STUDIO: Paramount (BUY IT FROM CHUD.COM)
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
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Tony Scott (director).
Tom Cruise. Val Kilmer. Kelly McGillis. Anthony Edwards. Meg Ryan. WHIP HUBLEY. Michael Ironside. Tom Skerritt. Rick Rossovich. John Stockwell. Adrian Pasdar. (stars).
Jim Cash. Jack Epps, Jr. (writers).
Two men are strapped together in a hard chassis and reach into the skies.
Here’s the thing about Top Gun. It’s good.
So much has been made about the film’s forceful manner in which it pulled the action genre into some new, more processed and synthetic domain that it’s easy to forget its pioneering value. Top Gun is a processed and synthetic movie. And it’s wildly successful at its task of conveying and enhancing the world of fighter pilots and the women they love into something mythic. There’s a gloss and sheen in Tony Scott’s lens that is truly transcendent. Coupled with the effective and dated Harold Faltermeyer score, the editing style, and the opportunistic pairing of talents the movie has taken on a life larger than the sum of its parts. Say what you will about Top Gun‘s journey, where it led certainly helped separate the passion and grit of the genre from the late 70’s and early 80’s aesthetic but there’s no denying there’s something significant about the movie. Not the least of which its star.
Tom Cruise was already a massive star before Top Gun came out, but this movie took him literally into the stratosphere. Risky Business was just first base for Tom Cruise’s love affair with audiences. Things got hot and heavy in the summer of ’86. The camera doesn’t just love Tom Cruise in Top Gun, it waits outside his trailer with a rape kit. Any hair trapped in the gate of the camera used to film Top Gun wasn’t accidental but rather the camera’s attempt to steal Cruise’s essence for some arcane shrine back home. The way the camera moves, the way the film is edited, and the insanely commercial gloss lathered over every frame makes all of the things and people within them objects to lust after and want to be. This is less a movie about heroes and combat than it is an attempt to somehow give all sexes massive erections over the mere sight of planes and Tom Cruise. It nearly pulls it off. Cruise looks fantastic and his Maverick is nearly an archetype all by his lonesome. The aerial photography is often stunning, and if Top Gun were to have any long-lasting legacy it would be in its use of real planes and real photography rather than special effects and models. It makes a world of difference and it gives the film a special energy. And boy does it look good. The sense of speed when a camera is affixed to the body of an airplane is staggering. The jetwash is more photogenic than six of Angelina Jolie. It’s intoxicating stuff.
It doesn’t hurt that every hour is magic hour in Top Gun. Tony Scott has always been known as the “style over substance” Scott Brother and it’s here more than anywhere that he laid the foundation for that aesthetic. Slow motion leads to syrupy shots that treat actors more like products than people and it all melds together in a gooey and waxy concoction that helped solidify the Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson brand but also paint a big red target on this movie.
For the six of you who don’t know the film, it tells the story of two friends (Cruise and Anthony Edwards) who are accepted into the special training school known as “Top Gun” after a mission involving a Russian MIG plane leaves the most qualified pilot (John Stockwell, now a rather noteworthy director) shaken. Top Gun is where hotshot pilots go to become the best of the best. America’s finest. Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ and ‘Edwards’ ”Goose’ are good but they’re unorthodox and unpredictable. Joining the elite they represent a volatile possibility and much of the film’s first half is devoted to these two clashing and finding their way in the rarefied air of Top Gun amidst superiors, competitors, and the ghost of Maverick’s father who died in a combat mission. It’s a formula that has now been heavily spoofed but it’s hard not to fall for some of the film’s charms. Eventually lessons are learned, and all of these lessons are put to the test in a mission where the stakes are high. The Righteous Brothers are invoked.
Where the problem lies fundamentally is also why the film was such a crossover success. Love. Top Gun‘s manly (Watch Quentin Tarantino dissect the film’s gay subtext) action and really effective dynamic between the fighter pilots and their mentors is offset by a love story that brings so many hokey and sappy elements into the story that the overall package is sullied. It makes the film more appealing to the masses and led to many teenage walls having posters on them but it hurts the movie. Cruise and Edwards are a very good pairing, as are Kilmer and Rossovich. Michael Ironside and Tom Skerritt are fantastic character actors lending the film much-needed pedigree. There’s a serious and effective film here and had Top Gun been a John Milius movie it may not be considered a cartoon today. As it stands, the film brings Kelly McGillis into the drama as a sexual target who turns out to be a Top Gun instructor and things go bad from there. As a result a good percentage of the running time is devoted to developing the romance and the conflict between Maverick and his vagina packing superior. Despite the film’s success and firm entrenchment in 80’s lore, there’s very little chemistry between Cruise and McGillis. It hurts when your male lead is prettier and more alluring than the female lead and when there’s really nothing that happens onscreen to give these characters any reason to fall for one another aside from organs that can fit together.
What Top Gun could have been or possibly should be is irrelevant. What it is, is the 80’s in a tidy aerodynamic package. It made men want to fight for their country. It made women long for men in bomber jackets and ripped abs. It made summer movies one notch dumber but one notch more lucrative. It did the unthinkable and made Kenny Loggins almost relevant.
It’s truly a perfect storm of the right star, the right approach, and the right business savvy coming together one fateful summer. You may hate it and it may be a harbinger of lesser things but there’s no denying its power and surprisingly 25 years later, its endurance. It’s still a spiffy little movie. A guilty pleasure yes, but a spiffy little movie.
ITS PLACE IN THE PANTHEON:
KEEPER, RENTER, or AVOIDER?
A Keeper, but with reservations.
The hate is undeserved, though this is did turn out to be sort of the beginning of the end for a genre for a while. And Kelly McGillis is awful.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars