‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Was Well Worth the Wait

Movies take a long time to make and bring to the silver screen, but this one took forever to debut thanks to the pandemic and a superstar’s strong desire to ensure it DID NOT debut on streaming. This is also a sequel which comes to us 36 years after the original, and that one was a classic 1980’s flick. Can you make a sequel to an 80’s classic in another decade where things have changed ever so much? I mean, Paul Hogan tried to do this with “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles,” and it proved to be one of the most needless sequels in cinematic history.

Well, when it comes to “Top Gun: Maverick,” this is a sequel which proves to be well worth the wait. While it does pay some homage to its predecessor, especially in its opening moments where the music of Harold Faltermeyer and Kenny Loggins blast through the speakers and generate a wealth of nostalgia, this sequel is the rare one which largely stands on its own and proves to be even better than the original. Now that is saying a lot as “Top Gun” forever holds a special place in my heart for being one of the most iconic 80’s films whose VHS tape gave our home speakers quite the workout and proved to be one of the few from this glorious decade which I did not walk out of crying uncontrollably. Believe me when I say this is saying a lot.

We catch up with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell all these years later as he continues to avoid promotion in order to keep flying. He works as a test pilot who is determined to lay waste to any of Chuck Yeager’s all-time records. The problem is, pilots like him are in the process of being phased out to make room for drones. As Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (the great Ed Harris) points out, Pete is on his way to becoming a relic. Of course, the Admiral tells Pete this at the same time he is forced to point out his talents are needed back at Top Gun to train a new generation of pilots for an important mission.

While his fellow aviators have advanced in rank, Pete has remained a captain and continues to piss off admirals and other superior officers in ways both intentional and unintentional. When the original “Top Gun” ended, Maverick was about to become a instructor, but here we learn he only lasted two months as one before ditching those duties. I have to say I was annoyed upon learning this as dropping out after such a short period of time seems rather petty of Maverick, but it also once illustrates what a rebel he is among his fellow aviators.

Upon his arrival at Naval Air Station North Island (a.k.a. NAS North Island), Maverick comes to meet a new generation of aviators which include Lt. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro), the lone female pilot of the bunch, and Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell) whose ego knows no bounds even when you want it to. But the two individuals who will factor most strongly into Maverick’s life here are Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), and admiral’s daughter whom he once did a high-speed flyby years ago and now owns a bar, and Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller) who just happens to be the son of his best friend, the still missed Goose (Anthony Edwards). Suffice to say, some here have not quite gotten over the past, and dealing with the present may prove to be even more challenging.

One of the things I have to address about “Top Gun: Maverick” is the fact Kelly McGillis did not return to portray Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood. Many consider this the latest case of ageism in Hollywood, but while I do not want to lay any shade to that, there are also several other actors who are absent in this sequel: Tom Skerritt, Rick Rossovich, Meg Ryan, Michael Ironside, and James Tolkan to name a few. When it comes to the filmmakers/ response to this, they said they did not want to spend a lot of time looking backwards, and to this I applaud them endlessly.

The problem with a lot of sequels, especially ones which come 10 or more years after their predecessor, is how much they reflect on what happened previously. Sequels are clearly made to cash in on the original’s massive success, and it gets to where filmmakers are a bit too fearful to tinker with an established formula. I was reminded of this while I was watching “Blues Brothers 2000,” a sequel I was honestly excited to see come fruition. But as I watched this movie unfold before me, the following dialogue started playing in mind:

“Hey, remember when we did this years ago?”

“Yeah.”

“Remember when they did that?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, remember this bar owner from the original?”

“Yeah.”

“He was funny when he said what he said, you know?”

“Yeah, he was.”

“Seriously, do you want to turn this sequel off and just watch the original?”

“Oh yeah, way ahead of you!”

