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.
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.
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).
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 is ‘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.
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”.
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”).
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.