Review: ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ starring Tom Cruise

May 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Miles Teller and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the action film “Top Gun: Maverick” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: U.S. Navy Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell returns to the TOPGUN aviator program, where he reluctantly becomes an instructor for new recruits, including a man who blames Maverick for damaging his career and causing his father’s death. 

Culture Audience: “Top Gun: Maverick” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Tom Cruise, 1986’s “Top Gun” and any formulaic action sequel that is a virtual copy of its predecessor.

Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Top Gun: Maverick” is an uninspired, outdated retread of 1986’s “Top Gun,” but with more implausible scenarios and with no women in military leadership positions. Even the original songs in this sequel are forgettable. While “Top Gun: Maverick” has more racial diversity than the first “Top Gun” movie, the people of color in the movie are still relegated to “sidekick” and forgettable roles. “Top Gun: Maverick” makes the same mistake that a lot of sequels do: Copying the same plot as the first movie without improving it.

What makes this mistake less acceptable is that “Top Gun: Maverick” has arrived 36 years after the release of the first “Top Gun” movie. That’s plenty of time to think up ways to take the movie in innovative and clever directions. (By contrast, Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps things fresh with stories and action scenes that are unique to each movie.) Directed by Joseph Kosinski, “Top Gun: Maverick” was originally supposed to be released in 2019, but it was delayed multiple times because of post-production issues, the COVID-19 pandemic and other reasons. The movie was filmed before the pandemic.

A sequel should have familiar elements of its predecessor. It doesn’t mean that a sequel should rehash a predecessor’s plot. Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie wrote the formulaic and disappointing screenplay for “Top Gun: Maverick,” which essentially regurgitates the same story in “Top Gun.”

Both movies are about the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. This elite school is nicknamed TOPGUN. Both movies are about a hotshot young TOPGUN school airplane pilot clashing with an arrogant rival classmate while being haunted by the death of a loved one and facing a big challenge in the training program.

In “Top Gun,” Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell character (played by Tom Cruise) was the hotshot student. In “Top Gun: Maverick,” he’s the main TOPGUN instructor, who has to teach his group of TOPGUN graduates how to fight in a secretive government mission targeting an unsanctioned uranium nuclear plant. In a case of history repeating itself, “Top Gun: Maverick” also has a funeral scene when someone close to Maverick dies.

Eddie Murphy’s horrible 2021 comedy Coming 2 America (the long-awaited sequel to 1988’s “Coming to America”) made the same mistake of lazily copying the same basic plot of its predecessor and trying to make the story look new by introducing a younger generation of new characters. “Coming 2 America” had even worse results, because of the movie’s awful racism and sexism, including making a joke out of an African American woman getting pregnant after she drugged and raped a man. “Top Gun: Maverick” isn’t as offensively bad as “Coming 2 America,” but the movie still has a “stuck in the 1980s” mindset that looks out of place in a movie that’s supposed to take place in the 21st century.

The first “Top Gun” movie (directed by Tony Scott, who died in 2012, at the age of 68) had only two or three people of color in the entire movie. They were African American men who were mostly put in the background. Only one of the African American men was allowed to speak in the movie, and he was literally given just two minor sentences to say. “Top Gun” was written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.

To its credit, “Top Gun: Maverick” has a lot more racial diversity in its cast. There are some African American and Latino characters who say more than a few sentences, but their personalities are very hollow and generic. Needless to say, the people of color in “Top Gun” Maverick” do not get backstories or a significant storyline in the movie.

“Top Gun: Maverick” also falters in its depiction of women, who are once again made into token characters. But in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the depiction of the women goes in a backwards direction, because there are no women shown in positions of power in the U.S. miliary or in the TOPGUN training program. Women have come a long way in the U.S. military since 1986, but you’d never know it from watching “Top Gun: Maverick,” which puts only men in military leadership positions.