We love what came before, but not everything can be the same. Granted, “Tom Gun: Maverick” does not reinvent the formula or the genre it is a part of, but it does give us something new and fresh which makes everything we see here all the more thrilling. This is not a simple regurgitation of what we previously witnessed, but instead a look at the present and the challenges it presents for the characters here. While certain notes from the original are played on here, this sequel is not necessarily business as usual.

More importantly, this is one of those sequels which are better than the original. As incredibly entertaining as “Top Gun” was, it did suffer from cliches and a romantic subplot which the movie really could have done without. “Top Gun: Maverick” improves upon its predecessor in many ways as, even if repeats familiar beats, brings a lot more depth to the proceedings and more heart to where, even when things seem emotionally manipulative, I got so swept up in the action. I cheered as loudly as the next audience member during the climatic sequences, and this made me feel like I was back in Thousand Oaks watching “Return of the Jedi” for the first time. The audience got so involved in the action, and it filled my spirits in a way few cinematic experiences could have back then. Believe it or not, the same goes for this long-awaited sequel.

The late Tony Scott, who directed the original “Top Gun” and to whom this sequel is dedicated, gave us some amazing aerial dogfights years before. “Top Gun: Maverick” was directed by Joseph Kosinski who previously worked with Cruise on “Oblivion” and was also behind the camera for “Tron: Legacy” and “Only the Brave.” Like Cruise, he was clearly determined to not fake a single scene from start to finish. The g-forces you see the actors experience is no joke, and it made me wonder what was going through their heads as their faces were being smushed in beyond their control. And seeing those fighter jets fly through treacherous terrains at such high speeds was infinitely thrilling.

Kosinski has proven to be a strong director with a great visual style, and “Top Gun: Maverick” is his best film yet.

As for Cruise, there is no doubt about his dedication to authenticity. While, to quote a lyric from Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” all those lines on his face (or his forehead to be more specific) are getting clearer, he is not about to let age get in the way of what he wants to accomplish in a motion picture. When it comes to his star-making role, he slips back into it ever so easily, and he is not just portraying Maverick in the same way he portrays Ethan Hunt.

I also got to praise the rest of this cast as they more than rise to the occasion here. Miles Teller has long since proven to be a truly talented actor, and I love watching him hold his own opposite Cruise from scene to scene. Jennifer Connelly remains an infinitely talented presence as she gives Penny Benjamin a reason to stand head-to-head with a man who once flew by her at very high speed. Glen Powell tricks you into believing his character’s strong ego will be forever crushed, but it makes sense as to why it never does. And then there is Val Kilmer who returns briefly as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, and his presence reminds us of how powerful a presence this actor can be even if cancer has forever robbed him of his wonderful voice.

It would have been a joke if Cruise did a “Top Gun” sequel back in the 1990’s or at the cusp of the new millennium. He would have needed such a sequel back then as “Cocktail” would have. His career was flying high without a need to revisit his past, but when it became time to do so, he was not about to serve us the same old shit.

“Top Gun: Maverick” for me is the epitome of a summer blockbuster as it makes you feel like a part of the action, and you find yourself cheering with the audience in a way you normally do not. While it not be a cinematic masterpiece, it does its job with sincerity and boundless enthusiasm, and like many, I cannot wait to see it again. Yes, this sequel was made to be seen on the silver screen, so please do so before it does make its debut on streaming.

I cannot wait to see it again.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Batman” Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

I have stated in the past I’m not the biggest fan of superhero/comic book films. I know they are insanely popular, and they make up most of the current box office these days.  However, they have never quite tickled my fancy. A recent exception to the rule would be 2019’s “The Joker.”  It was my favorite film of 2019. When a superhero or comic book film is dark, gritty, and focused on character development as opposed to explosions and car chases, I can get into the film and appreciate the characters and the story. I’m happy to report “The Batman” is a really, really good movie that surprised the hell out of me.

