Paramount has re-released, under their new I Love the 80s marketing banner, their 2004 Special Collector's Edition of Top Gun, minus the second disc of bonuses from that release. The commentary track is still here, along with the music videos and the seven different TV trailer spots, but the behind-the-scenes documentaries are gone, replaced, rather inexplicably, with a four-song CD of music from the 80s. Owners of the previous edition, then, shouldn't feel a need to speed out to the stores for this truncated release.
I'm fairly certain I haven't seen Top Gun since it premiered back in May of 1986, when you couldn't get away from the goddamned thing, what with it quickly zooming to the top of the B.O. charts, its malodorous songs permeating the airwaves, and its laughably bad music videos in constant rotation on MTV. Watching it on a date (I was dragged to it), I knew it was junk, through and through, but there was no denying that on the big screen, it did work as a mindless sensory-overload carnival ride, where the roaring dogfight scenes vied with director Tony Scott's penchant for making every single shot, regardless of its importance, look like something out of a glossy high-fashion magazine. It was eye candy, and you forgot most of it on the way back to your car, but it obviously struck a nerve with audiences back in 1986, so I was curious to see how it would hold up 22 years later.
Surprisingly...not too bad. And by that I mean, it's still twaddle, but there's no denying it's competently crafted (and calculated) twaddle, perfectly summing up a time and place in film history that, like it or not, is still influencing how films are made today. Baby-faced, insanely-grinning Tom Cruise (hey, I called it a long time ago - he was creepy way before Oprah) plays Naval aviator Lieutenant Pete Mitchell (call sign: "Maverick"), a hotshot pilot who "breaks all the rules" but gets away with it because he's so damned good at what he does. After a comical encounter with a MiG-28 over the Indian Ocean, and after fellow fighter pilot Lt. Bill "Cougar" Cortell (John Stockwell) flips out and loses his nerve, Maverick and his RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) Lt. Nick "Goose" Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) take over Cougar's intended slot at the Navy's ultra-elite "Top Gun" school in Miramar, California. Now it's time to see if the rebel Maverick, who has serious flying skills but also a serious problem with Navy discipline, can hack it with the top 1% of Naval fighter pilots.
Once at Top Gun, Maverick immediately runs into trouble on several fronts. He angers his top commanders, Commander Mike "Viper" Metcalf (Tom Skerritt) and Lt. Commander Rick "Jester" Heatherly (Michael Ironside) by being the cockiest S.O.B. they've ever seen, perhaps best demonstrated by his juvenile (and dangerous) buzzing of the tower after besting Jester in a simulated dog fight. He also isn't getting any respect from probably the best technical pilot in the program, the appropriately nicknamed "Iceman," Lt. Tom Kazansky (Val Kilmer), who admires Maverick's skills, but deplores his recklessness. And further complicating his life, Maverick has fallen for Charlie Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), a knock-out blonde astrophysicist who, although she's initially only interested in Maverick's previous encounter with the MiG-28, gradually falls under the spell of his relentless pursuit of her. Now all Maverick has to do is juggle all of these personal and professional problems, while dealing with the ghost of his past (the mysterious - and according to the Navy, the ignominious - death of his aviator father). But none of that will compare to a tragedy that strikes at Maverick's very core, putting the hotshot pilot into a tailspin from which he may never recover.
I remember quite a few miffed critics in 1986 (the film was not well received by the mainstream media) denigrating Top Gun as an ultra-patriotic, jingoistic enterprise in sunshine-up-your-ass Reganomics - a persistent perception of the film that had even stayed in the back of my mind after 22 years. But watching Top Gun today, I was surprised at how indirect (if not outright sublimated) the notion of "patriotism" is in the film. Hardly a "flag-waver," Top Gun is certainly pro-military because it treats its characters with respect as to what they do (as indeed it should). That respect for the military, and the film's grounded center that acknowledges the military's essential "correctness" in being an active, training, fighting force (for the sake of protecting our interests at home and abroad) certainly was a factor in the film's box office success, after American movie audiences (probably with the release of the mesmerizing The Deer Hunter and certainly with the silly An Officer and a Gentleman) had tired of over a decade of Hollywood films that painted their sons and daughters in the military as louts, murderers and torturers (sound familiar, huh?).
