Tom Jolliffe looks at two of the best action films of the last decade, Mad Max: Fury Road and Top Gun: Maverick…
There are great films. There are great action films. Attaining greatness through your action amounts to nailing your set pieces and imbuing proceedings, with just enough characterisation to give the propellant action some dramatic weight. In truth, it’s rare that a great action film is also a great film, and even rarer that something within the action genre can hit masterpiece status (like Die Hard or Terminator as examples). Jackie Chan made a career of putting great action on screen, with a kind of affable sincerity that made you care, without making a film that struck on deeper dramatic levels. John Wick is a great action franchise, but doesn’t quite get to that higher level of being, close to an all encompassing level reserved for the first two Terminators, Die Hard, or Hard Boiled.
In the last 10 years there have been a few excellent action movies that probably fell a little short of being great movies overall. There have been two standouts in the genre which maintained a linear narrative, but created such a level of emotional, near physical involvement, as to push their status up into greatness. In 2015 it was Mad Max: Fury Road, opening to exceptional reviews, fan response and even an impressive award season and right now Tom Cruise is flying out into greatness with Top Gun: Maverick. Both films deliver an expert display of enthralling set piece spectacle, grounded by emotional engagement. Both also provide a perfect example of how to reboot an existing property.
Firstly, take something that can actually be bettered. Fury Road had the bigger challenge given that the very original film was an indie, Ozsploitation classic and the second film, The Road Warrior, still ranks as one of the most perfectly lithe and relentless action films ever. The original Top Gun, a stylistic, somewhat trendsetting behemoth of MTV style cinema, is cheesy, but also flawed enough that bettering it was an achievable goal. Adhere enough to the originals that you please the fans, but do not become reliant on nostalgia to pull you through. Most importantly, actually craft an engaging movie. The Terminator sequels from three onward, but particularly the two recent reboot attempts, have been disastrous examples.
Strip away the action of Fury Road and you have a fairly basic plot. Max from his second outing has been a periphery character. He doesn’t so much tell his story as he does wander into someone else’s grander tale. He becomes witness to it. As much as some naysayers disliked Max becoming a secondary character to Furiosa’s tale it’s actually par for the course with Max. In actuality, much of the vitriol came backed by a hearty dose of misogyny, painting Fury Road as an early forerunner for the current (apparent) woke/feminist cinema agenda (or whatever other non-existent construct besmirching folk might invent…). Fury Road has a relentlessness and an immediacy that propels its drama. The pace of the continual chase is such that exposition is told on the move. Drama is amplified by perpetual threat. Max (as played by Tom Hardy) is stony and reactive, but likewise, Furiosa is stoic and mysterious, until she gives us an insight into her emotional baggage. For a minority the feeling was she destroyed the film, for the vast majority, she made it something beyond the sum of its dramatic parts.
Of course the key reason that George Miller’s thematically simple film works is in delivering pulse pounding, palm sweat inducing set pieces that thunder you to the back of your seat. Gripping, tense, and stunning, the film may have a significant overlay of visual effects to add sand storms and such, but it is still built on an increasing rarity in modern action cinema: daredevil, practical stunt work. Miller’s team pushed things to the limits with dazzling stunts and set pieces. It may not have had quite as reckless and guerilla and edge as the first two low budget films of the franchise, shot at a time less restricted by health and safety, but regardless, the stunt units pushed the envelope on what could be done (as safely as possible). The dust and sand offset by the growl and fury of the vehicles provide so much atmosphere, and the bombastic score furthers the effect.
When I saw Fury Road, as well as finding myself sucked into the plight of survival for Furiosa and the concubines she rescues, I was also physically exhausted (in a good way) by those teeth grindingly brutal car chases. As someone with an antipathy to CGI set pieces too, I was still gripped by the almost unbearably fierce storm chase sequence too. It’s these set pieces from first chase to stunning last, that really drive the film. Set pieces are often a consequence in the movement of the narrative, but for some films, these completely drive the story. Terminator for example was a start to finish chase which rarely let up, but still retained emotional investment as the action drove the plot. Of course it’s closer to a level of all round masterpiece than Fury Road, thanks to added layers and genre redefining aspects, but Fury Road comes close to punching that level.
