Top Gun: Maverick review - This might be the perfect blockbuster
Our film critic, Mark Walsh, feels the need for speed.
Debates have raged about the best process for acting for generations, with the school of method acting of Stanislavski and those that followed often being suggested as providing the most authentic performances.
Of those that developed his teaching, Lee Strasberg was most famous for The Method, which encouraged actors to explore and even act out the lives of their characters before their on-screen role.
Stella Adler proposed that actors should understand the skills and abilities of their characters, while Sanford Meisner encouraged an exploration of the emotional lives of characters, focused on “the reality of doing”.
Considering these descriptions when approaching Top Gun: Maverick, there is a strong argument to suggest it’s the most method action film ever made.
There was little to suggest in Tony Scott’s 1986 original that we ever needed a sequel. It’s the apex of Tom Cruise’s early action career, that launched the head tilt and grin-that-would-give-a-Cheshire-cat-envy smile that served him so well over the past four decades.
Viewed through the rose-tinted Ray Bans of nostalgia, there’s still much to be affectionate about, from the camaraderie of the pilots fuelled by testosterone as much as jet fuel to the iconic Eighties soundtrack with Berlin and Kenny Loggins.
But it was a film of its time, with its flying sequences limited by the necessary complication that actors don’t actually fly F-15s.
As he turns 60 in just a couple of months, there’s an improbability that anyone Tom’s age would be anywhere near an action movie, even as the stern admiral barking orders from behind his desk.
Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t skimp on those, with both Ed Harris (10 years senior to Cruise) and Jon Hamm (10 years his junior) taking turns at delivering the last-chance warnings on Maverick’s career.
For while the rest of the world has moved on, and automated fighters threaten to make real-world pilots obsolete, Mav has stayed exactly where he is, preferring to spend his time in the skies as one of the Navy’s best and most insubordinate pilots, knowing that eventually time or fate will catch up with him.
He’s recruited by Hamm’s Admiral Simpson, callsign ‘Cyclone’, for an impossible mission – or, as with his other franchise, a very unlikely one – to train a group of Top Gun graduates, the best of the best of the best, to prevent an unnamed country completing its uranium enrichment programme. (Film studios know that, these days, even the cinema audiences of the traditional bad guy nations are too lucrative to dismiss.)
The pilots must fly fast along a narrow trench before bombing a target just a couple of metres wide, and if that sounds like the end of Star Wars, then that’s because it is absolutely the plot of the end of Star Wars.
The wrinkle in the plan is that one of the dozen pilots trying out for the attack on the Death Star, I mean the uranium plant, is the son of Maverick’s former wingman Goose (Anthony Edwards), whose untimely death shaped the original’s narrative arc.
Mav has been doing his best to deter Bradley Bradshaw, callsign the equally unlikely ‘Rooster’, from following in his father’s footsteps, but now he’s confronted with having Rooster’s life and future in his own hands. His only confidant is bar owner Penny (Jennifer Connolly), an on-off love interest of Maverick who was name checked but not seen in the original.
It’s this and other call backs and sense of connection to the original that will give fans an immediate sense of comfort. The film opens with the same title card, explaining the nature of the Top Gun school, and even an aircraft carrier preparing for action to the strains of Kenny Loggins. There’s sports on the beach, drinking and songs in the bar, all channelling the Top Gun spirit to great effect.
While the script from Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie (who’s delivering his third Mission: Impossible film next year) delivers all of the action beats and emotional moments you’d expect, almost to the point of predictability, it knows the boxes this kind of film needs to tick and does so admirably. Those with hazy or no recollections of the first film will be given all the context they need to enjoy the ride.
You can imagine Tom Cruise channelling Strasberg’s Method, taking his fellow actors out for preparatory games of beach volleyball and late night singalongs in the bar, but it’s once Top Gun: Maverick takes to the skies that it not only soars but astounds.
Adler’s belief that if an actor talks about riding horses, they should know how to ride a horse transfers seamlessly to fighter jets, with the actors undergoing months of rigorous training even to be able to be allowed in the planes, before filming themselves while being flown around at supersonic speeds.
While the rest of the mission contenders are fairly interchangeable, including token woman ‘Phoenix’ (Monica Barbaro) and token self-serving egomaniac ‘Hangman’ (Glen Powell), their collective commitment to acting in real planes pulling real g-forces and flying perilously close together makes for genuinely gripping, edge of the seat action.
Here’s where Top Gun: Maverick has its plane-shaped cake and eats it: when the final mission unfolds, it is both the closest you’ll ever get to being in the midst of the action yourself, but also both utterly preposterous and ridiculously enjoyable.
Joseph Kosinski’s direction and Eddie Hamilton’s editing make the most of the action and it’s no hyperbole to say that this sequel delivers stunning flying sequences which have few, if any, equals for both realism and adrenaline-fuelled tension in cinema history.
But while this new Top Gun perfects “the reality of doing” as much as any such film can, it also doesn’t forget Meisner’s exploration of the emotional lives of the characters.
The only other returning character is Val Kilmer’s Iceman, now an admiral but struggling with his health, a plot point necessitated by Kilmer’s real life cancer battle. While Cruise and Kilmer’s screen time is brief, it’s hugely emotional and adds resonance and weight to Maverick’s arc that might just generate a tear or two.
Top Gun: Maverick is formulaic, almost to the point of parody, but thanks to Tom Cruise’s methods it might just be the most perfect expression of that blockbuster formula ever committed to screen. I feel the need… the need to watch it again, on the biggest screen I can find.