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 isĀ  ‘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.

Review – Django Unchained

For a writer and director who’s the unashamed king of the movie homage there really isn’t anyone else out there making films quite like Quentin Tarantino.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained – arguably his most outrageous film yet

Django Unchained, Tarantino’s eighth feature is arguably his most outrageous yet and serves up a similar stylistic mash-up as his previous film Inglourious Basterds.

In that movie, he somehow got away with making a World War Two spaghetti western (complete with Ennio Morricone music) where a squadron of Jewish-American soldiers give the Nazis a taste of their own medicine.

Here, Tarantino uses a similar mould for his most fully realised and satisfying film since Jackie Brown, jettisoning the episodic structure that has been so familiar throughout his filmography.

Django Unchained is a western with extra spaghetti sauce and features a blaxploitation hero even cooler than Shaft. From the title, which directly references the 1966 spaghetti western Django starring Franco Nero (who makes a cameo here), to the red-painted opening credits, music, ultra violence and theme of revenge (common to virtually all of Tarantino’s work), the film sends the homage-o-meter up to 11.

Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) shows Django (Jamie Foxx) the way of the gun in Django Unchained

Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) shows Django (Jamie Foxx) the way of the gun in Django Unchained

It’s also the writer-director’s most overtly political work to date, addressing the still thorny subject of slavery in a frank and often brutal way. Our hero is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in 1858 Texas who wins his freedom thanks to the intervention of Christoph Waltz’s German dentist-turned bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (it can’t be a coincidence that a character who abhors slavery shares his name with Dr Martin Luther King).

The sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained

The sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained

Schultz takes Django under his wing and trains him in the art of bounty hunting (“like slavery, it’s a flesh for cash business”) and, in return for assisting him, Schultz agrees to help Django win the freedom of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a slave forced to work at the perversely named Candyland, owned by the despicable sadist and racial supremacist Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, sporting horribly blackened teeth).

Tarantino has never been one to shy away from throwing in the kitchen sink when it comes to on-screen violence. It’s a facet of his work that has attracted considerable consternation from critics and commentators throughout his career, but while he no doubt takes great pleasure in seeing how far he can go he also never lets you forget that violence and bullets hurt – a lot. When we see slaves being killed in the most vicious of ways at the hands of Candie, we’re left in no uncertain terms that this is no laughing matter.

The deplorable house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) in Django Unchained

The deplorable house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) in Django Unchained

That being said, just as the Nazis have it coming in Inglourious Basterds, there’s a certain gleeful satisfaction in seeing a black man administer justice of the most merciless kind to the racist white trash who have profited from and exploited the slave trade.

In the film’s most amusing scene , a group of proto-Ku Klux Klansmen led by Big Daddy (Don Johnson) go in search of Schultz and Django, only to bicker among themselves because they can’t see properly out of their white hoods. It’s a nicely observed comment on the absurdity and cowardice of racism.

Tarantino also nods to classic John Ford westerns, framing his heroes against a series of expansive vistas, beautifully filmed by cinematographer Robert Richardson, and conjures up a number of arresting images, most strikingly when blood splattters over pure white cotton on a plantation.

Quentin Tarantino directs and unfortunately stars in Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino directs and unfortunately stars in Django Unchained

As verbose as Tarantino’s scripts are, his rich dialogue is a gift for the superlative cast he’s assembled here. Waltz almost steals the show as the kind-but-deadly Schultz, as memorable a screen presence as his diabolical Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds.

Foxx does a nice line in man-with-no-name quiet intensity (can you imagine what Will Smith, Tarantino’s original choice, would have done with the role?), while DiCaprio has a whale of a time tearing it up as the dapper southern aristocrat out of control in his own private fiefdom.

The colourfully dressed Django (Jamie Foxx) kicks ass and takes names in Django Unchained

The colourfully dressed Django (Jamie Foxx) kicks ass and takes names in Django Unchained

However, all pale in comparison to the quite brilliant Samuel L Jackson as Stephen, Candie’s house slave who’s so servile he makes Uncle Tom look like a Black Panther. Hidden behind that frail, shuffling walk lies a truly abominable human being who, when he isn’t perched on Candie’s shoulder like a parrot repeating his every line, is punishing his fellow slaves and conspiring against them to get in his white master’s good books. It’s a very disturbing performance that only Tarantino and Jackson could have dreamt up.

What Tarantino still has some trouble with, however, is acting and he’s truly terrible as an Australian (!) slave driver. He can’t even resist affording himself the film’s most colourful death. This entire section is the only weak spot in the whole movie. There’s a natural end point before this, but Tarantino (who has previously admitted to not showing enough discipline when it comes to a script) gives himself another half an hour before he finally wraps things up, all be it in a pleasingly brutal way.

The thing you have to admire about Tarantino is that he’s a rock’n’roll director in the truest sense, a film geek who wants to share his love of cinema’s outer margins and with Django Unchained he hits it out of the park.