Stephen Arnell

Ten films to rival Top Gun Maverick

Ten films to rival Top Gun Maverick
Image: Pinewood studios/Skydance
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After over a year of delays, Tom Cruise’s keenly anticipated sequel to the iconic Top Gun (1986) is released on 25 May.

TG: Maverick’s seat-of-your-pants aviation sequences have whetted the appetite of both fans and non-fans for the picture, which has picked up almost universally positive reviews.

Not unexpectedly for Cruise, he handled some of the flying himself in the picture, returning as Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, a US air force test pilot and flight instructor, purposely stuck at the rank of captain to indulge his addictive 'need for speed.'Cruise dials down the cockiness of the first picture to deliver a more mature, nuanced take on Maverick – although he retains his authority-bucking attitude.

When pal and onetime rival, Admiral Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer) assigns Mav to train an elite cadre of Top Gun graduates for a special mission, you can bet that the ageing enfant terrible isn’t going to sit this one out. Kilmer’s personal battle with throat cancer has been written into his role, where Iceman has been similarly stricken.

To get you in the mood for Top Gun: Maverick, here are ten motion pictures where the sky’s the limit – or not, in the case of The Right Stuff (1983).

Stealth (2005) NOW, Amazon Rent/Buy

2001: A Space Odyssey meets Top Gun in disgraced director Rob (The Fast and the Furious) Cohen’s notorious box office flop.

When stuck by lightning, unmanned AI Jet EDI (Extreme Deep Invader, voiced by Wentworth ‘Prison Break’ Miller) develops a unique personality with a set of goals very different from those intended by unbalanced programme leader Captain George Cummings (Sam Shepherd).

Lots of CGI aerial battles, explosions and earthbound skulduggery ensue until hot shot pilots Gannon (Josh Lucas) and Wade (Jessica Biel) convince EDI to change his homicidal ways.

Along with Hulk (2003) and 2006’s remake of the Poseidon Adventure, Stealth was part of a failed drive to catapult Lucas into big screen stardom; the actor now is best known for his role as the young John Dutton in hit TV series Yellowstone (2018).

The Blue Max (1966) Amazon Rent/Buy

A favourite with male viewers of a certain age, The Blue Max stars George ‘Hannibal Smith’ Peppard as proletarian WWI German airman Leutnant Bruno Stachel, determined to win at all costs the coveted Pour le Mérite medal (‘Blue Max’) and rub the glory in the faces of his toffee-nosed fellow officers.

In a quest to shoot down 20 enemy planes (the standard set for the medal) Stachel finds time to bed Ursula Andress (as adulterous nob Grafin Kaeti von Klugemmann), engage in aerial stunts with posh rival Willi (Jeremy Kemp) and meet The Red Baron himself (Carl Schell).

Peppard’s unchivalrous behaviour makes him a marked man, the cuckolded General von Klugemann (James Mason) deciding to let the aviator show off his flying chops in an experimental new monoplane with serious design flaws.

The Red Baron (2008) full move free to watch on YouTube, Amazon Rent/Buy

Real-life WWI German ace-of-aces fighter pilot and fictional foe of streetwise animated hound Snoopy, the Red Baron was born Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, proud scion of a Prussian aristocratic family with estates in Lower Silesia (present-day Poland).

Played by Matthias Schweighöfer (Army of the Dead) in Nikolai Müllerschön’s romanticised version of the Baron’s life which paints him as an unwilling warrior who knows the war is unwinnable.

Lena (Game of Thrones) Headey is his girlfriend Nurse Käte Otersdorf.

Some exciting dogfights enliven the stodgy drama.

Captain Marvel (2019) Disney+, Amazon Buy

Technically Mar-Vell, rather than Marvel, this MCU flick consciously references Top Gun in a story where test pilot Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is presumed dead after crashing a high-tech jet with an experimental propulsion system.

In fact, she has been taken by the alien Kree where her powers gained in the accident and resulting amnesia make her a distinct asset for the warlike race.

When her memories begin to return on a mission to Earth five years later in 1995, Danvers discovers that the 'noble warrior heroes' aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be.

Jude Law plays vain Kree commander Yon-Rogg (crazy name, crazy guy), teasing his own persona slyly, Samuel L Jackson was digitally de-aged by 25 years to appear as a younger Nick Fury, in a more upbeat iteration of his usually surly S.H.I.E.L.D agent.

Lashana Lynch is Danvers’ best pal and fellow Air Force pilot Maria Rambeau who can be seen as a Multiverse variant in the Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, currently playing in UK cinemas.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) NOW, Amazon Rent/Buy

Jude Law again, this time as a good guy, the titular Sky Captain, one Joe Sullivan in Kerry Conran’s ambitious ‘dieselpunk’ adventure, which was filmed entirely on a soundstage, predating the likes of Sin City (2005) and 300 (2006).

A strong cast includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Gambon, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi and unforgivably, a digitally resurrected Laurence Olivier as evil mastermind Dr. Totenkopf, a performance cobbled together from clips and audio of the actor in his younger days.

Admittedly, Olivier starred in a lot of cash-motivated tripe towards the end of his career, but at least he was given the choice whether to appear in them, including when he featured in holographic form as giant floating noggin ‘Akash’ in Cliff Richard’s preachy sci-fi stage musical Time (1986).

