Be Kind, Rewind – TOP GUN Review: The Best of the Best
This is the first of an occasional look at individual films of the 1980s – the decade of my youth. I have an unabashed love for the ‘80s, and during that 10-year span, I graduated both elementary school and high school; I lived the whole of my teenage life, from 13 years 0 days to 19 years 364 days; I heavily participated in the VHS and cable booms; I lived many “firsts,” from first kiss to first … well, you know; and I watched a LOT of movies – movies I’ve been eager to revisit. My intent here is to offer a hard candy shell of a review wrapped around a sweet sticky center of nostalgia. I have no set schedule for this series, nor do I have a set film list; I’m letting inspiration guide me. I hope you’ll follow along.
There were a lot of movies I could have chosen to write about for this maiden entry, from Oscar-winners to obscure pictures and from the iconic to the forgotten. But as I considered titles over the last several weeks, the one that kept coming back to mind was Tony Scott’s Top Gun.
Top Gun tells the story of Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise), a cocky fighter pilot for the United States Navy who goes by the call-sign “Maverick.” Circumstances afford Maverick the opportunity to compete at “Top Gun” – an intramural flying competition (of sorts) for the Navy’s elite pilots. The winner of the contest gets his name in the history books, a very nice plaque, and his choice of assignment. With his RIO (Radio Intercept Navigator), Goose (Anthony Edwards), Maverick’s main competition is the team of Iceman and Slider (Val Kilmer and Rick Rossovich, respectively), but he is also competing against the ghost of his dead father, legendary fighter pilot Duke Mitchell.
But all is not just barrel-rolls and daddy issues. Maverick also finds a love interest in a civilian instructor at Top Gun – the smart and sexy Charlie (Kelly McGillis) – and must face an unexpected tragedy near the end of the competition. So when the F-14 games become the real deal as a result of Soviet MiGs wandering into the wrong airspace, Maverick isn’t sure he has what it takes to be … Top Gun.
Released on May 16, 1986, Top Gun topped the box office charts for the year with $176,781,728 (unadjusted), just edging out the Pul Hogan action/comedy Crocodile Dundee ($174,803,506). For the decade, it came in 12th overall. (The decade champ was 1982’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, from director Steven Spielberg, which earned a staggering $359,197,037 – that’s $1,014,604,900 in 2013 money, kids.) On the awards front, in addition to many other nominations and wins, the film was nominated for four Oscars: Best Sound; Best Film Editing; Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing; and Best Music, Original Song. It won in the last category, for the song “Take My Breath Away.”
There are your official accolades. From here forward, it’s personal.
In the history of the summer blockbuster, from 1975’s Jaws (another Spielberg creation and the film considered by most to be the first summer blockbuster) to 2012’s The Avengers (the summer blockbuster box office champ with $623MM+ in domestic gross), there is no better, more complete, blockbuster than Top Gun. It is, to me, the greatest summer blockbuster ever made, because it succeeds in eight key areas.
1) There is a bona fide movie star in the lead. Not only was the then-25-year-old Cruise handsome, charming, and athletic, he had a well-balanced resume of films that exposed him to all fans of all genres: romance – Endless Love (1981); drama – Taps (1981); literary – The Outsiders (1983); teen-sex comedy – Losin’ It (1983); teen-sport drama – All the Right Moves (1983); and fantasy – Legend (1985). Oh, and in there was one other film – Risky Business (1983) – with its iconic scene of Cruise dancing in his underwear to Bob Seger‘s “Old Time Rock and Roll,” which surely wore out more than one VCR’s rewind button. Cruise was big and poised to go bigger.
2) There is plenty for men to consume. The testosterone level is off the charts in this film, which provides a combination of military components, airborne firepower, a reckless lead with a great motorcycle, and fierce male competition (perhaps the most extreme sport out there, before such a phrase existed). And then there is Kelly McGillis. After appearing in 1983’s Reuben, Reuben, McGillis gained attention as Harrison Ford‘s love interest in Witness (1985). Because she played a prim Amish woman, there was considerable smolder from her in that film, but her full potential as a sexy female lead was unrealized. Rather than cast her as a stereotypical ’80s tart, preening about and begging to be viewed as sexy, McGillis just IS sexy. She is highly intelligent, in a position of civilian authority, commands great respect from her military counterparts, and can hold her own in that “man’s world” of fighter pilots. But she is also a beautiful woman and physically sexy, whether in a pencil skirt, heels, and leather flight jacket, or barefoot in Maverick’s white oxford.