When Robert Pattinson was named as the latest Batman, a lot of fans of the franchise were disappointed and fixated on his previous work in the “Twilight” franchise. Between “The Batman” and “Good Time,” directed by the Safdie brothers, Robert Pattinson has proven he is a solid actor when given the right material.  Everyone has their favorite Batman from the various films in the franchise. I haven’t seen all of them, so I can’t say with any clarity which one is my favorite or which actor has done the best job. I don’t feel as though Pattinson was asked to do a lot here, but what he does do is slightly above average.

It’s rather tough to judge Pattinson’s performance, as there is a lot going on in this nearly three-hour film.  It wasn’t a standout performance or one that blew me away. At times, it felt like the film was protecting him and didn’t give him a lot to do. When the film was over, I was impressed with the film and not really thinking about his performance as Batman. I would have liked to have seen more from Catwoman, played by Zoë Kravitz.  Considering the film’s length, I felt as though they could have included her a little bit more in the film.  There are also stand-out performances from Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Andy Serkis, and an unrecognizable Colin Farrell.

It’s Halloween in Gotham City, and it turns out to be a night of mayhem after its mayor Don Mitchell Jr. is killed by the Riddler. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), of the Gotham City Police Department, calls Batman into action as he feels he can be an ally in this case.  This is not met with open arms by the Gotham City Police Department.  This will also not be the first body that is found dead by Batman and James Gordon. The Riddler is leaving behind cards with various clues, taunting Batman.  In some ways, this film had the feel of “Se7en” to it.  This is much more of a dark thriller/horror film than a superhero film, which was appreciated. It helped that the film was directed by Matt Reeves of “Cloverfield,” “Let Me In,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War for the Planet of the Apes” fame.  He knows how to make a tightly wound thriller with human elements.

What makes “The Batman” work so effectively as a story is that the Riddler, right or wrong, has a motive behind all of his killings. He sees all the lies and coverups that are happening in Gotham City.  He just wants to expose the truth to the public. Speaking of the Riddler, I would have liked to have seen more from Paul Dano in this film.  I understand they want to build up to showdown between Batman and the Riddler, but it left me wanting more.  I imagine that is for us in the eventual sequels.  Again, I would have liked more from the Riddler and Catwoman.

There is also a moral dilemma at the heart of the film.  Bruce Wayne/Batman is looking to figure things out about his family with the help of the family butler, Alfred (Andy Serkis).  He’s piecing the clues together at the same time the audience is figuring them out as well.  There is a rhyme and a reason to everything which happens in this film.  At times, it felt like a smarter “Saw” film with some of the traps, letters, and messages that were being sent out by the Riddler.  The film is an intense ride which really packs a wallop.  That being said, I would have trimmed about 20-30 minutes from it.  That would have made it a four-star film.

I’m really surprised they were able to get away with a PG-13 rating with all of its dark material, which deals with subjects such as mental illness, grief, death, trauma, and explosives.  While I have no issues with films that are willing to be bleak and dark, it felt like an R-rated film to me, which is high praise.  I’m going to give the film three and a half stars because of the run-time.  At times, it really gets bogged down and can feel tedious.  In the end, this is a very enjoyable look at Batman from director Matt Reeves.  The way the film is shot is absolutely brilliant.  The dark, brooding cinematography and tone were very much appreciated.  I really, really liked “The Batman.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

4K Info: “The Batman” is released on a three-disc 4K Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 176 minutes and is rated PG-13 for strong violence and disturbing content, drug content, some language, and some suggestive material.  One disc is the 4K, another disc is the Blu-ray, and there is an entire Blu-ray disc devoted to the special features, which are over two hours long!

Video Info: Released in 2160p Ultra High Definition, “The Batman” is simply stunning with its dark black imagery. It’s a remarkable 4K, and it’s exactly why the format is really finding its way into the homes of more hardcore film collectors.  The film also comes with Dolby Vision. You won’t be disappointed by a single scene in this film.  It’s breathtaking. For the Blu-ray, you get your usual 1080p High Definition.  The special features come on a separate Blu-ray disc as mentioned earlier.

Audio Info: For the 4K and Blu-ray, you receive the following audio formats: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, English, French, and Spanish. Subtitles are also in English, Spanish, and French.

Special Features:

Vengeance in the Making: A Making-of Documentary Featuring Cast and Crew

Deleted scenes with director’s commentary

Anatomy of a Car Chase featuring the Batmobile

The Batman: Genesis

Becoming Catwoman

and more!!

Even though the film is incredibly lengthy, I’d love to watch it again.  I really liked the direction they went with this film as far as the Riddler having an agenda behind his killings.  I also thought the moral dilemma and the code Batman lives by was really tested throughout the film.  It’s an impressive movie.  I’m not going to discredit the work of Robert Pattinson in the film, as I thought he did a fine job, but it did feel like the film really didn’t allow him to show off more of his acting chops.  He’s really hiding behind the Batman character. This might have been by design.  However, I would have loved to have seen a performance that rivaled the film.  Once again, maybe it was not the intention of the filmmaker or the people behind the film.  Still, if you enjoy your superhero movies with a dark edge to them, you will not be disappointed by “The Batman.”  There is no stone left unturned with the special features as well.  Without question, this is a day-one purchase at your local retailer.  I can’t wait to see what they come up with for the sequels.

**Disclaimer** I received a 4K/Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

Ten Years Later, ‘The Town’ Remains a Riveting Crime Thriller

I saw this film with a friend of mine who grew up around the area it takes place in, and he declared this to be the “best Boston movie ever.” Now I am not in a position to verify this as fact because while I visited Boston when I was a kid, I have never lived there. But with this coming from someone who spent his childhood growing up in this neighborhood and made hundreds of visits to Fenway Park, this is very high praise which cannot be ignored or easily dismissed.

With “The Town,” an adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves,” Ben Affleck proves what should have been clear to us after his directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone;” he is truly an excellent filmmaker. Moreover, he has a strong understanding of Boston and the surrounding areas. Affleck also succeeds in giving us one of his very best performances while surrounding himself with a strong cast of talented actors. Upon this film’s release, many were out for his blood as he was making one terrible movie after another with “Gigli,” “Reindeer Games” and “Surviving Christmas,” but “The Town” showed us that his career deserved a second act.

Affleck stars as Doug MacRay who, with his lifelong group of friends, commits robberies on banks and armored cars. One such robbery has them kidnapping a beautiful bank manager named Claire whom they let go after they have successfully made their getaway. But after looking over her driver’s license, they realize she lives only a block or two away from where they reside. Fearful that she might recognize them, Doug volunteers to check her out to see if she knows anything. In the process, he falls madly in love with her, and she is quick to return his feelings. Now this could mean one of two things; crime truly makes you stupid, or love conquers all. This leads the team of robbers to get even more paranoid than they already are as they are about to pull off one last heist, and we all know what happens on that “last job.”

While Boston plays a big part in this film, the setting of “The Town” is actually Charlestown, home of the Bunker Hill Monument which is prominently featured throughout. In the opening titles, it is said Charlestown has more than 500 robberies in a year and is known as a place which breeds a strong criminal element. It all reminds me of what Bono sang about in the U2 song “Dirty Day:”

“If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You’ll hit someone guilty.”

Now “The Town” is more than likely to earn a lot of comparison with Michael Mann’s “Heat” as both share plot and thematic similarities. But while “Heat” was truly an epic motion picture, “The Town” is far more intimate in its scope and characters. Much of the attention is paid to the criminals themselves than to the police or FBI agents who are obsessively pursuing them. It also surrounds you in an authentic Boston atmosphere and makes you wonder if the characters who were born and raised there will ever be able to survive outside of it, let alone leave it without the threat of death hanging over their heads.

Along with screenwriters Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, Affleck takes the most familiar elements of your average heist movie and reinvigorates them to create an exciting motion picture which is as big on character as it is on action. Clearly, Affleck’s attention is more acutely focused on the characters and the circumstances which surround them all. As for the action, it has some of the best staged robbery sequences I have seen in recent films, and there is also a brilliantly staged car chase through the narrow streets which makes you wonder if the thieves could ever possibly escape as the police are not always the bumbling idiots they are made out to be on the silver screen.

