Don’t think – just watch!

Top Gun Maverick has hit its target, busting every block, playing cinemas only – smart.

It’s a great spectacle, the aerial tricks and dogfights especially thrilling, a cinematographic feast.  The dialogue, not so much.  Stuffed with cliches and coated with nostalgia, the script had me supressing giggles.  Slogans like Don’t think, just do! and It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot! strafe the exchanges between the ace fliers, the support crews and the armchair generals.

The other phrase that Tom Cruise, who plays veteran PeteMaverick Mitchell, seems to have been waiting for since 1986 – year of the original Top Gun – is Taps Aff!  At 58, he’s as keen as the buff jocks 30 years his junior to flash his abs and pecs to the max, as they play ball on the beach.

Maverick flies around, destroying millions of dollars’ worth of US government equipment in his zeal to keep America great.  Why Cruise at a mere Mach 9 when you can push your luck and your Darkstar prototype up to 10.2 and wreck it?  Later, trying to destroy a nuclear plant in another country (the enemy is never named), Maverick trashes his F-18 jet to save Rooster, son of Maverick’s doomed BFF, Goose, from the first film.

Brilliant and thrilling to watch, but, says the Aerotime Hub website, quite absurd… for the sake of drama, excitement, and lingering shots of military hardware glistening in the sun, the aircraft do tricks they would not attempt in real life.

In between the riveting flight-and-fight scenes, Maverick meets Hammer (admiral trying to shut him down); Cyclone (mission leader playing it by the book); Iceman (another old pal, dying of cancer) and a former girlfriend, Penny (Jennifer Connelly).  Charlie, love interest in the first movie, was played by Kelly McGillis but, she says, they didn’t get in touch – I’m old, fat and look my age.

Many of the encounters in the new film include lingering regrets at what-might-have-been and overwrought yearning for bromantic camaraderie across the generations.  Maverick risks all for Rooster to honour his dead parents.

If the US fighting forces are really this reckless and sentimental, no wonder they got their asses whooped by the Viet Cong, the Taliban and the rest.

Whatever tricks Tom and pals soar through, the test that Top Gun Maverick totally fails is the Bechdel one.  Phoenix is the token woman pilot, while Penny and her daughter mooch around, ever-ready to pick Maverick up when he stops doing the serious piloting stuff. 

Another male, pale American tale at the cinema recently was Straight Line Crazy.  I watched this NT Live broadcast, from the Bridge Theatre, London, at Glasgow Film Theatre.  Though some have doubts about screenings of stage shows – – it’s easy, cheap and better than nothing.

This new play by David Hare, directed by Nicholas Hytner (ex-National Theatre boss and now joint head of the Bridge) stars Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses, who dominated the layout of New York for nearly half a century.

It’s a titanic performance, brilliant, energetic and imperious.  Fiennes hardly leaves the stage, like Moses himself, who only quit as urban wizard when forced out by newer, more democratic forces.  As with the Bridge’s previous show, Hytner’s staging of The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage, the action is played out on a long apron forestage thrusting into the stalls, giving the scenes greater immediacy.

And yet, though highly accomplished, it feels strangely old-fashioned.  It could have been produced ten, twenty, thirty years ago. In a way it was, in Pravda (1985), Hare’s satire of a Murdochite media baron.  He seems to hate/love such sacred monsters.

Now, in 2022, it all seems a bit solid, stodgy even, and emphatically male.  Hytner commissioned Hare after reading the 1300-page doorstep by Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

So, a story about an overbearing man by a man, read by another man, dramatized by a man, starring a man, directed by a man and designed by a man, with a creative team of mostly men (10 out of 14).

There’s a hint of complacency from Hare, talking with Fiennes and Hytner just before the screening, when he says how much he prefers working with them because he knows how they work and it’s simpler that way.

Hytner carries on, says the Guardian, as if he has the budgets and resources previously available to him at the National.  Even so, Straight Line Crazy’s cast of 13 is a lot larger than most theatres outside London enjoy.

Finally, a recommendation for a really entertaining TV comedy, The Outlaws (BBC1 and iPlayer).  12 episodes over 2 series, it’s the brainchild of Stephen Merchant (he writes and directs some episodes, as well as playing Greg, a nerdy lawyer).  Greg and six other oddballs are doing community service for minor offences, but they get drawn into a much darker world of drug-dealing, dirty money and the threat of harm or jail – a sort of Carry On Breaking Bad.

The plotlines intertwine and careen ahead, though the main delight comes from the bunch of diverse, quirky characters, each colourfully backstoried.  One, Frank, is played by Christopher Walken, with all the impish glee he showed when he danced in that Fatboy Slim video.  My favourite is Diane (Jessica Gunning), the hopeless but ambitious supervisor; the episode in which she gets high on hash brownies is priceless.

It evokes just the right mixture of farce and menace, of desperation and warmth, to be both funny and thrilling.  The Bristol setting is beautifully matched by Merchant’s wicked Victoria Wood-like specificity for language.  As it dawns on him that he’s been sent to pick up drugs, Greg says: I’m beginning to realise it’s not Gaviscon Extra.  He’s seen Breaking Bad, and worries they’ll end up digging their own graves in the desert – well, Minehead beach.

Great stuff.

Paul Bassett


June 2022

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