At least in “Top Gun,” one of the main characters was an intelligent woman in a position of power, even though she was still a token: Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (played by Kelly McGillis), a civilian and an astrophysicist, who was an instructor in the TOPGUN program. Charlie and Maverick became romantically involved with each other. The movie realistically shows that Charlie was conflicted about this relationship because of how it might compromise her professional judgment and reputation. McGillis shared top billing with Cruise in “Top Gun.” In “Top Gun: Maverick,” Cruise is one of the movie’s producers, and he’s the only star who gets top billing.

The only other woman in “Top Gun” who had a significant speaking role (but got a lot less screen time than Charlie) was bubbly and outgoing Carole Bradshaw (played by Meg Ryan), the wife of Lieutenant Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (played by Anthony Edwards), who was Maverick’s best friend and Radar Intercept Officer, also known as a “wingman.” Carole and Goose have a son, who’s about 5 or 6 years old in the movie. In “Top Gun,” Goose died in a tragic accident during a training session with Maverick as the pilot. Maverick was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he’s been guilt-ridden about Goose’s death ever since.

Charlie and Carole are not in “Top Gun: Maverick” because these female characters weren’t even considered for this sequel, according to interviews that director Kosinski has given about the movie. Charlie is not mentioned in “Top Gun: Maverick.” Carole is briefly mentioned because she’s dead, having passed away for an untold number of years before this story takes place. In other words, the “Top Gun: Maverick” filmmakers killed off the Carole Bradshaw character.

In “Top Gun: Maverick,” the son of Goose and Carole is all grown up now. And just like his father, he’s a U.S. Navy lieutenant who’s now a trainee in the TOPGUN program. His name is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (played by Miles Teller), and he’s got a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove because he’s living in the shadow of his dead father, who was considered a military hero. If those “daddy issues” sound familiar, it’s exactly what Maverick was going through when he went through the TOPGUN training program. Maverick’s high-ranking U.S. Navy father was on a top-secret government mission when he went missing and is presumed dead.

Rooster knows that Maverick was not responsible for Goose’s death, but Rooster still has hard feelings toward Maverick over his father’s untimely passing. Rooster also resents Maverick because Maverick blocked Rooster from getting into the U.S. Naval Academy. Unbeknownst to Rooster, Maverick did so at the request of Rooster’s mother Carole, who didn’t want Rooster to be in the military. It was only after Carole died that Rooster was able to enroll in the U.S. Naval Academy.

In the beginning of “Top Gun: Maverick,” Maverick still has the ranking of captain. It’s explained that he has not been promoted for all these years because he has a tendency to be rebellious and reckless. However, the U.S. Navy has kept him on as a test pilot because of his extraordinary pilot skills. It’s mentioned in the movie that’s he’s the only pilot in the U.S. Navy to shoot down 30 enemy planes.

Maverick is considered a dinosaur relic from a bygone era by several high-ranking people in the U.S. Navy. Some of those people think he needs to be honorably discharged, but Maverick loves his military job too much to leave, and he is being protected by Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (played by Val Kilmer), who has a small supporting role in “Top Gun: Maverick.” As shown in the first “Top Gun” movie, Iceman (also played by Kilmer) was Maverick’s biggest rival in the TOPGUN program. However, they eventually became friends with deep respect for each other.

In California’s Mohave Desert, Maverick is part of a program that is being shut down because it hasn’t met Mach 10 standards. Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (played by Ed Harris) is coming to the naval base for the official cancellation of the program. To embarrass him, Maverick takes a plane in the air, and not only hits the Mach 10 target, but he also exceeds it. But by doing so, he ends up flaming out, but how Maverick lands the plane is never shown. All that’s shown is that he comes back looking dirty and disheveled, without any injuries.

