Lady Gaga song that isn't half as good as the Berlin song is smooshed into the end).  Maverick dutifully gives Pete a girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) and somehow comes off more sexist than its predecessor, which had a similarly-forced no-homo love story but at least had the decency to make his love interest a mentor who could, symbolically, initiate him into greater esoteric knowledge by way of blue-tinted softcore pornography and basically spitting in each others' mouths.  I like heterosexuality and am not someone who throws around the phrase "compulsory heterosexuality" heedlessly; but sometimes it fits.  It is, almost needless to say, not actually sexy (Connelly's character serves the same "feminine outsider" narrative function that Charlie did, but it's only even romantic by virtue of that P-51 ride).  Cruise left that aspect of his star persona behind many years ago: even the unique prospect of seeing two old people at the pinnacle of their age brackets fuck was never on the table.  Rarely has a love story been so parallel to the actual story; they could've at least have made her a pilot's mom.

As for those pilots, this is where we find Maverick's hoped-for emotional payoff, since one of Maverick's students is Lt. Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), callsign "Rooster," son of Goose, the RIO Maverick was adjudicated blameless for killing three decades earlier.  This is not the actual source of their conflict: Rooster doesn't disagree with the investigation's findings, he's mad at Maverick for interfering with his Academy application, which is a strange overcomplication that makes Maverick look much worse than it thinks it does, and also flattens any ideological or temperamental conflict between student and teacher into a tangential personal grudge that Rooster has nursed for a long time without considering Maverick's obvious motivations.  (The movie, I believe, does not wish you to think too long about how old "the new generation" would have to be in Rooster's case, even though pushing 40 and still being an LT is one of the things he's pissed about.)  That I didn't mention the second-most important character in the movie till the end of the review perhaps indicates how interesting Rooster is, but they are a boring, boring bunch.  It is obviously too much to say Top Gun had "great secondary characters" even including Iceman and Goose, but they were charismatic and unforgettable.

Top Gun was a vibe; these guys have no vibe.  They are deathly-dull professionals.  I would like to name them, because I respect the actors' submission to Cruise's methods, even if I strongly doubt Maverick will repeat Top Gun's remarkable trick of proving an incubator for notable young actors.  Unfortunately, there are a dozen of them, and even if only a fraction of that dozen "matter" in terms of going on the mission, maybe it was a mistake to think anybody cared (or would notice) who "won" the honor.  But, you know, Top Gun had a competition, so there we are.  The sole standout is Hangman (Glen Powell), the film's best new characterhe's a punchably smug shithead.  But by virtue of having any character, of having any ability to speak a single line of interesting dialogue without paralyzed stiffness, he towers.  He also has the only good helmet font.  They get a weak chuckle out of Lt. Robert Floyd (Lewis Pullman), whose callsign is "Bob."  It's nice, though, that Maverick can add some diversity to the franchise.  By which I mean a dweeby fellow who isn't comfortable taking his shirt off to play explicitly-shirtless surf sports.

That actually sums up Maverick somewhat, though: Top Gun showcased beach volleyball to demonstrate the totalizing competitive ethos of its pilots, to homage homoerotic photography, and because Scott's instinct was to emphasize that his men were machines in peak operating condition, inserting it into the middle of his film as an organic extension of their struggle; Maverick has a beach football scene because the first film had beach volleyball, and now it's a top-down corporate team-building exercise ordered by Capt. Pete Mitchell.  Amazing fucking air sequences, and no vibe.

Score: 7/10

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