On the contrary, Top Gun's central dynamics are remarkably "selfish" (in character motivation), as opposed to being oriented towards getting across a broad blanket of patriotic pride, firing up the audience to chant "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" in the theater. With the "villains" of the piece (the mysteriously unnamed MiG-28 fighters who were North Koreans in the original screenplay) remaining anonymous, combined with the "peace time" nature of the opening and closing dogfights (the final combat occurs during a rescue mission, with the enemy country denying the fight ever occurred after they lose out to Maverick's four kills), Top Gun's conflict is centered almost exclusively around Maverick's personal foibles. With the international conflict safely relegated to the background, Top Gun becomes a Hawksian/Hemingwayesque examination of a man's struggle to achieve perfection in his craft, while battling with his darker nature to achieve some kind of balance in his romantic life.
Of course, this Hawksian/Hemingwayesque subtext is by no means rendered in a meaningful fashion in the breathtakingly superficial Top Gun; it's Hawks and Hemingway as distilled through an eight-year-old's comic book, which is then adapted for an MTV music video. And that's a shame, really, because the material is there for a serious meditation on the emotional plight of a Naval aviator, but director Scott and producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson (they of the similarly emotionally retarded Flashdance) sell out the story's potential for pretty pictures and staggeringly facile characterizations and motivations that make Top Gun have the emotional weight of tsetse fly.
And for anybody even faintly familiar with decades of Hollywood war films, Top Gun is distressingly old-hat. From Maverick's buzzing of the tower (I think they even had that in one of the early Abbott and Costello military pictures), to his rivalry with his cold, efficient (but admiring) challenger Iceman, to his breakdown of nerves after losing "Sacrificial Best Friend #1" Goose (who didn't know Goose's goose was cooked the minute his Sunday magazine supplement family came scampering into frame?), to his almost turning tail during the final dogfight, only to come back and blast the baddies, Top Gun is relentlessly predictable and thoroughly hackneyed in its story. But none of that iconography and previously charted territory probably resonated with the young pre-teens and high-schoolers, oblivious to any movie more than five years old (and certainly nothing in black and white), who fueled Top Gun's remarkable box office take. Marketed and sold like a gigantic MTV music video, Top Gun hooked the young guys on the macho posturing and the amusement park thrill ride sensations of the dogfights, while the young girls (and, according to the director on the commentary track, the "San Francisco audience") openly and safely ogled the hot young male actors who frequently walk around half dressed in the film.
And on that shallow, artificial, one-dimensional level, Top Gun does work well enough. And certainly, the dogfight scenes are probably the most successful element of the film. There's a nicely observed feeling of proportional power to director Scott's aerial scenes. The opening sequence, showing the F-14s taking off from an aircraft carrier, is rather remarkable in getting across the primitive feel of these powerful jets (in Scott's foreshortened, telephoto shots, they look like lumbering medieval, fire-spitting dragons), while later dogfights are shot in crystalline blue skies with futuristic hard-edged lines and an emphasis on exploiting the modern wizardry that goes into the aeronautics of these fantastic machines (and no CGI helps, too). For all those audience members who became hooked a few years before on seeing An Officer and a Gentleman's Richard Gere's plaintive desire to "fly jets" (the film ends before we get a chance to see that), Top Gun more than satisfies that need for speed.
But too much of the MTV-obsessed movie-making techniques of the mid-80s can sometimes spoil those fun aerial moments, as well. Choppy editing, that at times renders the individual dogfights incomprehensible in their geography and linear logic, competes with the gawd awful inclusion of thumping, driving song tripe like Kenny Loggin's Danger Zone (which is repeated to the point of nausea), both of which contribute to the feeling that Top Gun is an elongated commercial/music video, rather than an actual movie. And into this pre-designed dramatic shorthand are plugged the actors, who have to rely on their charisma alone to make any kind of connection with the audience. I've never been a fan of Cruise, then or now. Katherine Hepburn once said of Meryl Streep that you can hear the tick, tick, tick of the cogs and wheels in her head (meaning she's always calculated and never "real"). Well, Cruise doesn't even have any cogs or wheels in his head. Some actors radiate an innate intelligence...and then there's Cruise. But he fits the bill physically here, and his dark looks contrast nicely with the blonde, statuesque McGillis (even though they seem curiously stiff with each other). Kilmer probably comes off best (look at how he approaches scenes - a real actor - as opposed to "movie star" Cruise), while Edwards is pretty embarrassing in the George Tobias/Alan Hale, Sr. tragic sidekick role (everybody is laughing in this film, but nobody is funny). And the less said about Meg Ryan's Hee Haw Honeys accent, the better. But again, the actual performances (as with the dialogue and the plot) are secondary to the main purpose of the film: to overload your senses.
Again, this is the same transfer that was used for the 2004 Special Collector's Edition, so anyone looking for an upgrade should probably check out the Blu-Ray release. The anamorphically enhanced, 2.35:1 widescreen transfer does have grain issues and a small amount of print anomalies, including dirt and scratches. But overall, it's a pretty sharp presentation. Fine detail is fair, along with accurately rendered flesh tones and super-solid blacks. I didn't see any compression issues to speak of, while the sharpness of the picture was considerable.
And again, the same sound mix options are here as were present on the 2004 release. The English 6.1 DTS Surround mix is, in a word, awesome. If you're going to have a film like Top Gun in your library, a film that absolutely depends on its visual and aura qualities to make any kind of impression, than you can't complain about this amazing mix. Surround aspects are integrated superbly, while bass levels and dynamic range are solid. Dialogue is crisp and clear (but who cares; get to the action scenes). There is also a Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround mix (which is terrific, as well), along with English and French 2.0 mixes. English and Spanish subtitles are available, along with close-captions.
There's a full-length commentary track featuring director Tony Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, screenwriter Jack Epps, technical advisor Pete Pettigrew, Naval Captain Mike Galpin and Vice Admiral Mike McCade. Scott and Bruckheimer make sporadic appearances here (the entire commentary has been spliced together from individual sessions), while the Naval personnel take center stage - and they're terrific. There's a pretty interesting point, about half way through the film, where Pettigrew, somewhat sheepishly, mentions that someone (probably involved in producing the commentary) has noted that he's "beating up" on the film, and that he wants to set the record straight that he actually does enjoy the film. It's an amusing moment, because Pettigrew and the other Naval personnel have almost been laughing at the film up until this point, saying how "Hollywood" it is compared to the "real" Top Gun school (there isn't even a trophy that guys win at the school - the central plot point of the whole film!). As well, there are four vintage music videos for the film: Kenny Loggin's Danger Zone (jesus, what a nightmare; get off that bed, you idiot!); Berlin's Take My Breath Away (which is exactly what they can do if I ever hear that song again); Loverboy's (hee hee!) Heaven In Your Eyes, and Harold Faltemeyer and Steve Stevens' instrumental Top Gun Anthem (one of those creepy MTV instrumental videos that had you switching the channel, but quick). Most fun of all are the seven television trailer spots, edited specifically to capture narrow marketing niches: Patriotism, Story, Male Action, Romance, Cruise/Action, Cruise/Moody, and Music. I love to see Hollywood marketing in action. As well, instead of the second disc of bonus material that was included in the 2004 DVD release, Paramount has included a four-song music CD which includes: Echo & the Bunnymen's Lips Like Sugar, Erasure's Chains of Love, INXS' Need You Tonight, and a-ha's Take on Me. Um....why?
If you're in the mood to wile away a couple of hours flipping through a heavy, glossy, expensive magazine - but you don't want to look at million dollars homes, or extensive gardens, or numerous perfume ads - then Top Gun's kick-ass, superficial ode to Naval aviators should fit the bill nicely. Unrelentingly dumb and remarkably unmotivated, the visuals still provide some eye candy for zoning out, while every body and every thing looks very pretty and shiny. Too bad they didn't really try to make a movie, instead of a music video. Still, if you want to understand Hollywood films from the mid-80s, you need to see Top Gun. There are small pleasures to be found there; just don't tell anyone that you actually liked it. I recommend Top Gun.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.