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I’m hard pressed to name anything registering as a complete scene in Elvis, Baz Luhrmann’s fever dream of an Elvis Presley biopic that doesn’t so much cover the landmark events of the superstar musician’s life and career as it condenses those moments into an extended trailer advertising the American mid-twentieth century. That isn’t a criticism; the biographical music drama can be a lethally rote genre, trading on viewer nostalgia for beloved songs as it perfunctorily checks the necessary boxes recounting the subject’s unlikely rise, tragic fall, and finding some form of redemption as the subject solidifies their place in Rock History. Elvis technically does this, too, but Luhrmann finds in the King (here played by Austin Butler) the ideal avatar for the hyperactive director’s live-fast-die-young excesses. Place Elvis alongside Micheal Bay’s similarly sensory freakout Ambulance as vulgar auteurs finding subject matter perfectly aligned with their fixations (see also: David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future and Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta).

The in-universe rationale for Luhrmann’s go-for-broke showmanship is that it’s 1997 and an aging Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Elvis’s former manager, is on his deathbed, his brain synapses firing away as he wanders a purgatorial Vegas casino, narrating the events that brought him to this dismal point. A graduate of the P. T. Barnum school of hucksterism, Parker finds in young Elvis’s raw sexual stage presence the ultimate sideshow attraction. Like last year’s Nightmare Alley, Elvis uses the carnie as shorthand for America’s fascination with unambiguous corruption and deceit. But Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks, and the Colonel, registering somewhere between The Ladykillers and Cloud Atlas on the “human cartoon character with nightmare accent” scale, never reaches the desperate loathsomeness the material calls for. What’s left is a whirlwind of soundbites and mood. Maybe that’s enough.

Joseph Kosinski’s absurdly popular Top Gun: Maverick (hereafter Top Gun 2) is likewise a whirlwind of soundbites and mood. Tom Cruise (Maverick) is a hotshot pilot who flew a plane very fast in Tony Scott’s 1986 Navy advertisement Top Gun. Now, Tom Cruise is an aging hotshot test pilot tasked with training a new generation of hotshot pilots to destroy a vaguely defined enemy nation’s uranium enrichment plant by flying very fast through the trench at the end of Star Wars. Top Gun 2 works when it’s a heist movie and we’re shown a computer map and Jon Hamm gravely explains all the ways this very silly plan can go wrong. It doesn’t work when it attempts to mine interpersonal human drama from its supporting cast, be it overly cautious Rooster (Miles Teller) or dangerously cocky Hangman (Glen Powell), because this is first and foremost the Tom Cruise show, showcasing the glory that is Tom Cruise flying the plane very fast. 

John Ford used to do this kind of thing with movies like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), in which John Wayne plays an aging cavalry soldier leading a group of Army youngsters in the American frontier. It ends with Wayne’s Captain Brittles saying goodbye to his wife’s grave as he marches off to perpetual Manifest Destiny. Ford’s output and deployment of Wayne would darken in subsequent years, from an obsessive maniac in The Searchers to a broken, obsolete rancher in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. There’s no predicting where Cruise’s career trajectory will take him, but probably not that. Top Gun 2 is a frictionless museum artifact in stark defiance of time (save one poignant moment with Val Kilmer). It’s fine.

Elvis (2022)

Runtime: 159 minutes

MPA Rating: PG-13

Streaming: Currently in theaters

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPA Rating: PG-13

Streaming: Currently in theaters

Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....

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