Supposedly based on a true story about the first American born drug lord to operate out of Mexico, American Sicario opens with Erik Vasquez (Philippe A Haddad) - drug lord to be - working for the Feliz Family - Roberto (Maurice Compte) and his brother Juan (Johnny Rey Diaz) - ensuring the safe passage of their drugs across the border into the USA. But Erik has bigger plans than being stuck as a henchman his whole life and, against the objections of Juan, convinces Roberto that he can double the quantity of their drugs being trafficked through a part of the border where the Drug Enforcement Agency is nowhere to be seen. Wrong! The DEA, in the guise of Agent Monica Wells (Maya Stojan) is on to Erik and are determined to make him play piggy in the middle.
But Erik figures he’s smart enough and determined enough to play both sides at the same time and moves ahead with his plans to take over the Feliz Family operations. Meanwhile, back at the ranch (or should I say hacienda?) Erik’s girlfriend, Gloria (Cali Morales) is pregnant, and her father Pedro (Danny Trejo) has decided to come and stay for the birth of his grandchild. The only trouble is, Erik and Pedro don’t exactly see eye to eye. Throw in some of the local Mexican constabulary who are showing an interest in Erik, the suggestion of disloyalty within Erik’s own crew and a whole lot of guns in the hands of everyone including Gloria, and you begin to see just how many ingredients make up this volatile recipe that is threatening to boil over at every turn.
Sicario is the Spanish word for assassin or hitman which doesn’t really apply to Erik, although, throughout the film, he does manage to amass a pretty impressive body count. But he’s not really a hit man so the title seems a bit out of place. For most movie goers, the word is associated with Denis Villeneuve’s very good 2015 movie that uses that title, or with Stefano Sollima’s lesser 2018 sequel (but probably not with the Venezuelan Sicario made in 1994 by Joseph Noboa). For me, the title American Sicario brought Villeneuve’s film to mind and as odious as comparisons are, this film is not in the same league as it; the writing, the direction and the performances – all solid in their own way – simply don’t have the complexity that the title evokes and certainly doesn’t have the same scale of budget. But to be fair, one should take a film on its own terms and in that sense, there’s still a lot to like about it.
First time feature film director R.J Collins and horror/thriller/action screenwriter Rich Ronat (While We Sleep) deliver some compelling character dilemmas and some engaging action sequences although the narrative generally offers nothing we haven’t seen before. Haddad (whose previous experience is mostly television and short films) is a real presence on the screen; he’s a big guy with a gregarious personality so the violence that erupts within him often takes up by surprise. His performance is nicely counterpointed by Compte as his ‘frenemy’ Roberto whose outbursts of violence come as no surprise at all.
Morales as Erik’s girlfriend Gloria is also very watchable, moving easily from affectionate lover to hard-arsed, no-nonsense killer, finding a really entertaining, compelling ambiguity that lets her stand on her own two feet in a film where the women (especially DEA Agent Wells) are scarce and mostly undeveloped. But none of them have the depth of character development to elevate them from the same sorts of cyphers that we always find in this kind of movie.
The real disappointment, though, is Danny Trejo who is mostly wasted on the sidelines of the story. For a good two thirds of the movie, we’re itching for him to get up from the table and cut loose with a bit of good old Machete action but, sadly, even when he answers the call to action his character Pedro is unremarkable in the way he lends his trigger finger to Erik and the other good-bad-guys’ in their fight with the bad-good-guys and the bad-bad-guys. It’s hard not to see this kind of casting as serving the marketing campaign more than the character and the narrative of the film.
Where the story runs aground is in the tail end of the third act. No spoilers here, but there’s a marked shift in the tone and pace of the film that, far from delivering the kind of final scenes we might be hoping for, ends not with a bang but a whimper. At this point it might have the potential to pull a tragedy out of its sleeve but, unfortunately, there’s no such luck. If, indeed, this is based on a true story, maybe the end remains faithful to that truth at the expense of the drama. Nevertheless, despite its third act problems, the film has a stylish look and Collins finds a real energy in many of the action sequences which are mostly well staged.