Tom Cruise has stepped into the forefront of action cinema in the last decade. The Mission: Impossible franchise has become essential action cinema for its combination of spectacle and death defying stunts (often performed by Cruise himself). If the films have fallen a little short, it’s probably in dramatic weight, where the continuing reliance on McGuffins tends to propel us from set piece A to B to C. Cruise’s natural star power and charisma, along with an affable support cast, has always made us care about the outcome of course, but with Maverick, Cruise has delivered one of the surprises of the year. Top Gun, a light, fluffy, sweaty piece of excessive 80’s entertainment has been resurrected in the modern era and given a dramatic anchor. There’s no great need to have seen the original for the sequel/reboot to work either. It relays aspects from the original succinctly, whilst initially repeating the structure. How it works so well is in how much more humility is injected into this film. It isn’t even through fresh dramatic ideas, but tried and tested feelings like guilt, repression, resentment and the weight of lineage. Maverick’s (Cruise) wingman in the original film, Goose, who died in an air run gone wrong, is replaced here by his son ‘Rooster’ (Miles Teller). The dramatic tension between the two is palpable and the extent of it revealed further as the film progresses. Meanwhile, the aging Maverick must contend with his place in the world, regrets of the past (including reconnecting with an old flame played by Jennifer Connelly), and his continuing compulsion to push himself beyond his limits.
Like Fury Road, Maverick is driven (or piloted) by the set pieces. Reluctantly coming into teach a group of recruits, who are already deemed the best, Maverick must ready them for a mission where the odds of survival are slim. The pattern is familiar of course, not merely compared to the first film but this kind of film in general. A fractured team of wildly diverse personalities slowly learns to work together to make an insurmountable mission become achievable. There’s not a single surprise in the film, yet it sits in the IMDB Top 250 with a eye watering Rotten Tomatoes score of 97% Why? Because in-spite of a simple story and formulaic beats, it nails each landing with weight, it has heart. Those cockpit set pieces drive characters through their arcs. It also has Tom Cruise working in perfect service of the film. There’s not a shred of it feeling overwhelmed by his star power, or him resting on his charisma (he’s occasionally done it as Ethan Hunt). No, Cruise, for a rare moment in his action cinema, deals with regret, with fallibility, with mortality. If Hunt feels somehow indestructible by now, Maverick often feels close to finally pushing past that point of no return, or finally being unable to out manoeuvre enemy missiles.
If Mission Impossible has impressive, applaud worthy set pieces which excite and entertain then Maverick has something different. The set pieces here are near physically involving. You may, at times, forget to breath (and your palms will sweat). I saw this on an adequately sized screen but I’m almost glad I didn’t see the dizzying sequences on IMAX. This bordered on nauseating, such is the incredible way the aerial sequences are shot and edited. Those sequences are truly groundbreaking, taking the cast to extreme levels to capture the cockpit action, rather than having to work with clever shots and cuts as dogfight cinema has often had to. Perhaps not since Howard Hughes’ almost maniacal approach to capturing death defying aerial footage, have there been such groundbreaking aerial sequences. Again, it’s Cruise’s championing of practical work over CGI where possible, which really makes this stand out in a year of blockbusters heavily loaded with CGI driven spectacle. Of course there are CGI embellishments, action elements like missiles etc, but the amount captured in camera was something only a powerhouse like Cruise could have pushed for.
By the end you’ll stagger out exhausted. That may well exemplify the kind of theme park cinema Martin Scorsese talked about, but it’s perhaps one of the greatest examples of it, weighted with genuine stakes and threat (an element Marty felt was missing in superhero films per se). On top of all that, Maverick also managed to perfectly adhere to classic Bruckheimer formula, pay respect to the late Tony Scott’s signature style and tickle the nostalgia bone with its great soundtrack (with Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer, Lady Gaga and Lorne Balfe all combining). The return of Val Kilmer is welcome, if bittersweet. Still, whilst Cruise and all that he brings into a film has sometimes overwhelmed his pictures, he perfectly compliments Maverick. He’s reflective and heartfelt, marking his best performance in over a decade. Whether Maverick can attract quite the same level of Oscar recognition as Fury Road, remains to be seen, but from a technical perspective it should walk away with the gong for editing and all the sound categories as a bare minimum. Ultimately, this is the blockbuster of the year by a long way and will probably remain so, because beneath all the bluster is a human story, a sense of (almost unbearable) aviation danger, and the kind of spectacle that can’t be matched by creating something entirely by CGI.
Have you seen Top Gun: Maverick? Is it one of the best action films of recent years? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.