Top Gun Review

Top Gun - Movie Review


I hardly remember it, but I actually watched and reviewed Top Gun almost ten years ago, when this website was in its infancy. After re-reading those 600+ scathing words, I realized I was both very right and very wrong. John at 21 thought Top Gun was cheesy and rote, and he hated it. John at 31 thinks Top Gun is cheesy and rote, and he kind of loves it.

Wherever you land on the film, it’s hard to argue its influence on the film industry and culture more generally. Top Gun made Tom Cruise an absolute superstar. It prominently features two songs that at least partially define the sound of 80s pop. And it made bomber jackets and aviator sunglasses cool. Hell, the U.S. navy set up booths in some theaters to recruit (I’ll say it) crazy people who wanted to be the next Maverick or Iceman. It’s the kind of phenomenon a filmmaker could only dream about with this second title, and despite its flaws, it’s the movie that put Tony Scott on the map.

The film opens with one of its best sequences wherein we get a sense of who Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) really is. He and his partner, Goose (Anthony Edwards), are attempting to intercept two hostile aircraft when one of them locks onto their wingman, Cougar (John Stockwell). Through some elusive maneuvering, Maverick is able to recover, drive off the enemy MiGs, and guide an unresponsive Cougar back to safety (against the orders of his superior officers). The stress of all this leads Cougar to give up his wings and his spot at the prestigious Naval Fighter Weapons School (a.k.a. Top Gun) in Miramar, California. Maverick is happy to take his place, and Goose is never too far behind his partner.

Once there, Maverick clashes ego-first with Top Gun’s top student, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), who objects to his counterpart’s reckless style. They train, and they feud. Maverick scores points, but at first, he struggles to score in other ways. Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis) is a civilian Top Gun instructor and the apple of Maverick’s eye. It’s technically not against the rules for them to get together, but it’s certainly a shade of gray both would be happy to avoid. Can they? (You probably already know the answer…)

The film does struggle from a storytelling perspective because the stakes of the Top Gun missions are pretty minimal. Considering how cocky Maverick is, it’s hard to care too much whether he comes in first or second. You root for him to an extent because Tom Cruise is so damn charming, but it’s not until the film’s conclusion that its action scenes elevate above well-constructed and actively engage you.

That said, the film’s action is extremely well-constructed, especially considering it was Scott’s first crack at anything like this. This was my biggest whiff from 2010 to now. When I first saw Top Gun, I thought the action scenes were generic, but that was before we ran through a decade of jumbled, lifeless Marvel and Star Wars action nonsense. It’s easy to forget how good Tony Scott was at maintaining perspective through his films’ sometimes chaotic (usually by design) style of editing. But that’s what Top Gun does best – throw you into the sky without getting lost in it – and he puts it together with quick cuts that keep everything deliciously tense.

The romance side of Top Gun is … OK. The film is full of some really delightful and unintentional comedy – like the beach volleyball scene in which Cruise is shirtless, glistening, and for some reason wearing blue jeans. Unfortunately he and McGillis contribute a good bit to this department, as well, like their face-eating makeout session and the fact that he asks her on their first “date” to take a shower at her house. These two people are clearly not meant to be together for ever, but they’re both appealing enough as actors that it makes some sense they’d want to try.

If Charlie isn’t Maverick’s soulmate, then maybe it’s Goose, and if Anthony Edwards doesn’t give the film’s most fun supporting performance, then it must be Meg Ryan as his wife. No word if we’ll see Mrs. Goose in Top Gun: Maverick later this year, but their soon (the future “Rooster”) will be.

This is not Tony Scott’s best film by a long shot, but it might be the most Tony Scott film (or at least close to it). Everything that he’d later trademark is here in spades from the tight action scenes to the uber-saturated establishing shots and a certain blue-collar sexiness that he’d make a career out of. His first film, The Hunger, featured aging vampires. His follow-up focused on chiseled fighter pilots. It’s as big a leap as it sounds, and he’s still only getting started.

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