It’s nicely shot by cinematographer Pascal Combes-Knoke and Scott Adderton’s editing gives the film a good pace and some nice narrative counterpoints. It’s not a film that will change the genre and, allowing for its struggle to get out from under the idea that it’s a ‘Sicario’ movie, or its strong themes of family and loyalty that too often end up feeling like pale echoes of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), it’s an entertaining and sometimes fun hundred and one minutes that hopefully won’t have you reaching for the remote.
2022 | DIR: VIKTOR GLUKHUSHIN & MAKSIM VOLKKOV | STARRING: PAULY SHORE, HAYLIE DUFF, JON HEDER | REVIEW BY GLENN COCHRANE.
MY SWEET MONSTER is an all-new animated feature film from Russia, which comes to us with an English-speaking cast including comedy favourite Pauly Shore (Encino Man), Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and Haylie Duff (also Napoleon Dynamite).
If ever there were an appropriate application to the word 'fantasy' this is it. Nothing on the screen makes practical sense, and yet the creators have crammed together an assortment of ideas into a jar, proverbially shaken it up, and spilled the strangely absorbing contents into our laps. Most of the characters dress from the Victorian era, while some get around on 1950's motorcycles, and others use futuristic drone technology. Robots serve on royals like a bizarre steam-punk-inspired fable, and mythical creatures roam the forests. All in the service of a fun family movie.
Princess Barbara (Duff) is tricked into an arranged marriage to an arrogant and evil postal worker named Bundy (Shore), who has cast the king under his spell (yeah, just go with it), and when the wedding is thrust upon her without warning, she leaps onto her horse and rides away into the woods. There she meets up with an odd beast named Boogey (Heder), whose appearance is that of various combined creatures (in other words, he looks like a pre-schooler's drawing of a monster). Think Shrek meets Wreck it Ralph, with a touch of Disney's Beast. He is the King of the Forest and protects all of the creatures within it, and with his help – and a cute bunny named Rabbit – Princess Barabara sets about freeing her father from Bundy's control and reclaiming the kingdom.
It's all very convoluted and difficult to explain, but for all of its oddities, MY SWEET MONSTER works rather well. It certainly takes many cues from American films, like Shrek and Hoodwinked, but it also has a charm of its own. The characters are unusual, and the crockpot of aesthetics makes for a surreal experience, while the English-speaking cast of voices do a surprisingly good job of it. Pauly Shore invests a lot of energy into bringing the villainous Bundy to life, and he contorts his voice in some weird and wonderful ways.
Perhaps the most charming quality of the movie is the music, of which there is plenty. The songs are catchy, and in stark contrast to the bigger Hollywood animated films, the actors sing with all of their patchy, almost tone-deaf sincerity. Pauly Shore is particularly delightful, applying his trademark 'Weasel' voice to several songs, including a fantastic hip-hop-inspired number called Live Life to the Fullest.
MY SWEET MONSTER may not be a big-budget razzle and dazzle like its Hollywood contemporaries, but it is a sweet and inspired extravaganza of its own, which makes for fun family entertainment during the school holidays.
Now playing in selected cinemas.
Have you ever been to a horror house and wondered if the dripping blood was real? Or maybe that skull was the first employee to have slacked off. Writer/director Jon Binkowski ponders those questions and makes them a reality in SCARE ZONE.
Just as new employee Daryl (Burns), starts working at Oliver’s (Needham) horror house, Scare Zone, the employees of the venue go missing one by one, with a sinister figure lurking behind every corner. Is it a part of the show or something more disturbing?
SCARE ZONE is a nostalgic romp, harking back to teen movies of the noughties, such as American Pie and Van Wilder, where teenagers partied hard and awkwardly navigated their way into adulthood. The movie provides this and more, with a murder mystery plot that is fast-paced, creative and engaging to the end.
The aforementioned mystery component of the film is a fun motif despite its predictability, and the various red herrings are also amusing nevertheless. The noughties tropes are also a welcome ingredient, with frat-boys, ditzy girls, goth chicks and geeks offering a throwback for a specific generation who wreaked havoc during the early 2000s.
The music offers more appeal with its distinct alternative stylings, providing an effective soundscape to underpin the horror. Furthermore, Binkowski has created a film with solid production value, filmed on the Universal Horror House lot, with impressive practical special effects.
One issue with the film, however, involves character subtext that comes across as intentionally provocative, and perhaps insensitive to some vulnerable viewers. And without revealing any spoilers, the story leans on depression and mental illness as a motive for various criminal acts.
While it could be argued that the finale is rushed, the film does offer a rewarding payoff with a cheeky final twist that will have some viewers kicking themselves for succumbing to many of the red herrings.
Suffice to say that SCARE ZONE is a well-paced horror that should keep viewers on their toes. It's chock-full of laughs, jump-scared and plenty of kills. The story is creative and clever and is well worth a look. Available on the Tubi streaming service.
Note: Scare Zone's worldwide release is 2022, however its production dates back to 2009.
The ever-glittering creative colossal that is Baz Luhrmann, emanates his newest instalment, simply titled ELVIS, and is there really any need for more? Elvis, the legend, can hold a movie on his name alone, so how do you match his grandeur and status? Ask Baz Luhrmann.
Like being slapped and having glitter thrown in your face, ELVIS begins laying down its rules fast. The cinematography is like being whisked through the tornado with Dorothy, and while it does thematically make sense, in the beginning, it is so fast-paced and jarring that it's hard to know where Elvis’s story began. Similar to the styling of Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet (1996), its fast-paced and edgy visual storytelling adds to the drama and the heightened reality of Luhrmann’s Elvis.
Luhrmann is an auteur; he has a specific aesthetic and theatrical style of filmmaking, which wouldn’t ordinarily lend itself to some stories. However, for ELVIS he chose a comic book theme that portrays Colonel Tom Parker as the evil villain, and Elvis as the tragic hero. While it may not be accurate to how he was in real life, Tom Hanks played the villain archetype very well.
Austin Butler is incredible, and he carries this movie. He is so captivating, but also so… Elvis. Not in the way that he accurately depicted Elvis, but in the way that Elvis’s legacy is portrayed visually. While watching this, you will be transfixed and engaged until the very last scene, and Butler’s performance shone through Luhrmann and Catherine Martin’s theatrical and colourful production design. I felt myself looking at Elvis like those girls were in the movie (without the involuntary squealing).
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the music and soundtrack of the film. I was expecting it to be solely Elvis songs, but Elliot Wheeler modernises a majority of the soundtrack, particularly the blues music which influenced Elvis and informed his own sound. Luhrmann’s appreciation for blues music is also commendable and he utilises it effectively, marrying the classic and contemporary sounds perfectly, making ELVIS one of his best to date.
The story is heartfelt, exciting, and sexy. It does what should be done for such an icon in music. The flamboyant and unapologetic depiction of both Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker make ELVIS a cinematic experience. This is what cinema means to me. Luhrmann tells the story of Elvis the legend, whose star was brighter than life itself.
Two years ago, the world was shaken by the racially-charged murder of George Floyd. There was a revolutionary and visceral reaction to the injustice, but it was not the first time something like this had occurred. Institutionalised racism has obviously suffocated the United States of America throughout its history, and even though society pretends it’s something of the past, it clearly isn’t. There’s nothing more terrifying than how prominent unprovoked racist attacks are in the twenty-first century. Another horrific tragedy, similar to that of Floyd, occurred in 2011. THE KILLING OF KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN is the dramatic retelling of this story.
From executive producer Morgan Freeman, the film, told in real-time and based on audio recordings, chronicles the events leading up to the death of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr (Frankie Faison), an African-American man. Chamberlain is seventy years old, a former marine, and suffers from bipolar disorder as well as a heart condition. At 5.20am, Kenneth accidentally triggers his medical alarm while half-asleep, and three police officers are dispatched to check on him. Chamberlain is confused by their presence, as he didn’t mean to set off the alarm, and is afraid because of previous negative experiences with police. He insists there is no emergency, but the police won’t back down. By 7.00am, Chamberlain is dead.
The film is a brutal and difficult watch, but that is, by all means, the intention. It wants to anger and disturb its audience, which it succeeds in doing. What is so evident here is the helplessness of Chamberlain and the pure hatred and ego of the police. The three officers, Parks (Steve O’Connell), Jackson (Ben Marten) and Rossi (Enrico Natale), all have a part to play. Although Jackson is more overt with his bigotry, good-cop Rossi is overwhelmed by the power of his superiors, despite any good intentions.
