Miles Teller

Top Gun: Maverick

25/05/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

I wasn’t a big fan of the original Top Gun.

Reviewing it for City Life Magazine in 1986, I complained that the film felt like a glossy advertisement for the US Navy – and I wasn’t in the least bit surprised when the American military elected to instal enrolment booths in cinemas showing the film, so that pumped-up youngsters could walk straight out of a viewing and sign themselves up for active service.

This sequel had already been a long time coming before the pandemic obliged its release date to be pushed back several times. Finally, here it is, with Tom Cruise still looking perfectly serviceable in the hunky action man role and with Joseph Kosinski taking up the directorial reins on behalf of the late Tony Scott.

Years after the events depicted in the first movie, we meet Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, still a mere Captain, while most of his contemporaries are either dead or have risen through the ranks. He’s now working as a test pilot and is still more than ready to bend the rules when the powers-that-be threaten to close down his current project.

Close to facing a court martial, he’s ‘rescued’ by his former teammate Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer), who gets him assigned as instructor to an elite group of young pilots, training for a dangerous mission in Iran.

Mitchell soon discovers that one of his students is Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his old wingman ‘Goose.’ Bradshaw blames Mitchell for the death of his father – and for the the fact that he chose to hold him back in his training for several years. Can Maverick somehow bury the hatchet with Rooster and, at the same time, teach him to become a valuable member of his young team?

Hey, does the Pope shit in the woods?

Maverick is, I’m glad to say, a major improvement on the original film. Yes, it’s still pumped full of testosterone and yes, there’s still (inevitably) some major dick-swinging on display, but this story is considerably more nuanced than its predecessor and at least here the female characters are allowed to be more than just compliant love interests. There is still some romance, of course: Maverick hooks up with an ex, Penelope Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), now conveniently divorced and running the local bar. It’s hardly a plot spoiler to say that, yes, old sparks are destined to fly.

As with the first movie, there are some extraordinary flight sequences here and they are given extra oomph when I remember that Cruise is doing it all for real, which is a mark of the man’s commitment to his craft. Unlike its perfectly honed lead, the film does get somewhat lumpen around the mid section, when a series of training sequences go into rather more detail than is necessary. It could do with a little less of that.

But things rally magnificently for a genuinely pulse-quickening final half hour and (yes, I admit it) a heartwarming conclusion. While you could argue that plot-wise it’s all faintly ridiculous (and you wouldn’t be wrong on that score), this is nonetheless a slice of highly polished entertainment that largely succeeds in taking its original premise to unexpected new heights.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Only the Brave

13/11/17

The poster for Only the Brave suggests we are in for a good old-fashioned disaster movie, but director Joseph Kosinski is clearly more interested in the characters who made up the real life Granite Mountain Hot Shots – a bunch of hard-as-nails firefighters based in Prescott, Arizona. While this is no doubt an admirable attempt to flesh out some genuine heroes, it fatally flaws the story arc of the film, which keeps breaking off from the action to regale us with some macho prank the boys have indulged in. The result is that the story only occasionally generates enough heat to keep an audience fully hooked.

Things begin well enough with Supervisor Eric Marsh (James Brolin) champing at the bit as he tries to obtain ‘hot shot’ status for his crew of municipal firefighters. (Without that tag they will always be relegated to a support role whenever there’s a major fire). Meanwhile, young hothead and general drug abuser, Brendan McCulloch (Miles Teller) gets his girlfriend pregnant and, in a desperate attempt to clean up his act, decides to put himself forward as a candidate for the fire team. Marsh, recognising something of himself in Brendan, decides to give him a chance and before very much longer, the Granite Mountain boys have their hot shot status and are working around the clock in a series of extremely dangerous situations. Meanwhile, their long suffering wives and girlfriends must endure the knowledge that their partners might never survive the latest disaster…

There’s clearly a fascinating (and it must be said, tragic) real life story at the heart of this, but with over twenty firefighters on the team, it’s hard for us to differentiate between more than just a few of them. And, if you’re blessed with Jeff Bridges in your cast, it might be a good idea to give him something to do. The female characters, mind you,  barely get a look in. Jennifer Connelly as Marsh’s wife, Amanda, has something approaching a decent role but poor Andie McDowell is left to sit around, looking glum.

The ending when we get to it, is admittedly devastating – but by then, most of our goodwill for the film has gone up in smoke as the script cuts back and forth, recounting details that we really didn’t need to know about. Also, there’s a tendency here to assume we understand the principals of firefighting. Scenes where the team are actually setting fire to areas of forest in order to prevent the spread of an approaching conflagration might have needed a little more explanation. As it is, we’re just left to assume.

Ultimately, Only the Brave is a powerful story, awkwardly told. While it generates the occasional spark, it never really fully ignites.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Whiplash

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29/1/15

‘It’s all about this kid who plays drums in a jazz orchestra…’

Broken down to its basic plot elements, Whiplash sounds like something you’d actually pay money to avoid. But don’t be misled, because this is one of the year’s most gripping films, featuring a stellar central performance from JK Simmons that has made him hot favourite to lift this year’s Oscar for best supporting actor. As for the jazz element, well it probably helps if you like the music, but it’s by no means essential.

Andrew (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young drummer based at New York’s top music conservatory. Like all the other musicians there, he lives in the hope of being ‘spotted’ by their top tutor, Mr Fletcher (Simmons) and when he’s finally offered the chance to sit in with the big man’s own orchestra, Andrew senses an opportunity to make his mark on the world of music. His quest to be ‘the best’ is not so much an ambition as an all-encompassing obsession and he’s prepared to give it everything he’s got, even when it leaves him with bruised and bleeding hands and even when it means giving short shrift to his hapless girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). But he soon discovers that Fletcher is not the most nurturing of tutors – on the contrary, he’s a self aggrandising, bigoted, foul-mouthed sadist who will observe no boundaries when it comes to pushing his proteges to achieve their best. Andrew’s likeable father, Jim (Paul Reiser) can only watch helplessly as his son is put through the wringer.

There are two superb performances at the heart of this story. Teller plays the buttoned-up (and actually not allthat likeable) Andrew with great skill, and it’s to his credit that you care deeply about what happens to him; but make no mistake, Simmons owns this film from the moment he steps into shot. An actor formally known for playing a range of affable nice guys (think of his easy going Dad in Juno) he’s made a startling transformation. He is mesmerisingly repellent, a snarling, brutal martinet convinced of his own superiority. You’ll hate him, you’ll want to punch his image on the screen, but at the same time, you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.

In case you’re thinking this all sounds a bit gloomy, take heart: there’s a climactic set piece where Andrew gets to strut his stuff behind a drum kit that can only be described as thrilling. Whiplash is a little cracker of a movie and if Simmons does triumph at the Oscars, it will be thoroughly deserved.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney