‘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 * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘MacGruber’ – The Best SNL Movie in Years

MacGruber movie poster final high resolution

When I went to see “MacGruber” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood back in 2010, I actually saw Jason Sudeikis while standing in line to buy a ticket. His impersonation of Joe Biden is a still a big hit with fans of the show, and he seemed like a very down to earth guy as he blended in with the crowd and talked with others.

Anyway, enough about him. Let’s get on with my review of this particular SNL sketch turned movie called “MacGruber.” About a decade before this one, movies from the long running comedy show were being released all the time, and many proved to be nowhere as funny as the sketches which inspired them. “The Ladies Man,” “Superstar,” or “A Night at the Roxbury” appeared to underwhelm audiences, and I wondered why none of them could come close to matching up with “Wayne’s World” or “The Blues Brothers.”

Now keep in mind, those movies were based on sketches which lasted 3 to 5 minutes on the average SNL episode. With “MacGruber,” we have a movie based on a sketch which typically lasts for a minute at most. We all know from watching this obvious spoof of “MacGyver” that they all end in the same way, with MacGruber failing to diffuse the bomb and it going off, blowing him and his whole team to smithereens. So therein lies the fascination of this movie; Can MacGruber keep himself from blowing up and killing everyone around him for more than a minute? Can he sustain a full-length motion picture when he can barely sustain himself in every control room known to man?

Well, it turns out he can and for around 99 minutes. Before it was released, “MacGruber” was bursting all over with reviews calling it the best SNL movie since “Wayne’s World.” I find this praise to be completely justified as it is consistently hilarious and filled with moments which had me laughing harder than anything I saw in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and that was supposed to be horrific and serious. But while the jinx on SNL movies finally came to an end with “MacGruber,” this same jinx has unfortunately not been broken at the box office. It ended up grossing only $9.3 million worldwide against a budget of $10 million, but it has since become a cult classic. Trust me, “MacGruber” is great fun and contains many gut-busting laughs, and it deserved a much bigger audience than it initially got back in 2010.

Like “Hot Shots Part Deux,” the movie opens with MacGruber (Will Forte) living a post-Rambo type existence in a monastery where he finds peace from all things explosive. But Col. Jim Faith (the late Powers Boothe) brings him back into service when it is discovered his old nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer gone wild), has acquired the X-5 nuclear missile and threatens to use it on a highly valuable target primed for utter destruction. Dieter also turns out to be the same man responsible for killing MacGruber’s fiancé, Casey (Maya Rudolph). To say this is all personal for MacGruber is pointing out the obvious. But seriously, what doesn’t this Inspector Clouseau of bomb experts not take personally? If you piss him off, please make sure he doesn’t memorize your license plate.

Forte never does quite convinces us that MacGruber is this great war hero, but that is part of the joke. He does, however, more than make us believe this character he has won more than a dozen purple hearts (how he earned all those is another story). No longer constricted by the dreaded FCC on network television, Forte really lets it loose here, getting away with stuff which would have had NBC and Lorne Michaels drop kicking him out of 30 Rockefeller Plaza if he pulled this off on live television. He also co-wrote the script, and he takes advantage of every opportunity for his character to make a supreme ass of himself while still remaining one you want to root for.

Plus, Forte does sex scenes here like no one else does in movies today, and I am certain no one has tried to match his acting in bed ever since.

Ryan Phillippe co-stars as MacGruber’s right hand man, Lt. Dixon Piper, a dedicated soldier who is of course infinitely brighter than him, and this causes a lot of violent resentment between the two of them. Phillippe does great work in playing the straight man to Forte’s idiotic lunatic. Had he tried to outdo Forte in terms of getting laughs, this pairing never would have worked. Lord knows MacGruber needs a partner, but he would never admit this unless he became incredibly desperate (and he does, so watch out). He also perfects that stony stare you get from some NFL star turned actor, and his funniest moments come when he reacts honestly to just how stupid this Miata-driving explosive expert truly is. Other actors would have overplayed this role, but Phillippe doesn’t thank goodness.

Kristin Wiig reprises her role as MacGruber’s assistant, Vicki St. Elmo. She is great as always, and MacGruber keeps stupidly putting her in such thoughtless situations where her life is in constant mortal danger. The scene in the coffee shop where she is disguised as MacGruber is nothing short of hilarious as she shivers in utter terror, having no clue what to do if things go bad. Still, you want to see Vicki get together with this clueless idiot because giving up this line of work for her music doesn’t make much sense, and this is especially the case when you listen to the songs she wrote.

Then you have Val Kilmer on board as the evil Dieter Von Cunth , and he gets to act all unhinged and crazy in a way he has not for some time. We know the only way MacGruber can defeat Cunth is through sheer luck, and Kilmer’s rubs in his character’s smug intelligence which he has in spades over this heroic douche bag. This represented a comeback for the actor, but it was sadly cut short due to his continuing battle against throat cancer.