From the get-go, it is evident that Chamberlain poses no threat. He is a confused and sick old man who just wants to be left in peace. The police clearly have their own preconceptions about people like Kenneth, made known when they comment on his run-down apartment building and the illegal activities he may be involved in. Their attitudes and power-trip push them to use excessive force against the harmless Chamberlain, to a point where it never should have gotten. What is also frightening is that Chamberlain isn’t alone. For a majority of the runtime, he is on the phone with the dispatcher from the medical company, as well as taking calls from concerned family. Outside in the stairwell, there are witnesses trying to negotiate with the police, including Chamberlain’s niece. Even united, they have no power over the police - or the system.
Faison is a veteran character actor and has been in the game for years and this is a career-defining moment for him. He is masterful as he expertly portrays Chamberlain’s spiral into confusion and disorientation, anger through his bulging bloodshot eyes, and fear with his quivering voice. He uses his physicality to effortlessly switch between a vulnerable old man and ex-marine father, composing himself as he assures his children that he’s okay.
Director David Midell may not have had a blockbuster budget, but it works in his favour. The single location instils tense claustrophobia, the handheld camera reiterates the chaos of the situation, and the tight runtime allows for events to unfold in real-time, which results in authentic storytelling. However, particularly during the film’s more climactic moments, the score becomes loud and overbearing to a point where it’s distracting. It’s not needed, as the other technical elements and performances are already doing a fine job of making our hearts pound.
THE KILLING OF KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN is an uncomfortable watch, and audiences will be grateful for the film’s taut runtime. The film showcases a powerful lead performance and serves as an irrefutable condemnation of police brutality.
Lunana is a remote village in Bhutan, a small country in the Eastern Himalayas. It is also the most remote village in the world, sitting at an altitude of 4,800 metres and a tiny population of 56. With solar panels as the only source of power, no connection to the outside world, and a heavy reliance on mother nature itself to survive, there is certainly nothing glamorous about the place. It is also the setting of Bhutan’s first Academy Award-nominated feature film, LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM.
Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) lives in the capital city of Bhutan with his grandmother (Tsheri Zom), and has a contract as a teacher working for the government. However, he is unmotivated in his profession and dreams of obtaining a visa to go to Australia and become a singer. Before he is able to do that, his government employers send him to Lunana to complete his teaching contract. This is no easy adjustment for Ugyen, who lives a Westernised and modern life in the city. Only accessible by horse and foot, the trek up to the village takes eight days and is physically gruelling. Ugyen is completely out of his element, with no wi-fi or electricity, limited supplies and a tiny classroom that doesn’t even have a blackboard.
Ugyen finds himself wanting to quit and go home, but the kind-hearted villagers welcome him with open arms, and the children are more than eager to learn - even knocking on his door when he doesn’t show up to class on time. Ugyen’s cynical and narrow-minded attitudes are challenged when he connects with his students and learns about their hardships. He begins to embrace and admire the spirituality of the villagers, and understand the importance of what he’s doing.
The film moves at a slow and steady pace in a way that is almost peaceful. Much like Ugyen, the audience is able to escape the rush and chaos of mainstream life, taking a moment to be still. Director Pawo Choyning Dorji has crafted a meditative experience, particularly through the film’s breathtaking cinematography. Actually shot in Lunana, the sweeping mountains, rich greenery and wispy clouds almost touching the ground are a sight to behold. Music also plays a key part in the film and adds to this sentiment, as Ugyen learns a traditional song from the village and connects with his students through the medium.
Through the protagonist’s struggles, Dorji is able to highlight the difference between city and rural life. As a result, there are some timely and touching messages about the beauty of slowing down and connecting to nature and spirituality. The villagers, particularly the children, are humbling to watch due to their resourcefulness and gratitude. It’s always satisfying to see a story that demonstrates the power of education and learning, and how so many young people take it for granted. What’s also astounding is the villagers in the film are real life highlanders. They had never acted, seen a movie or camera, or even used toothpaste - which they are taught to do in one particular scene.
As mentioned, the film was shot in the real-life remote village, which is another impressive feat within itself. Getting equipment and a whole crew up to that altitude certainly wouldn’t have been a walk in the park, as well as making a feature film with limited resources and no electricity.
LUNANA is an extraordinarily simple film, which also may be its downfall. While there’s a lot to admire and the relaxed pace suits the themes present, it’s not always enough to hold the audience’s attention. The film does what it intends to do, but never feels like it goes above and beyond, which is what it needs to leave a lasting emotional impact. Some more definitive conflict and turning points, especially with our main character, could have made this something really special and more memorable.
LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM is a sweet film with good intentions. However, rather than its plot, viewers will be touched by the window into a little-known culture and the fantastical wonder of Bhutan’s natural beauty.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is now playing in selected cinemas.
For fans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the notorious Piranha Brothers (Doug and Dinsdale) and their penchant for being cruel but fair in their practice of nailing their rivals’ heads to the coffee table were an instant and memorable hit when they were introduced to the world in episode one of the comedy show’s second season (1970). Of course, the characters were thinly veiled parodies of the real-life 50’s and 60’s East End criminals; identical twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, who were nowhere near as funny as the Python sketch. The mythology of their sociopathic, violent exploits that characterised their careers is well known but not necessarily understood, at least if you believe what Richard John Taylor’s documentary, The Krays: Gangsters Behind Bars has to say.
Centred around one long interview with occasional actor, YouTuber, podcaster and number one fan of Newcastle United, Steve Wraith, the doco offers a kind of side-view of the Krays that tempers the more commonly told and brutal story with an insider’s eye to the more human side of their lives. Revealing that they loved their mum, that they wouldn’t stand for or commit profanity in the presence of women and that they were more than willing to lend their notoriety to charity events for underprivileged children might sound like I’m still talking about the Pythons’ take on the twins, but that’s the story Steve Wraith has to tell, and it’s backed up by several other figures from their life and times.
As a high school kid struggling in English, Steve Wraith’s teacher allowed him to choose a book that appealed to him, rather than one from the curriculum. He chose a book on the Kray Brothers and that set him on a path that eventually resulted in a friendship with both Reggie and Ronnie, already incarcerated in separate prisons – first meeting Reggie in Maidstone Prison and then Ronnie in Broadmoor Prison Hospital where he was classified as insane. Later Steve also befriended the third brother, Charlie who was a mover and shaker on the outside (but also ended up in prison sometime later). As Steve unfolds his tale of many years of friendship with the Krays – not always amicable - we meet other figures who corroborate and extend the story he tells. These are geezers who often feel like they could be from the cast of an early Guy Ritchie film (although, it’s more likely that they’re the ones who gave Ritchie the idea). There’s also Maureen Flanagan, former page-three girl, once touted as the most photographed model in Britain (and, curiously, who made many BBC TV comedy appearances including Monty Python!). Now eighty, Flanagan’s entre to the Kray’s world was as the twin’s mother Violet’s hairdresser. She soon became close to all three boys and it’s her recollections that portray them as gentlemen with a kinder side to the cruelty and violence they are mostly defined by.
The most entertaining talking head, though, is former Kray’s enforcer and close confident, Dave Courtney who with his bling and big cigar looks like a Soprano’s henchman. He’s the one who, when Ronnie died in 1995, stood vigil in the funeral home to make sure that rivals with long held grudges didn’t desecrate the body. Courtney doesn’t mince words and it’s his perspective that puts forward the idea that the Krays were of their time – a time before the internet and mobile phones and ubiquitous surveillance. He’s pretty clear that crims like them wouldn’t survive for five minutes in the contemporary world. As he says, with the utmost affection, they were just a couple of dickheads.
The strong message that comes through from all these testimonials is, essentially, that crime doesn’t pay; that your infamous reputation and celebrity might live on, but it’s at the cost of living your life. These are voices of the Kray’s friends and acquaintances, hard men who’ve been inside or are still, inside. Perhaps the most poignant of these is the voice that begins and ends the documentary – Charles Bronson, supposedly Britain’s most violent and most notorious criminal (who was memorably played by Tom Hardy in Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2009 film of Bronson’s life). His appearance (plastered all over the promotional material as a key selling point) is audio only, but his soft-spoken memories of the Krays portray, if true, sincere friendship between men who are rarely thought of as being friendly.
Visually, this doco is unremarkable. It’s mostly static talking heads with many ‘filler’ images used more than once with gives the film a repetitive feel. There’s some good imagery of all three of the Kray boys but the film would benefit from a wider variety of archival footage. There is also a sense that some of the talking heads could be more tightly edited to build a stronger overall dynamic. Nevertheless, there is much to recommend this film which, in the end, succeeds off the back of those colourful and compelling characters who were part of the Kray’s world and lived to tell the tales.
Well, I didn’t expect that!
I must confess that Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986) never really did it for me. Unlike most of the rest of the world, I didn’t get off on the high-octane, testosterone-fuelled showcase for military hardware and beefcake. I struggled to find a coherent narrative that made sense, beyond the macho competitiveness between thinly drawn characters and the over-emphasis on the ’need for speed’ (although I will concede that the aerial photography and stunt flying was pretty impressive). And that song? Don’t get me started!
That’s why, when the trailer first came out for Top Gun: Maverick (was that really in 2019?) it was not high on my list of ‘must-see-must-review’ films for that year. Consequently, the five pandemic-postponements over the next three years were less of a disappointment to me and more of delaying of the inevitable: I mean, you have to see it, don’t you. So, with my mind prised open and my subjective, judgemental bias checked at the ticket box, me and my objectivity, along with some popcorn and a choc top, entered the cinema and took our seat. Wow!
I was so engrossed in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, that it took me that long to realise how much I was already enjoying the ride. It begins with a good old-fashioned action-thriller sequence of Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise), better known as ‘Maverick’, putting his courage, tenacity and self-belief (not to mention his physical safety) on the line to prove a point to the hard-nosed, stick-in-the-mud military whose not-so-hidden agendas are getting in the way of what Maverick and his team have set out to prove... that they can fly a new experimental plane really, really fast. It’s a classic set up and reminds us that, like Captain Kirk and the Kobayashi Ramu test in Star Trek (old, re-booted and recent editions), there’s always a human element that can’t be factored into the establishment’s formulaic parameters.
After getting chewed out for this stunt by Rear Admiral Chester ‘Hammer’ Cain (Ed Harris) Maverick seems destined to be grounded for good until Hammer is overruled by his superior – Admiral Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer) who has a sensitive top security mission that needs a hot shot pilot. But, no, Maverick isn’t that pilot. He’s heading back to NAS North Island in San Diego (better known to fans as Top Gun School) where his mission isn’t to fly the mission; it’s to train a handful of the top Top Gun graduates (the best of the best) so that they can fly the mission. And guess who’s in that elite group? None other than Lieutenant Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) whose death in Top Gun (sorry for the spoiler) provides one of the few genuinely emotional scenes in the original film and sets up the underlying emotional gravitas that fuels much of this one. Top Gun: Maverick is one of those movie conundrums where, for me at least, the sequel is a far better film than the original but only because of the way it makes use of character and narrative elements from its predecessor. And that points to the screenplay. It’s a cracker.
Obviously, our hero and a couple of other characters along with key backstory elements belong to the originators, Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. But there’s a new writing team which includes Ehern Kruger (writer of some not-great movies like Ghost in the Shell, Dumbo and three of the Transformers franchise), Eric Warren Singer (writer of some pretty good movies like The International and American Hustle) and maybe most importantly, Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects, as well as several films with Cruise including a few Mission Impossibles, Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow and –, dare I say it – The Mummy) all working from a story by Peter Craig (writer of some very good films like The Town and The Batman) and Justin Marks (creator of the very good TV series Counterpart).
Sometimes a litany of screenwriters is a red flag for trouble ahead, but in this case the mix seems to work. Our new team of ‘top guns’ is more diverse, more developed and more interesting than the original gang, and the dynamic they create on the ground, in the air and off-duty is compelling and highly engaging. In addition to Rooster, the new crew includes feisty, gutsy ‘Phoenix’ (Monica Barbaro) egotistic, loudmouth ‘Hangman’ (an excellent performance by Glen Powell) and endearing, hapless, funny ‘Bob’ (Lewis Pullman – Bill’s little boy). These new characters work well both individually and as a group; they are competing with each other but simultaneously have each other’s backs. Plus there’s a bit of depth to them which always helps.