3) There is plenty for women to consume. Okay. Yes, there is romance, in your traditional boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy gets-girl-back structure. And yes, there is a strong female lead in a time when films like this didn’t value such things (and many currently still don’t). But the real draw for women is the abundance of objectified men. I specifically say “objectified” because ’80s films were all about female objectification, so it’s kind of nice to see the tables turned. In addition to an abundance of handsomeness in dress Navy uniforms, there are also plenty locker room moments, where the pilots wander about in various states of undress. But the true beefcake moment of the film comes with the 2-v-2 beach volleyball game between Maverick/Goose and Iceman/Slider. It serves absolutely no purpose to story or character advancement, which means it is simply there for titillation. Finally, one for the ladies.
4) The film has violent action, but it is bloodless. When you look at the action films of pre-1986 ’80s, the violence in those pictures is gun-centric, and at times excessive and/or gory. Sylvester Stallone had two First Blood films. Arnold Schwarzenegger had The Terminator and Commando. Clint Eastwood had several Dirty Harry films (carrying over from the 1970s). Eddie Murphy had 48 HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop. Chuck Norris‘ violent oeuvre is too lengthy to list here. There are other films of lesser consequence, as well as direct-to-video knock-offs. Of course that vein of action was popular, but it could certainly be a turn-off to some and numbing to others. With this type of military action in Top Gun, which is easy to view as plane vs. plane instead of man vs. man, coupled with enemy victims who were always faceless and always on equal footing with the heroes, in, essentially, one (long) climactic scene, the film’s violence is more sterile, yet still exciting to the viewer.
5) The film is both patriotic and xenophobic, but not overtly so. Two recurring themes found in many films of the 1980s always seem to be joined together: patriotism and xenophobia. We were a nation using film to come to grips with our involvement in Vietnam, as well as with how we treated our returning veterans. At the same time, the Cold War was red hot, and many of our cinematic enemies were Soviets. Films like 1984’s Red Dawn (Colorado teens fight Soviet invaders) and 1985’s Invasion U.S.A. (Norris is a one-man army when Florida faces the potential for Soviet invaders) constantly waved the flag and reminded us who the enemy was. Even Rocky IV (1985) got in on the act by putting all of that patriotism and xenophobia in the boxing ring, with Rocky (Stallone) donning his American flag trunks and taking the fight to Ivan Drago (Dolph Lungren) in the Russian motherland. At the time, it worked; today, it plays like an updated version of 1940s WWII propaganda-driven fare … only with heaping amounts of ’80s cheese. Not Top Gun. The heroes are American and the external enemy is Russian, but no one needs to prattle on about patriotism at the end of the movie because everyone already knows the score. Other films showboat; this one acts like it belongs there.
6) In addition to action and romance, it has comedy and tragedy, too. The comic relief is all Anthony Edwards. His is the least … beefy? … of characters, so the filmmakers are wise to make him the funny one. The nicely deadpanned delivery isn’t constant (read: not annoying), and when it hits, it hits on all cylinders. The tragedy, however, is two-fold. The first part has to do with the death of a major character and how Maverick handles himself in the wake of that death. The other is less tragedy and more pathos, as Maverick must also live in the shadow of his legendary father, with whom the head of Top Gun, Viper (Tom Skerritt), flew missions. Like I said, it’s not all barrel-rolls.
7) The film is endlessly quotable. There are too many quotes to mention here without typing the entire screenplay, but here are a few of my favorites:
- Maverick and Goose: “I feel the need … the need for speed!”
- Stinger (James Tolken): “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.”
- Jester (Michael Ironside): “He flies by the seat of his pants – completely unpredictable.”
It’s memorable dialogue like this – with lines that I have used, quite frankly, in my car (don’t judge me) – that still resonates 25+ years later. (A more robust list of quotes can be found on IMDb.)
8) And oh … that soundtrack. Just as the genesis of the Summer Blockbuster has its roots in the 1970s, so too does the rebirth of the Movie Soundtrack. After incredible success with the soundtracks to Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978), Hollywood quickly learned that interest in music from a film can generate interest in that film (and vice versa), and if you can tailor a hit song to place in that film, you might just get a hit film with it. It doesn’t always work, but when it does … . Of the all-time Top 10 selling movie soundtracks, Top Gun comes in at #7 with 20MM copies sold. (Topping the overall chart is 1992’s The Bodyguard with 37MM copies.) Loaded with songs from some of the biggest acts of the decade – including Kenny Loggins, Cheap Trick, Miami Sound Machine, and Loverboy, and featuring the Oscar-winning “Take My Breath Away,” performed by Berlin – the soundtrack is as intertwined with the film it accompanies as any other record/movie combination out there.
There are countless films that are better films than this one, but I am hard-pressed to find one that does everything that this one does to the degree that it does it. It has box office and awards success, it appeals to both sexes, it has action, comedy, drama, pathos, memorable dialogue, a classic soundtrack, and a movie star lead. What other film can claim all of those things? That’s why I believe that, pound-for-pound, Top Gun is the greatest summer blockbuster of all time.