“MacGruber” was directed by Jorma Taccone, one third of the Lonely Island comedy troupe which is responsible for all the “SNL Digital Shorts.” I was also surprised to learn he is actually the son of Tony Taccone, the former Artistic Director of Berkeley Repertory Theater. If you are ever in Northern California, be sure to check out a show there as they continue to challenge their audiences as much as entertain them. Anyway, Jorma keeps the proceedings going at a good pace, and he never lets the movie drag during its running time. While he doesn’t do anything groundbreaking with this movie or its formula driven plot, he does succeed in making this kind of satire feel fresh again. This genre has been so burnt out that we’re lucky if anything works as well as it does here.

The audience I saw “MacGruber” with at Grauman’s Chinese treated the whole thing like a rock concert, cheering when the title character first appeared on screen. It was a great crowd to experience this movie with, so it was surprising and depressing it got such a lackluster reception during its opening weekend. Even with competition from “Robin Hood,” “Iron Man 2,” and even “Shrek Forever After,” I figured it would still make a sizable dent at the box office. Still, it did eventually find its audience years later.

“MacGruber” is by no means a classic, and it is far from original, but it is certainly above average for this kind of movie. Saying it is the best SNL movie in years is faint praise. If you’re looking for a terrific comedy which emanated from the classic late-night show, then this is one you should check out. Even if you never laughed much at the skit on SNL, this movie will give you several belly laughs which we all live for. Just be sure not to eat any celery before you see it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Tom Cruise Flys High Again in First Trailer for ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

The thought of a “Top Gun” sequel was laughable years ago as Tom Cruise had little reason to do a sequel to any of his films. Seriously, it seemed as likely as him doing a sequel to “Cocktail” which, while a big hit at the box office, was not exactly a critical darling. But in recent years, any movie he stars in which doesn’t have “Mission: Impossible” in its title has failed to make much of a dent at the box office, and perhaps this is why he has chosen to finally revisit his superstar-making role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell 34 years after the original was released. Whatever the case, its first trailer honestly has me very excited for it.

From this trailer, we learn Maverick is still a Captain instead of a military general, meaning he is still unsafe and quite dangerous in the cockpit of an airplane. Whereas James Tolkan chewed him out in the original, another bald military general played by Ed Harris (give this man an Oscar already!) berates him for not allowing himself to get promoted. When we finally get our first look at Cruise here, it looks as though he hasn’t aged much since 1986, and he still has that shit-eating grin which drives everyone crazy in ways both good and bad.

What struck me most about this “Top Gun: Maverick” trailer was its flight scenes as director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed Cruise in “Oblivion,” makes us feel like we are in the cockpit with Maverick as he takes off from an aircraft carrier in the middle of an ocean. This reminded me of how exhilarating the flight sequences from the first “Top Gun” were, and this sequel looks to have even more of them.

From there, we get glimpses of characters such as Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of the late Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), and he looks to be as buff and as musical as Cruise, Edwards, Val Kilmer and Rick Rossovich were in the original. Yes, there looks to be another volleyball game in store for us in which we discover how the men look without their t-shirts on.

We also see glimpses of Jennifer Connelly as Maverick’s love interest who is said to be a single mother and the owner of a bar. My guess is Kelly McGillis does not appear in this sequel as she seems determined to remain retired from acting.

Val Kilmer is also set to return as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, but we do not see him in this trailer. I read somewhere that his Iceman is now a Vice Admiral, and I’m guessing he will still be teasing Maverick about who is going to be whose wingman.

I am also gratified to know Harold Faltermeyer is back to score this sequel, and he will be doing so along with the great Hans Zimmer. You can hear Faltermeyer’s score throughout this trailer, and it is an immediate reminder of how much it drove the action and emotion of “Top Gun” back in 1986. I can already see myself buying the soundtrack to this sequel when it arrives in theaters in the summer of 2020. Heck, I might buy the soundtrack before this sequel is released.

That’s the other thing; “Top Gun: Maverick” is being released in 2020, exactly one year from now. I know Hollywood is always serious about securing release dates for movies way ahead of time, but showing us trailers for movies which will not be released for another 12 months seems unnecessarily torturous. Remember when we got the first trailer for “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions?” It got audiences excited as hell and yelling out with joy as soon as those green digits started descending from the top of the silver screen. This was back in 2002 when the trailer was shown before “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” and it ended with “2003” on the screen. As thrilled as we were with the continuation of “The Matrix” franchise, seeing the date of when the first sequel was to be released had us groaning in frustration all too loudly.

At least here, Paramount Pictures tells us “Top Gun: Maverick” will be coming out in 2020 in the middle of the trailer instead of at the end of it. After all these years, Hollywood has remembered they can tease audiences only so much before foolishly risking our wrath.

“Top Gun” may have received mixed reviews upon its release as the aerial footage proved to be more exciting than when the characters were on the ground, but damn it was an entertaining flick. A nice wave of nostalgia passed over me as I watched this first trailer for “Top Gun: Maverick,” and I patiently await its release next summer. And who knows, maybe Quentin Tarantino will come up with another memorable examination of how this sequel depicts a man’s continuing struggle with his homosexuality just as he did previously in “Sleep with Me.”

Please check out the trailer above.

Top Gun Maverick teaser poster