There’s also the neat trick of a new ‘former’ love interest, bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) and her daughter Amelia (Lyliana Wray) who are written in a way that makes you believe the relationship between Maverick and Penny must have existed in the previous film, even though it doesn’t. As with most of the narrative undertone of this film, this is more than a two-dimensional pit stop between stunts and volleyball games; there’s something deeper going on with these two characters that carves out some space for Penny to be a more believable character than Kelly McGillis’s Charlie Blackwood in the first film, and elevates both the new film, and Maverick’s story. And speaking of volleyball games, there’s a nice nod to that famous scene with a game of touch football on the beach but again, it's there for the narrative and for the character, not just for the eye-candy.
Even the unexpected narrative detour at the end of the third act where the film suddenly feels like its veered off into Alastair MacLean territory, still works despite it implausibility.
But, for me, the most affecting scene in the film is between Maverick, the hot shot who just couldn’t conform and bucked the system in a way that denied him the career advancement he might have been due, and Iceman, the hot shot rival who found a friend in his competitor but who also found a way to channel his ambition into a path that led him to a top-ranking Admiral’s job. But like Kilmer himself, Admiral ‘Iceman’ is sick and can only speak with Maverick via a computer screen. (if you don’t know the story of Val Kilmer’s career-ending illness, then watch the excellent doco Val, directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott streaming on Prime). Seeing Kilmer on screen again, sick as he might be, is a highlight of the film and cements the bond that lies between the original and sequel whilst demonstrating the brilliance of the way a far superior story has been crafted from the bones of lesser work.
And then, of course, there’s Tom himself. Love him or hate him, there is no disputing that Tom Cruise is one of a small handful of old-school Hollywood movie stars and in this film, he’s in the sweet spot of that role. It’s thirty-six years since the original Top Gun and Cruise is still front and centre of the frame when it counts on making the action seem real. He’s always been one for doing his own stunts, especially when it comes to vehicles, and with Top Gun: Maverick, he shows little or no sign of slowing down. Granted, he wasn’t actually allowed to fly the F/A18 Super Hornets (they cost about $67.4 million bucks each) but he comes as close to that as he can. Those planes are two-seaters, one behind the other, so Tom’s not actually up front (that’s where the real pilot is), he’s in the second seat, shot over the real pilot’s shoulder to make it look like the real thing. But his pretend-flying is still taking place at those unbelievable speeds and g-forces. The result is it looks like the real thing because it’s as close to the real thing as movie-making can get and in the era of CGI that’s something to be admired... plus it pays off.
But as a counterpoint to these show-off moments of old-guy-physical-prowess, Cruise seems not to feel the need to dominate the screen the whole time. Yes, it’s hard not to be drawn to him when he’s in the scene (and he's in almost every scene in this movie) but in this older version of Maverick, he’s a bit more sanguine than he was as a young man and, in a similar way, Cruise seems willing to make space in the narrative and on the screen to allow others to be seen in their own right. It’s something that makes an obvious ‘star vehicle’ often feel like an ensemble piece.
Of course, there are still weaknesses in the film. Jon Hamm is mostly wasted as Maverick’s superior officer Admiral Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson. He’s the most two-dimensional character in the film, barking orders and standing scowling in the background for no apparent reason. And Miles Teller, who is so good as Al Ruddy in the current Paramount+ series The Offer, just doesn’t seem quite right here. Yes, there are spooky moments where Rooster looks the dead spit of his dad, Goose, but Teller’s overall performance seems to be missing something in the way his anger at Maverick for the death of his father and for the way he interfered in his career is played. Instead, there’s an aloofness in the way his emotion is expressed that doesn’t quite connect with the power of the rest of the storytelling.
These things aside, Top Gun: Maverick is a great movie (I can’t believe I said that) and deserving of the squillions of box office dollars it’s been generating around the world. Hats off to director Joseph Kosinsky for pulling this massive, trepidatious project together. He’d already proved himself adept at working with Cruise in 2013’s Oblivion and that pre-existing relationship seems to work a treat here. Maybe Top Gun: Maverick is even good enough to forgive Kosinsky’s other current film project - the execrable Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller effort, Spiderhead on Netflix. Maybe Kosinsky is just better on the big screen. Most certainly, that’s where a film like Top Gun: Maverick belongs... and most certainly that’s where you should see it.