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Front Row Seat: 'Top Gun: Maverick' improves on original

Tom Cruise's impulsive pilot returns to the danger zone in a new sequel that completely understands its mission.

Actor Tom Cruise, in character as "Maverick," stands in front of a fighter jet as the sun rises behind him.
Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in "Top Gun: Maverick."
Contributed / Scott Garfield for Paramount Pictures
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EDINA, Minn. — "They never said where it was, did they?" One of the people emerging from a Monday preview screening of "Top Gun: Maverick" realized this only after the credits had rolled at the AMC Southdale 16.

Well, no. The film didn't, exactly, say where the target was. There were allusions to a rogue state that did not yet possess nuclear weapons, so you can fill in the blanks regarding the mountainous landscape where Maverick and his fellow flyers race to destroy a nuclear processing facility (before any radioactive material is delivered, we're assured) in a time frame pegged at about 30 years after the events of the original "Top Gun" (1986).

The generic references to "the enemy" are among the many details that director Joseph Kosinski's sequel lifts from the original more directly than you might realize if it's been a while since you saw Tom Cruise's previous outing as Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. In the first film, our unambiguously American heroes do battle with MiG fighter jets similar to those fielded by the Soviet Union, but at a time when the Cold War was showing signs of thaw, "Top Gun" didn't let explicit geopolitics interfere with its G.I. Joe fantasies.

Now, we're at the other end of a harrowing pendulum swing, with nuclear tensions rising. "Maverick" is arriving in theaters (including numerous Northland venues) Friday after being put on hold for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the world of "Maverick," though, the most meaningful challenge to arise for the United States since 1986 is that Pete Mitchell is a few decades older. Mav's still got his mojo behind the stick, but now he's haunted by guilt.

"Maverick" provides grainy flashbacks and locker-room photo collages for anyone who might need a reminder that the first film saw the death of one of the eponymous naval aviator's closest colleagues. Are we still worried about spoilers for that movie? I'll just say this: The lost airman wasn't Val Kilmer's "Iceman" character, who returns as an ailing admiral with a distinguished pompadour.

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The plight of Iceman is one of the many ways the surprisingly autumnal new film reminds viewers that Maverick's days are numbered — something that might come as a surprise to anyone passing the highly buffed posters of an eerily hale Cruise, who will turn 60 this summer while "Maverick" is still in theaters.

Mortality? Guilt? Kenny Loggins? None of this sounds like the formula for a winning summer blockbuster circa 2022, but "Maverick" succeeds by understanding that it needs to do three things: return viewers to the world of "Top Gun," complete with snatches of the original Harold Faltermeyer score and sunset games of shirtless sporting matches; dramatically improve on the original's aerial combat sequences; and find a way to get Tom Cruise back in a cockpit.

That's it. The movie doesn't need to find the next Tom Cruise, and it doesn't. It doesn't need to rethink the unabashed triumphalism of the original, and it doesn't. It doesn't even need to bring "Top Gun" costar Kelly McGillis back — though it would have been nice if she'd been asked, which she wasn't. Cruise's new love interest is a bar owner played by Jennifer Connelly, who at least was also a movie star in 1986, albeit as a teen actor.

Partisans of IMAX and ScreenX (a new wrap-around screen technology coming to Mall of America, if you want to check it out) can enthuse about the technical accomplishments of "Maverick," which is frankly thrilling in any format. The most important thing Kosinski and his screenwriters do for the action sequences, though, is to invest in storytelling.

Tom Cruise, in character as "Maverick," sits in the cockpit of a fighter jet inverted over a snowy mountainscape.
Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in "Top Gun: Maverick."
Contributed / Scott Garfield for Paramount Pictures

The entire film is premised on Maverick coaching a new generation of pilots (actors include Miles Teller, Monica Barbaro and Glen Powell) for an attack on a very specific target, so by the time the climactic battle begins, viewers are set up to completely understand the challenges the pilots will face at every junction. It helps that anyone who's seen the original "Star Wars" gets the gist regarding the challenges of a trench run and a bull's-eye the size of a womp rat — and is primed for shots of enemy pilots with entirely helmet-clad faces.

In a CGI era, Cruise has taken up the mantle of the old-school action star, doing his own stunts and investing audiences in the kind of event films that rarely come anymore without a Disney-owned franchise imprimatur. Cruise has vigorously denied there was ever any chance of "Maverick" going directly to streaming; he was, perhaps, shaken by the decision of Warner Bros. to send its entire slate of 2021 features straight to HBO Max regardless of the filmmakers' feelings. ("Maverick" is arriving in theaters via Paramount.)

That lends additional weight to the nostalgic heft of "Maverick," harking back to an era when blockbusters only ever opened in popcorn palaces. While the film's contemplation of the vicissitudes of time might linger a little longer than it needs to, "Maverick" is likely to do big business in theaters — where moviegoers have shown they'll still come out for a massive event film, even if they prefer the smaller screen for basically everything else.

"Maverick" doesn't try to appeal to everyone, which may limit its reach, but at least saves it from the uncanny valley of the sequel that forsakes its source material: a very crowded valley indeed. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make a better movie; while Kosinski has, all in all, done that, his better movie is still called "Top Gun: Maverick."

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There are a lot of even better movies out there, but if you're looking for the kind of very specific charge that a military thriller in this tradition can deliver, you'll certainly find it. The preview audience I saw "Maverick" with enjoyed a few big laughs, a generous handful of nostalgia hits, and ultimately a cascading series of applause invitations that the moviegoers didn't deny.

Short cuts

Gaelynn Lea, a white woman wearing a formal dress and sitting in a wheelchair, smiles and poses with a guitar-shaped "Spirit of Folk" award.
Gaelynn Lea posed with her Spirit of Folk Award at the International Folk Music Awards ceremony in Kansas City, Mo., on May 18.
Contributed / Shadow Scape Records

Capping a remarkable spring season, Gaelynn Lea has received a significant award for her music and advocacy. At the International Folk Music Awards on May 18 in Kansas City, Missouri, Lea was presented with a Spirit of Folk Award, honoring "people and organizations actively involved in the promotion and preservation of folk music through their creative work, community building, and demonstrated leadership." The Duluth musician has spent much of the past year composing and recording her original score for the production of "Macbeth" currently playing on Broadway . She also shared the news that she'll appear on former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe's forthcoming debut solo album.

Due to improved navigation technology, Split Rock Lighthouse's beacon is no longer needed — but it's still fun to light it up every once in a while. The beacon will shine for the first time this year at a "North Shore Community Night" on Thursday, May 26, from 6:30-10 p.m. The free event will feature live music from Hannah Rey and John Cron; snacks and drinks available for purchase; and lighthouse keeper selfie opportunities. For more information, check out mnhs.org/splitrock.

What is art worth? That's the question that kicks off Yasmina Reza's 1994 play "Art," and while the story features a debate over the monetary value of a monochromatic modern painting, a new production coming to Zeitgeist's stage also illustrates art's less tangible value. "We are not an established company," wrote director John Pokrzywinski in an email to the News Tribune, "but a little group of theater artists that have been itchy to come out of hiding and create some, well ... art." They're staging the Tony-winning script for four performances starting Friday and running through June 4. For tickets ($25) and information, see zeitgeistarts.com.

This story was updated at 10:08 a.m. May 26 to correct a misspelling of director Joseph Kosinski's name in one instance. It was originally posted at 8:05 a.m. May 26. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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