This unauthorized use of a military plane for a showoff stunt would be grounds for serious disciplinary action in the real world. But in this make-believe world where Maverick is supposed to be a roguish hero, time and time again, he gets let off the hook for his flagrant insubordination. Hammer tells Maverick with begrudging respect, “You’ve got some balls, stick jockey. I’ll give you that.” Get used to hokey dialogue like this in “Top Gun: Maverick,” because the movie is full of it.

Now that Maverick’s program has been shuttered, he’s been assigned to do something he doesn’t want to do: Go back to the TOPGUN program in San Diego to be an instructor. Maverick is one of those people who believes in that old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” In other words, he thinks this teaching job is for someone who’s a has-been or a never-was, who doesn’t have what it takes to currently be a pilot.

Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (played by Jon Hamm) is one of the Navy officials who is gunning for Maverick to leave the Navy. He even says as much, when he tells Maverick: “The future is coming, and you’re not in it.” Cyclone has a sidekick named Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates (played by Charles Parnell), who doesn’t do much but be in the same room as Cyclone and go along with almost everything that Cyclone says. However, Warlock has a few moments where he shows that he’s really rooting for Maverick. The same goes for Warrant Officer-1 Bernie “Hondo” Coleman (played by Bashir Salahuddin), who makes some bland wisecracks during the movie.

Maverick has to choose six of his 12 students to go on the secret mission to disable the uranium plant, which is set to activate in about three weeks. Predictably, Rooster and Maverick clash with each other. At one point, Rooster yells at Maverick: “My dad believed in you. I’m not going to make the same mistake!”

More than once in the movie, Maverick tells his trainees to ignore what they were taught in the Navy’s rulebook, and he says some variation of “Don’t think, just do” He expects them to not overthink things and to trust their instincts. Of course, in Maverick’s lectures about not following what authority figures say, he thinks he’s the exception, because he wants to be the only authority figure who must be obeyed in this program.

In addition to Rooster, the other students in the program include Rooster’s smirking, cocky rival Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin (played by Glen Powell), whose personality is a virtual replica of how Iceman was in the first “Top Gun” movie. Hangman tries to find emotional weakness in Rooster to have a competitive advantage. When Hangman discovers Rooster’s “daddy issues” and why Rooster has tensions with Maverick, it leads to the inevitable fist fight between Hangman and Rooster.

The token woman in this group of chosen trainees is Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix”
Trace (played by Monica Barbaro), who doesn’t have much of a personality, except trying to fit in with the guys. Lieutenant Robert “Bob” Floyd (played by Lewis Pullman) has the role of the nerd who’s somewhat of social outcast in this competitive group. Bob gets teased because he hasn’t thought up a flashy nickname, also known as a call sign, like all the other TOPGUN aviators.

The other trainees do not have distinguishable personalities and are given very trite dialogue. They include Lieutenant Reuben “Payback” Fitch (played by Jay Ellis); Lieutenant Mickey “Fanboy” Garcia (played by Danny Ramirez); and Lt. Javy “Coyote” Machado (played by Greg Tarzan Davis). Most viewers of “Top Gun: Maverick” will have a hard time remembering these three characters’ names and what they said by the time the movie is over.

Unlike the first “Top Gun” movie, which showed the male trainees carousing at bars and trying to pick up women, the trainees in “Top Gun” are a much tamer crew. When they go to a bar, they gather around a piano and sing Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” with Rooster playing the piano. Maverick sees this camaraderie, and it triggers him to have a flashback memory to when he, Goose and other TOPGUN trainees did the same thing, with Goose’s young son sitting nearby for the sing-along. (This scene from “Top Gun” is shown as a flashback.)

Speaking of bars where these TOPGUN people hang out, the main bar they go to is The Hard Deck aviators’ club. It just happens to be owned and bartended by Penny Benjamin (played by Jennifer Connelly), who is the daughter of a U.S. Navy admiral. Penny was briefly mentioned, but never seen, in the first “Top Gun” movie as one of the many conquests whom ladies’ man Maverick got sexually involved with and then dumped.

Penny is now a divorced mother to a daughter named Amelia Benjamin (played by Lyliana Wray), who’s about 13 or 14 years old. Penny’s ex-husband, who is never seen in “Top Gun: Maverick,” has remarried and is living in Hawaii. It’s implied that never-married bachelor Maverick and Penny have had an on-again/off-again relationship, where Maverick left her heartbroken because he ended things with her every time. When Penny sees Maverick again all these years later, she predictably gives him a hard time for breaking up with her.

But just as predictably, she eventually lets him back into her life, and they rekindle their romance. Maverick and Penny look good together as a couple, but they don’t generate as much romantic heat as Maverick had with Charlie. Although Penny is a business owner, her role is essentially to be a generic love interest who follows Maverick’s lead when he courts her and succeeds in winning a place back into her heart.

Penny initially wants to keep this rekindled romance a secret from her daughter Amelia, who inevitably finds out anyway. Even after it’s no longer a secret, Maverick doesn’t spend any quality time with Amelia, which he would care about doing if he’s serious about a relationship with Penny. That’s why Maverick’s level of commitment to Penny is questionable, no matter how many “romantic” scenes are shown of Penny riding with Maverick on the back of his motorcycle. This scenario of Maverick giving his love interest a motorcycle ride is also recycled from the first “Top Gun” movie.

“Top Gun: Maverick” delivers when it comes to the airplane action scenes (with the F/A-18 being the airplane of choice), but too much of the movie is tediously predictable recycling of plot points and scenes from the first “Top Gun” movie. The scene of Maverick on a motorcycle while playfully racing a soaring fighter plane is recreated. It’s in the movie for pure nostalgia reasons for people who saw the first “Top Gun” movie.

Another recycled scene takes place at a beach where the TOPGUN aviators are playing a sports game together in their free time. In “Top Gun,” it was volleyball. In “Top Gun: Maverick,” it’s touch football. This beach frolicking scene only seems to be in the movie so that Cruise and the other men can be shirtless and show off their toned physiques. Even the closing credits scene is styled exactly like the first “Top Gun” movie.

One of the highlights of “Top Gun: Maverick” is a poignant scene between Maverick and Iceman, who is battling throat cancer, just Kilmer is in real life. However, “Top Gun: Maverick” ends up being marred by too many unrealistic scenarios. There’s even more disregard of real-life U.S. military protocol than what was in the first “Top Gun” movie. Maverick does things that would get him dishonorably discharged in the real world—but of course he doesn’t get discharged, because this is a Tom Cruise movie. And the ending of “Top Gun: Maverick” is even more cornball than the ending of the first “Top Gun” movie.

The “Top Gun” soundtrack was the biggest-selling soundtrack of 1986. And it’s easy to know why. People who’ve seen the first “Top Gun” movie know how the music was used to great effect. Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” song fueled a high-energy scene early in the movie. Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” memorably played during a romantic scene between Charlie and Maverick on the night that they became lovers. Those two signature “Top Gun” songs were instant classics that stayed in viewers’ minds long after seeing the movie. Although “Top Gun” got some criticism for being filmed almost like a music video, there’s no denying that the movie’s music was one of its biggest assets.

Unfortunately, “Top Gun: Maverick” has an utterly mediocre soundtrack, with songs that have been used in many other movies, such as Foghat’s “Slow Ride” and T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” There’s nothing wrong with these tunes, but they’re overplayed in too many other places. And because “Top Gun: Maverick” is a movie of rehashes, “Danger Zone” also makes a reappearance. The original soundtrack songs on “Top Gun: Maverick,” such as Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand,” won’t be winning any Oscars, like Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.”

Viewers who will enjoy “Top Gun” the most are those who want to see a superficial recreation of the first “Top Gun” movie. But for other people who know that “Top Gun: Maverick” could have been a lot better, the movie falls short in coming up with any major story arc that would be truly original and daring for this sequel. The performances in “Top Gun Maverick” aren’t terrible, but they aren’t that special either. In the end, “Top Gun: Maverick,” just like its main character, is stuck in a rut of reliving past glories, and ends up having more swagger and posturing than any real substance.

Paramount Pictures will release “Top Gun: Maverick” in U.S. cinemas on May 27, 2022.

Review: ‘No Exit,’ starring Havana Rose Liu, Dennis Haysbert, Dale Dickey, Danny Ramirez, David Rysdahl and Mila Harris

February 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Havana Rose Liu in “No Exit” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“No Exit” (2022)

Directed by Damien Power

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the dramatic film “No Exit” features a racially diverse group of characters (white, Asian, African American and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: During a blizzard that has caused road blockages and closures, a young woman finds herself trapped in a visitor center shelter with four strangers, when she finds out that a van owned by one of the strangers has a kidnapped girl inside.

Culture Audience: “No Exit” will appeal mainly to people who like any suspense thriller, no matter how idiotic the plot gets.

Havana Rose Liu in “No Exit” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“No Exit” is an apt description for how this mystery thriller gets trapped in its own stupidity. It starts off suspenseful and then it takes a steep nosedive into illogical nonsense. There’s a long stretch of the film, which takes place during a snow blizzard, where the criminal element in the movie frantically struggles to get access to a car to make an escape. Meanwhile, the filmmakers are expecting viewers to forget that the entire point of the movie is that all the movie’s characters who are trapped in the blizzard know that the blizzard has caused the roads to blocked, with police guarding the roadblocks, and an escape isn’t really possible.

It’s not spoiler information to reveal that “No Exit” is about a serious crime that’s been committed, and whoever has committed this crime is in a small group of people at a visitor center shelter during this blizzard. The movie’s protagonist decides she’s going to be a one-woman police force to solve the mystery and get justice for this crime. Directed by Damien Power, “No Exit” was written by Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari. The movie’s screenplay is based on Taylor Adams’ 2017 novel of the same name. Even though some of the cast members give good performances, the entire movie has a flawed premise that’s poorly executed in the last half of the film.

“No Exit” begins with protagonist Darby (played by Havana Rose Liu) looking bored and emotionally disconnected in a drug rehab center somewhere in California. (“No Exit” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) Darby is in her early 20s, and she’s in court-ordered rehab for a crime that is not mentioned in the movie. Through conversations in the movie, it’s revealed that Darby has been in rehab or tried to get clean and sober seven times already in her life.

During a rehab group meeting, Darby is told that she has an emergency phone call. When she takes the call, she finds out from her uncle Joe (voiced by David Chen) that her widowed mother has had a brain aneurysm and is in a hospital in Utah. Darby’s mother is scheduled to get a brain operation, but it’s a risky procedure. The medical diagnosis is that Darby’s mother might not have much longer to live.

Darby is estranged from the two family members who know her the best: her mother and Darby’s older sister Devon. And despite Darby’s pleas to make a phone call for this emergency, she’s denied this request by her rehab group leader Dr. Bill Fletcher (played by James Gaylyn) because it’s the rehab center’s rule that patients can’t make outgoing phone calls. Any incoming phone call for a patient has to be an emergency, and the call is monitored by the rehab center staff.

But this obstacle isn’t enough to stop Darby. She borrows a cell phone that was snuck in by another rehab patient, whose name is Jade (played by Nomi Cohen). Jade and Darby don’t like each other, but Jade reluctantly agrees to let Darby use her phone because Darby threatens to tell the rehab officials that Jade broke the rules by sneaking in a cell phone.

Darby uses the phone to call Devon (played by Lisa Zhang), who tells Darby in no uncertain terms that she’s doesn’t want Darby to contact her or visit their mother. Darby says she’s going to find a way to visit. Devon abruptly and angrily tells Darby, “I don’t have time for your bullshit. Don’t call me back!”

