Film Review: “Top Gun” — Tony Scott (1986)

In memory of Tony Scott, who took his own life at the age of 68 on August 19, 2012, I thought I’d revisit a write-up I did for his seminal 80s music-video turned something wholly other military manlove flick “Top Gun”. Written as a DVD review way back in 2004, I had a blast with this one. Amusingly, so did many other people. Never had anything I’d written engendered so much discussion, shock, outrage, consternation, riots, destruction, social upheaval, roving bands of negro youths, and yes, a few death threats. These were what I lovingly refer to as my “salad days”. Well anyway… I’ve edited it a bit to focus only on the movie (who gives a crap about the technical merits of a DVD from 8 years ago?) and clean up some of my prosaic… prose. Enjoy.

Top Gun

Rating: 6 / 10

You could put up a plethora of reasons to determine why Top Gun was the smash hit of 1986. Maybe it was the rising star talent of a young Tom Cruise, who with this film knocked his already rocketing career into the stratosphere. Or perhaps it was the distinct music-video visual flair of director Tony Scott, who, after the disastrous performance of his woefully underrated art house horror flick The Hunger, couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood during the mid 1980s. Or perhaps it was the rock-em sock-em, in-your-face, popcorn-pleasing, box-canyon-yodeling partnership of Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, whose previous music-vid-as-cinema collaboration, 1983’s Flashdance, was also a commercial smash. And why not? It established their formula of hiring commercial and music video directors (in that case Adrian Lyne), marketing the film with a smash pop soundtrack, and focusing on pomp and spectacle over subtlety and characterization. Or perhaps – perhaps – the film came out at just the right time, in the heart of Reagan’s America, during which the celebration of America’s military supremacy was once again a palatable (and dare I say, enjoyable) topic for mass consumption. The Vietnam-era hangover had faded into a Sunday night Shoney’s Buffett of Babes, Bombs, and Bullets, and who better to lead movie-watchers down this road then a group of filmmakers who were aping the most appealing commercial stylings of the time – music videos?

Yes, there are a ton of reasons why Top Gun was such a smash. How big was it, you ask? The film grossed a staggering $176 million in 1986 dollars domestically, and over $350 million worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, that’s total box-office earnings of $850 million dollars — all off of a budget of just around $16 million! And what about that soundtrack? Fueled by the pap pablum poo-poo of Kenny Loggins’s Danger Zone, Berlin’s Take My Breath Away, and the unforgettable Through The Fire by Larry Greene, the movie’s coordinated album release sold 7 million copies, one of the biggest album soundtracks ever produced.

A commercial juggernaut, no question about it, Top Gun was nothing less than a box-office smash and a pop-culture phenomenon. It had everything going for it: a talented cast, including the aforementioned Tom Cruise, Kelly “The road to obscurity begins here” McGillis, Val Kilmer, the dead guy from E.R., a confused looking Tim Robbins, a largely ignored Meg Ryan, the whacked Vietnam Vet drug dealer from Up In Smoke, the principal from Back to the Future, and Ham Tyler from V: The Final Battle. The film looked great, sounded great, and provided thrills and chills and pathos for non-discriminating audiences around the world. Heck, for example, I work with this smoking babe who grew up in semi-rural Alabama, and for an entire year the only film playing at the local theater was Top Gun. And she and her friends must have seen this movie eight thousand times. Hot young guys with washboard abs playing volleyball topless to a pulsating pop soundtrack? Oh they were so there…

But that’s not why the film was such a smash.

The film’s success is almost entirely due to the fact that Iron Eagle sucked so hard, there are still images of people watching that turdburger trapped on the event horizon.

But never mind that; let us return to Top Gun. I’m not even going to try and review this sucker. Let’s just say that Top Gun is what it is: the most commercially successful, visually resplendent, action-packed, and non-graphic gay porn ever constructed. In your heart of hearts you know it’s true. There are exactly two women in this entire movie that are given more than a line or two of dialogue, naturally referring to Ms. McGillis and Ms. Ryan. They are both “love interests” of the two main dudes, Cruise and Edwards, but honestly they are so woefully underwritten and glossed over that they might as well be cardboard cutouts. I’m not criticizing their acting abilities, mind you. McGillis is rather subdued but acceptable in her role, and Ryan provides the spunk, cuteness, and vibe that would soon endear her as “America’s Sweetheart” for a time roughly between 1987 and 1998, or at least until she started boning Russell Crowe. But they are so uninteresting to the filmmakers that their appearance in this film seems little more than perfunctory or workmanlike. The men are so in love with each other and their ships that you half expect to see Tom Cruise nudging a meatball with his nose during an outdoor spaghetti dinner with his F-14, while two swarthy Mediterranean types croon “Bella Note” to the delight of closeted jocks everywhere.

I mean, you don’t have to be Cole Porter to decrypt what Kenny Loggins was describing when he sang about the “Highway to the Danger Zone”…

Yeah I know, I’m far, far from the first one to make the Top Gun/Gay Love connection, but honestly it’s so blatant that I’m surprised that nobody picked up on it back in 1986. Of course, look how long it took us to get the whole “Village People” thingee. Boy we as a culture took it in the shorts on that one.

Anyway, the film’s plot is so thin it’s practically inconsequential. Maverick (Cruise) is the hotshot pilot, and he and best-friend Goose (Edwards) join the elite at “Top Gun”, a naval school dedicated to teaching the “best of the best” the disappearing art of aerial dogfighting. Maverick is a talented pilot, but he is haunted by the ghost of his dead Dad, who was also some insanely talented flying dude, and is challenged for Top Gun supremacy by Iceman (Kilmer), who has a habit of snapping his teeth at people after he questions their safety habits. While at the academy, Maverick falls for civilian flight instructor Charlie (McGillis) in a plot device so thoroughly unconvincing it would give Ricky Martin’s girlfriend a run for her money. But after a devastating accident, can Maverick muster up the confidence to grow up, stop showboating, get over his inherent insecurity, and oh by the way, save helpless American sailors from Soviet aggression?

There you have it. That synopsis right there encapsulated all the depth and nuance you’re gonna get out of Top Gun. The flight scenes are still as thrilling and kinetic as they were 26 years ago, the soundtrack is massively dated yet still effective in delivering a wholly “kickass” presentation. But the movie is still entertaining enough that you smile and enjoy the entirety of it, even if much of it descends into unconvincing idiocy. Still, as a movie, Top Gun is critic-proof and, as a pop-culture phenom, stands outside of the entire cinematic continuum, the Kilgore Trout of movies. Even if you absolutely hate it, you still kinda like it.

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