In Retrospect – Top Gun (1986)

Product placement has been prevalent in the movies for decades; however, few can claim to have had their product so ingrained within each frame as the U.S military in Tony Scott’s Top Gun.

In spite of its many flaws, Top Gun remains an adrenalin shot to the stupid, nostalgic part of the brain that should know better

In spite of its many flaws, Top Gun remains an adrenalin shot to the stupid, nostalgic part of the brain that should know better

It’s no surprise the Navy set up recruitment booths in some cinemas showing what must have been a Fleet Admiral’s wet dream and it’s a marketing ploy that paid dividends; the number of impressionable young men wanting to enlist as Naval Aviators after watching the movie soared by 500 per cent – not to mention the boost in sales for aviator sunglasses and bomber jackets.

One scene set in a men’s shower room even has an actual recruitment poster prominently on display; somewhat ridiculous bearing in mind it takes place in Top Gun HQ, wherein everyone already works for Uncle Sam.

Maverick (Tom Cruise) in full-on flag waving fascist pose in Top Gun

Maverick (Tom Cruise) in full-on flag waving fascist pose in Top Gun

Jumping into bed with the U.S military normally results in a super serious square-jawed circle jerk like Act Of Valor (2012), but Top Gun is so unashamedly over-the-top and, well, 80s it somehow manages to get away with it.

Based on a magazine article, Top Gun promised to be the kind of sky high concept popcorn entertainment that Don Simpson and fellow super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer had already refined with Flashdance (1983) and Beverley Hills Cop (1984).

80s hair! 'Charlie' Blackwood (Kelly McGillis) in Top Gun

80s hair! ‘Charlie’ Blackwood (Kelly McGillis) in Top Gun

With up-and-coming Brit Scott (who would come to exemplify the brand of glossy action cinema so beloved of Simpson and Bruckheimer) at the helm, Top Gun was packaged in much the same way as Beverley Hills Cop – with one eye on the soundtrack sales and the other on the box office.

The film’s central figure is Naval Aviator Lt Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise), who isย  ‘Maverick’ by callsign and maverick by nature; a genius pilot deemed “dangerous” by rival pilot Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazanski (Val Kilmer) because he defies orders and is a lone wolf. Maverick and his partner-in-flying Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) are selected against their commanding officer’s better judgement to attend the Top Gun school to compete against “the best of the best” to see who is number one.

Iceman (Val Kilmer) dominates the beach volleyball arena in Top Gun

Iceman (Val Kilmer) dominates the beach volleyball arena in Top Gun

There he meets Top Gun instructor ‘Charlie’ Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), who succumbs to Maverick’s winning smile and cocky nature. However, after tragedy strikes, a guilt-ridden Maverick must once again find his edge when a crisis situation emerges.

It’s fair to say the script was probably not the important piece of the puzzle when it came to bringing Top Gun to the screen. The film is absolutely rammed with clunky dialogue; be it Jester (Michael Ironside) saying “I don’t know… I just don’t know” when Viper (Tom Skerritt) asks if he’d have Maverick on his side; Stinger (James Tolkan) informing Maverick that “your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash”; and Viper, during a heart-to-heart with Maverick saying “what I’m about to tell you is classified; it could end my career”.

"For the reord, I'm not gay": Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Goose (Anthony Edwards) in Top Gun

“For the record, I’m not gay”: Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Goose (Anthony Edwards) in Top Gun

As you’d imagine of a film whose script was altered at the Navy’s request, Top Gun flies the Stars and Stripes with fascistic gusto. Whilst the old Soviet Union is never named in the film, it’s abundantly obvious the unnamed enemy at the end of the movie is the ‘Evil Empire’ which you’d imagine would make the open warfare that breaks out in the skies a genuinely disturbing diplomatic development; however, it’s brushed under the carpet with a shot of Cruise’s trademark grin.

The movie’s homoeroticism (most famously dissected by Quentin Tarantino in 1994’s Sleep With Me) is comically rampant, from the (in)famous beach volleyball scene (soundtracked by Kenny Loggins’ Playing With The Boys no less), to the shower room confrontations and hilarious dialogue (“This gives me a hard on”/”Don’t tease me”).

There's that smile: Tom Cruise plays Maverick in Top Gun

There’s that smile: Tom Cruise plays Maverick in Top Gun

Dodgy discourse aside, Top Gun‘s money shot remains its excellent aerial sequences and it’s here where the filmmakers’ partnership with the Navy pays off. The odd dodgy special effect aside (Maverick’s inverted encounter with a MIG looks pretty lame), the shots of Tomcat aircraft leaving an aircraft carrier are still awesome, while the dogfighting sequences involving multiple planes are among the best since Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930).

In spite of its many flaws, Top Gun remains an adrenalin shot to the stupid, nostalgic part of the brain that should know better.

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15 comments

  1. ckckred · August 8, 2015

    Nice review man. I only saw Top Gun once and actually found it incredibly boring because of the terrible writing and acting (and I watched it when I was twelve). It’s hilarious though about all the film’s unintentional gay subtext, It’s Always Sunny did a great parody of the volleyball scene a few years back.

    • Three Rows Back · August 9, 2015

      I’ll have to check that It’s Always Sunny spoof. Despite the terrible script and dodgy acting, I’m ashamed to say that I still love Top Gun. Lame I know.

  2. le0pard13 · August 8, 2015

    Certainly, a product of its time, but a wonderful bit of subversive filmmaking by the late-Tony Scott for what could be said was a Dept. of Defense recruitment film. Fine look back, Mark.

    • Three Rows Back · August 9, 2015

      Thank you my friend. Tony Scott made some absolutely great films (True Romance being his best in my view) and this, strictly speaking, was the start of it all.

  3. Keith · August 8, 2015

    I can say honestly and without hesitation that I love “Top Gun”. As you allude to it is profoundly 80s and I think that’s a big reason why I love it so. It’s funny, I don’t know how I would react to it if I were a teenager seeing it for the first time today.

    I don’t know if I would go as far as saying how our brain should know better. Entertainment is a funny thing and if a movie is fine it’s worth being applauded. Oh, and I’ve never fully bought into the homoerotic undercurrent suggestion. The well-known beach scene was pure eye candy for the ladies in my opinion. That is certainly the reaction and got at the time. And the song is just typical 80s cheese. Same thing for the shower scene. I remember girls in our school talking about those guys in those towels. Us guys were outmatched. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Three Rows Back · August 9, 2015

      Thanks Keith; glad to read that you’re a big fan too. Fair point about the ‘guilty pleasure’ thing; if you enjoy it there should be nothing guilty about that I guess. As for the homoeroticism, I guess we can agree to disagree on that one…

  4. Stu · August 8, 2015

    Good read! I haven’t seen it in years (decades!) but it all came flooding back here. I’m surprised given his success on TV that Anthony Edwards hasn’t been offered a few more interesting film roles.

    • Three Rows Back · August 9, 2015

      Cheers Stu! Yeah, Edwards never quite got the big screen break he deserved, although he was great in ER. I’d forgotten that Tim Robbins also had a cameo in Top Gun too. He did alright for himself.

  5. ruth · August 9, 2015

    Awesome read Mark, you got me all nostalgic, ahah. I actually rewatched this earlier this year and though it didn’t hold up, it was still pretty watchable. Boy this movie was massively popular though I never had the hots for Cruise, I mean he has a nice face but he’s far too short for my liking.

    “Top Gun remains an adrenalin shot to the stupid, nostalgic part of the brain that should know better.” That’s a great line, you can apply this to a lot of 80s movies I grew up with, ha!

    • Three Rows Back · August 9, 2015

      Certainly! There’s some of Sly Stallone and Arnie’s output for starters!

  6. Tom · August 10, 2015

    This review makes me chuckle, I can’t believe I have managed to avoid this one. I’m almost curious enough now to watch it based on the homoerotic context. All I’ve ever heard being leveled at Top Gun, in terms of its queerness. . .erm, excuse me, weirdness. . . is that the acting is pretty stilted and Top Cruise. . . dammit! — Tom Cruise, is really cheesing it hard in this one. I think the first time I heard of this movie was through Meet the Parents, of all things. There’s a fleeting reference to ‘Maverick’ and ‘Goose’ between (I think) Ben Stiller and Teri Polo and I was always curious about that. I think they referred to an ex of Stiller’s wife as ‘Iceman,’ too. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Great stuff dude.

    • Three Rows Back · August 10, 2015

      I’d forgotten about the Top Gun references in Meet the Parents! I’m ashamed to say that when I was in college I used to play volleyball with my mates, all because we love Top Gun. Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted that…

      • Tom · August 11, 2015

        Oh, you so totally should have.

  7. Jay · August 11, 2015

    This is such a weirdly unhatable movie, you do it justice with this post.

  8. Pingback: Everybody’s Chattin + Trailer Spotlight: Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight |

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