This rejection still doesn’t stop Darby. In broad daylight, she sneaks out of the rehab center to steal the car of an orderly named Mike (played by Nick Davies), nicknamed Mikey, who seemed to take pleasure in denying Darby any phone privileges. Darby has also stolen Jade’s phone. Darby’s plan is to take the stolen car and drive to Utah to see her mother. But this trip comes at a very bad time because she isn’t on the road for long when a blizzard hits while she’s in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

One of the first things that Darby found in Mike’s car was a small packet of cocaine hidden in the driver’s window shade. The movie plays guessing games with viewers over whether or not Darby will relapse by using this cocaine. Darby describes her drug addiction as being willing to do any drug that comes her way.

During this blizzard, Darby gets text messages from Devon that say, “Mom doesn’t want you here.” “You’ll only make it worse.” “Don’t come.” Darby is still undeterred. She pulls over on a road to get some sleep, and she has a nightmare that people outside the car are trying to get her. She wakes up to a state trooper named Ron Hill (played by Benedict Wall), who finds out why she’s traveling during a blizzard.

He tells Darby that the only road leading to Utah is closed, and she has one of two choices: She can either reverse and go back to where she came from, or she can stay at a visitor’s center a few hundred yards away. The center is being used as a temporary shelter during the storm. The trooper also mentions that some other travelers are already at the shelter.

Darby decides to go to the shelter. Inside, there are four other strangers. Ed (played by Dennis Haysbert) is a former U.S. Marine who served in Operation Desert Storm. Ed’s wife is Sandi (played by Dale Dickey), a former nurse who met Ed when she was working at a Veterans Administration hospital. This middle-aged couple is traveling to Reno, Nevada, to do some gambling. Rose and Ed are immediately friendly and welcoming to Darby.

The other two people in the shelter are men in their 20s: Lars (played by David Rysdahl) is introverted and eccentric. He’s the type of person who talks to himself out loud when other people are around. Ash (played by Danny Ramirez) is talkative and a little flirtatious with Darby. He can also be crude and insensitive. Darby and the other four people in the shelter make small talk as they get to know each other.

No one in the shelter can get any cell phone service or WiFi service because of the blizzard and because of where they are in this remote mountain area. Still, Darby occasionally goes outside the shelter near the parking lot to see if her phone can pick up a signal. It’s during one of her trips outdoors when Darby is alarmed to see a hand and noises coming from a van parked outside.

She goes inside the van and finds a kidnapped girl, who’s about 9 or 10 years old. The girl is bound and gagged and desperate to escape. However, Darby knows that she can’t use her phone to get help, so she tells the girl that she will help her, but she has to be patient. Darby later finds out that the girl’s name is Jay (played by Mila Harris), as well as more things about who Jay is and why she was kidnapped.

Feeling trapped and helpless, Darby goes back into the shelter and acts like nothing is wrong, in order to figure out who’s the driver of the van. Before she went back into the shelter, Darby noticed that the van has Nevada license plates. The rest of the movie is a ridiculous cat-and-mouse game where Darby tries to solve the mystery and get help for the kidnapped girl without getting caught by whoever is responsible for the abduction. It’s this second half of the movie that unveils some twists and turns, with each becoming more ludicrous as times goes on.

“No Exit” has so many bad decisions, not just with the characters, but also with how the filmmakers staged everything to look so phony in the latter half of the movie. As the flawed hero Darby, Liu does her best to try to make everything in this moronic film believable, but the movie completely buries any credibility with some of the stupid plot twists, just like the blizzard in this movie buries things in the snow. The rest of the cast members are fairly solid in their roles, except for Ramirez, whose performance becomes campier as the story devolves into an irredeemable mess. You know a movie is bad when it’s called “No Exit,” but everything that happens in the last half of the movie is as if the reason for this movie’s title doesn’t exist.

Hulu premiered “No Exit” on February 25, 2022.

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