Sky Captain was one of no less than six motion pictures released in 2004 that starred Law, which famously prompted comedian and unlucky recipient of the 2022 Oscar slap Chris Rock to comment at the 2005 Academy Awards: 'Who is Jude Law? Why is he in every movie I have seen the last four years? He’s in everything. Even the movies he’s not acting in — if you look at the credits, he made cupcakes or something. He’s in everything. He’s gay, he’s straight, he’s American, he’s British. Next year he’s playing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a movie! If you can’t get a star, wait, okay?'

Firefox (1982) Amazon Rent/Buy

Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this risible adaptation of the equally preposterous novel by Craig Thomas.

The usually penny-pinching Clint had a budget of $20m to play with – a huge amount back in 1982. The majority of this was spent on then state-of-art special effects, although even at the time they looked pretty shoddy.

Eastwood plays a crack US air force pilot sent into Russia to steal a highly advanced Soviet fighter aircraft (NATO code name Firefox) capable of hypersonic flight, invisible to radar and with weaponry operated by (get this) mind control.

The catch? To fly the jet, the pilot must think in Russian. Just as well Major Mitchell Gant (Clint) had a Russian mum then.

The money spent on effects is the reason that the majority of the cast was drawn from the ranks of UK television drama, with Warren Clarke, Nigel Hawthorne, Clive Merrison, Hugh Fraser, Ronald Lacey, Freddie Jones, Oliver Cotton, and Kenneth Colley all featuring as either Russian scientist dissidents or Soviet military men.

The Right Stuff (1983) Amazon Rent/Buy

Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Bodysnatchers) adapted Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the test pilots engaged in postwar U.S research into rocket-powered, high-speed aircraft and Project Mercury astronauts undergoing training for the first NASA manned space flights.

An epically long movie (192 mins) to tell an epic story, one which earned critical plaudits but bombed at the box office, despite a cast that includes Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Lance Henriksen, Sam Shepard, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, and Barbara Hershey and thrilling flight scenes.

Sadly, Fred Ward (who plays test pilot Gus Grissom) died recently – a fine and underrated actor, who was equally adept playing guys with ‘The Right Stuff,’ horny ex-pat writers (Henry & June) or red neck National Guard members (Southern Comfort).

Playwright/actor Sam Shepherd stars as the legendary aviator Chuck Yeager (making a cameo appearance in the film), who in 1947 became the first pilot recorded to exceed the speed of sound in level flight. Yeager outlived Shepherd, who passed away in 2017; the flier finally departed this mortal plane (sic) in December 2020, aged 97.

Disney+ debuted the first season of a TV adaptation of the novel in 2021; the show was soon cancelled due to ‘refocusing’ of Nat Geo programming. Whatever that means.

Inexplicably the series left out Yeager, prompting The Dispatch’s Alec Dent to opine: If you can include Chuck Yeager in your work and you don’t, you are, to be polite, an absolute idiot.'

Flight of the Intruder (1991) Amazon Rent/Buy

The last cinema motion picture to be directed by rugged individualist director/screenwriter John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Apocalypse Now), this typically gung-ho action adventure was one of the plethora of Vietnam War pictures that were released after the success of Platoon in 1986.

Milius eulogises the camaraderie of stealth Grumman A-6 Intruder fighter pilots, purposely avoiding the rights and wrongs of the conflict to concentrate on the human side of the war. Further nuance was hampered by the US Navy possessing script approval of the picture in return for access to vessels and aircraft.

Milius has since concentrated on various unrealised projects, uncredited script polishes and the co-creation of the HBO/BBC series Rome (2005, 2007).

If I could recommend to readers one Milius movie, it would have to be the stirring historical epic The Wind & The Lion (1975), where you can relish Sean Connery’s as real-life Berber Sharif Mulai Ahmed el Raisuli.

Who presumably didn’t in reality have an Edinburgh brogue.

Hurricane (2018) Netflix, Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

TV director David Blair (Reg) did a competent job on this low budget movie about the Polish Hurricane pilots of No. 303 Squadron RAF during The Battle of Britain.

Don’t expect immersive dogfights, as the £7m budget couldn’t stretch to Dunkirk-style realism, but the cast of UK, US, Polish and Czech actors is decent, including Iwan Rheon (Ramsay Bolton in GoT), Milo Gibson (son of Mel), Stefanie Martini, Kryštof Hádek (Under the Skin), Marcin Dorociński (The Queen's Gambit) and Nicholas Farrell.

The Hurricane is still in the shadow of the more glamorous Spitfire, but the less showy plane downed more enemy fighters than its rival during The Battle of Britain.

The Eternal Zero (2013) ICON FILM CHANNEL, Amazon Rent/Buy

The air war in the Pacific seen through the eyes of a Japanese Zero fighter pilot Kyuzo Miyabe (Junichi Okada) who signs up for a Kamikaze mission as the US forces draw nearer to the Home Islands.

The movie’s present day framing device reveals why Miyabe, who was derided and beaten by his comrades for expressing his desire to survive the war, eventually volunteers for the suicidal attack on an American Essex-class aircraft carrier.

Impressive scenes of aerial combat make The Eternal Zero a must-see for fans of the genre.

And lastly, for Cruise-as-a-pilot completists, check out the star in Doug Liman’s American Made (2017), where he plays Barry Seal, the real-life former TWA aviator who flew off-the-books missions for the CIA, then graduated to smuggling drugs for the Medellín Cartel.