Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

And we're back to review one of the current Best Picture nominees, and in this case I use the phrase "Best Picture nominee" very loosely....

Yeah that's right, I'm about to pop a lot of balloons over 2022's most shameless nostalgia cash-grab, Top Gun: Maverick!  

Before I get into why I found this movie just cosmically overrated and maybe the most preposterous Best Picture nominee since Ghost, let me divulge what I did enjoy about it.  The action sequences are first rate, technically marvelous, mindbogglingly dangerous, and Tom Cruise proves himself a crazy person yet again for some of the stunts he does in this film.  Of course the main objective of the pilots is lifted almost beat for beat from Star Wars: A New Hope.  Like seriously, how didn't every film critic who lauded this movie like it's the greatest action fare ever produced seem to pick up on this?  "You must maneuver down this trench ravine, staying below radar and anti-aircraft cannons, and skim the surface till you reach the target area, which is only two three meters wide, then you must pull out in time to avoid crashing, while also evading enemy fighters.  Maverick, at that speed will you be able to pull out in time??"  Christ, the loudmouth jerk pilot even swoops in at the last minute to save the day, and one of the pilots has to take the shot blind when his targeting system fails.  Corporate needs you to find the differences between these two pictures.  

That said, the flying scenes are exhilarating in the same way those of the first movie are exhilarating.  I actually found the training exercises more fun than the actual mission, which is presented in such a way that there's no doubt the good guys will not only accomplish said mission but also escape with their lives.  The fun is in Maverick attempting to get these youngsters (minus Rooster, who by my math has to be about forty years old in this story) to simulate this impossible mission (TM) in the time allotted.  One question though, why'd they pick the tallest part of the mountain as their egress instead of banking slightly to the left or right, toward one of the smaller peaks of the crater?  Second question, wouldn't a team of American pilots blowing up an enemy's uranium plant be met with retaliation?  No one thinks to address this?  Anyway, aside from the insipid banter of the pilots and running commentary ("I'm out of ammunition, I'll just have to evade them" - yeah we can see that, this isn't a radio program), the flight scenes are a lot of fun, made more immersive by the use of IMAX cameras.  The team who made Wings will take their royalty check now...  
I appreciated seeing Tom Cruise as a world-weary, wizened Maverick.  He's much more appealing in this film than he was in the original, where I found him quite insufferable actually.  I appreciated the small scope of this film at a time when most action movies need to be about a villain or device that threatens the entire planet (or universe).  There's a quaint simplicity here that I found refreshing, and for all the children of the 80s who grew up loving Top Gun, this film scratches that same itch (like, PRECISELY that same itch).  

Where this film falls apart, just like its predecessor, is in its hamfisted attempts at human drama.  As with the first film, all the scenes that take place on the ground are hackneyed Hallmark Channel fluff, and compounding things is the filmmakers' apparent need to shoehorn in as much obtuse fan service as they could muster. 

For example:

Did Goose's son need to look and dress EXACTLY like Goose?  Do they think so little of the audience that the resemblance needs to be THAT spot-on?

Did he need to be shown playing "Great Balls of Fire" on the piano in the same bar his dad did?  This moment has to be one of the clumsiest bits of pandering in any sequel I've ever seen.  I'm shocked no one broke into a drunken frat-boy rendition of "You've Lost That Loving Feeling."  

Did we need an arrogant hotshot Iceman-type pilot in the group to have the same kind of heated rivalry with Rooster that Iceman had with Maverick?  Was there not enough drama between Rooster and Maverick that we needed this half-assed retread shoved in?

Did we need a topless beach sports scene to match the volleyball scene from the first movie?

Did Jennifer Connelly's character need to live in an almost identical house to Kelly McGillis's character (which seemed to indicate Connelly was only in this movie as a stand-in for McGillis, who is "no longer hot enough" to be Tom Cruise's love interest)?  Side note: A more thankless job for a female lead I cannot recall; Connelly's Oscar-caliber talent is 100% wasted in this film and she's literally just there to be a warm body for Cruise to get with.  At least McGillis in the first film had an actual role in the story and there was a "hot for teacher" vibe going on.  Connelly is just there, as an old on-off girlfriend of Maverick's who doesn't want to get involved with him again, until she does.  I hope she got paid well for this.  

Did all the dialogue need to be written in the style of 80s cheeseball action films just because that's how the first film was written?  You know you're allowed to make the sequel a bit more sophisticated, right?  Just as an example, holy lord, the bar scene where we meet all the new recruits is painful to sit through.  Do Navy pilots really talk like this?

All the insipid, unchallenging nods to the original make me think Top Gun: Maverick is the kind of cinematic mollification everyone who hated The Last Jedi wanted in a Star Wars sequel.  Mindless callbacks to the old films and an original character who despite being in his sixties is still better at whatever he does than any of the new characters.  It also seems like every critic who heaped praise on this film was simply a huge fan of Top Gun '86 and therefore because this is a love letter to that movie, that makes it awesome.  Just because you grew up with a movie doesn't make it sacrosanct, guys.  I rewatched it recently, for the first time since seeing it in the theater in 1986, and it's really not good.  Like at all.

This movie is an improvement, but also, still not good.  It plays out EXACTLY like you think it will, in the most thickheaded way imaginable.  Every character behaves exactly how the script needs them to, whatever dramatic tension exists between characters gets neatly resolved in the same fashion as in the first movie, dialogue like "Don't think, just do!" is used as a catch-all to magically make pilots fly more effectively.  In no universe is this film anywhere close to being Best Picture material.  Stop it.  I guarantee if the box office figures of Top Gun: Maverick and The Batman were reversed, The Batman would be in this category instead.  The Academy is desperate for ratings and will therefore nominate whatever massive box office champion comes along that also gets universally positive reviews.  Hey Oscar, you're drifting into Grammys territory.  Popular entertainment isn't necessarily good art.  This is an Awesomely Shitty Movie, not a Best Picture contender.  What's maybe even more offensive is that it also got a Best Adapted Screenplay nod.  Is this real life???

I give Top Gun: Maverick ** out of ****.

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