Then there is Affleck the actor, and a lot of my friends still cannot stand him. Truth be told, I never thought he was a bad actor, and as Doug MacRay he gives one of his best performances to date. I totally believed him as a hardened criminal who looks to find another path in life, and he holds his own against a cast of exceptional actors who give him so much to work off of.

Another big standout performance in “The Town” comes from Jeremy Renner who was on a roll after his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Hurt Locker.” As James “Jem” Coughlin, Renner portrays the most unstable and drug addicted member of the gang, and its most heedless one as well. Coughlin is like a coiled snake waiting to strike and it is easy to see he will be the master of his own downfall, but Renner gives him a wounded soul as well. Having served nine years in prison rather than rat on his best friend Doug, James constantly feels like he is on the verge of being betrayed and feels, as Lars Ulrich once said, “so disrespected.” Other actors would just play up the hothead aspects of this character, but Renner gets at James’ heart and of how his feelings end up dictating his actions.

Jon Hamm is also on board as Special Agent Adam Frawley. But while he looks to be one of your obsessive law enforcement characters in a heist movie, Hamm actually subverts this to show us an FBI agent who proves to be as ruthless as the criminals he is chasing. In certain scenes, he proves more than willing to ruin another character’s life if it means gaining evidence and capturing criminals who are always one step ahead of the law. That Don Draper coolness rubs off on Adam as he almost effortlessly wiggles his way past another person’s defenses and then dives in for the kill.

The actresses cast do remarkable work here, holding their own against a dominantly male cast. Rebecca Hall is Claire Keesey, the bank manager held hostage who later falls for one of the robbers without even knowing it. Claire has to balance out her own frazzled emotions in the aftermath of what she has been through, and she has to deal with her strong feelings for Doug which never falter even after she discovers who he really is. As for Blake Lively, her performance as drugged out single mother Krista showed there was more to her than her work on “Gossip Girl.”. Lively excels in showing how Krista still harbors deep feelings for Doug and yet is unable to pull herself out of a painful downward spiral.

You also have resident character actors Chris Cooper and the late Pete Postlethwaite doing the same solid acting work you can always count on them for. Cooper only appears in one scene as Doug’s dad, Stephen MacRay, but he creates a fully developed character whose troubled history is communicated more in facial expressions and actions than it is in words. Postlethwaite plays Fergie the Florist, your typical mob boss, but his performance never feels anywhere as clichéd as you might expect. Even in a few scenes, his Fergie is a very scary character whose threats seem very real and who holds the answers to the questions Doug is always asking. Both of these guys are proof there are no small roles, only small actors, and these guys are most definitely NOT small actors!

Looking at the plot of “The Town” as a whole, this film could have been average or would have told the same old tired heist story with nothing new or original to say about it. But while this film may not be original, all the specific details put into use here seriously elevate it from the ordinary. The relationships and dialogue between each character never feels contrived or artificial, and the screenplay has great moments where characters realistically regain the trust of others without being at all manipulative:

“Ask me anything you want.”

“I won’t believe you.”

“Yes, you will.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ll fucking hate the answers.”

Going into “The Town,” I knew I was in for a good movie, but I should have known I was about to watch a great one. Affleck more than earned his career resurgence, and his work as a director cannot be held in doubt after this and “Gone Baby Gone,” let alone his Oscar winning triumph “Argo.” This movie could have been a spectacular failure in anyone else’s hands, but Affleck is much smarter than we ever give him credit for. Ten years after its successful release, “The Town” remains a riveting motion picture which sucks you in and never lets you off easy. Even if it brings to mind other heist movies, this one stands on its own as a unique piece of cinema and the kind only Affleck could have given us.

* * * * out of * * * *