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Top Gun
Savant Blu-ray Review

Top Gun
Paramount Home Entertainment
1986 / Color / 2:35 widescreen (Super 35) / 110 min. / Street Date July 29, 2008 / 29.99
Starring Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside, Rick Rossovich, Tim Robbins, James Tolkan, Meg Ryan, Adrian Pasdar
Cinematography Jeffrey Kimball
Production Design John DeCuir Jr.
Film Editor Chris Lebenzon, Billy Weber
Original Music Harold Faltermeyer
Written by Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr. based on a magazine article by Ehud Yonay
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Don Simpson
Directed by Tony Scott

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

1986's Top Gun is probably the most successful armed forces recruiting film of all time. The story of naval aviator Pete "Maverick" Mitchell's days at the 'Top Gun' fighter training school combines at least two kinds of sex appeal to transform military service into the epitome of Cool. Newly minted heartthrob superstar Tom Cruise displays his limitless inventory of captivating smiles for the unlikely but decorative military analyst played by Kelly MacGillis. But the real sex scenes happen between Cruise and Uncle Sam's multi-million dollar warplanes, photographed in loving in-flight detail that Howard Hughes would envy. The show is a 109-minute gift to our all-volunteer forces, worth more than all the millions of dollars of recruitment propaganda put together.

Paramount's new Blu-ray edition makes this attractively-filmed show look better than it did in theaters, if such a thing is possible.


Hot pilot Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise) disobeys orders to help a disoriented wingman make a carrier landing. Initiative trumps insubordination, and Pete and his sidekick weapons specialist "Goose" Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) are transferred to San Diego's Top Gun school for advanced combat training. There he meets his competition in the form of "Iceman" Kazansky (Val Kilmer), while wooing civilian analyst and tactics instructor Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis). Maverick's "instinctual' dogfight style affects his class score and gets him in trouble with his flight instructors "Viper" Metcalf (Tom Skerritt) and "Jester" Heatherly (Michael Ironside), until a tragedy breaks his nerve and seemingly ends his desire to fly. But Maverick recovers in time to return to the Persian Gulf for serious combat against planes from a belligerent outlaw nation.

Things definitely changed in the thirty years separating Top Gun from James Michener's The Bridges at Toko-Ri, where a reluctant Navy flyer dies in a Korean ditch wondering how in hell he got involved in a fight so far from home. By the Reagan years America maintained a military presence in all corners of the globe, and the higher ranks of our elite combat fliers had developed a warrior cult based on professional principles. Our warships and planes cruise other nations and play aerial chicken with assumed enemies identified only as "the other side", as if the arena of international disputes were a football game, and the Home Team the unquestioned good guys.

Top Gun is extremely attractive to teens looking for excitement, sex and hi-tech hardware; editors Chris Lebenzon and Billy Weber make the Navy into a playground of noisy, fast and extremely deadly supertoys. The pilots are all handsome and virile, and it should be said, photographed with the same sexual adoration as the airplanes. The Top Gun locker room parades as much beefcake appeal as the muscular Seabee chorus in Joshua Logan's South Pacific. In this context sexy Kelly McGillis runs a poor third; her smooching scenes with Cruise are cut short, so as not to draw attention away from our male star.

Maverick is the quintessential role of Tom Cruise's early career, a type that started here and continued in films like Days of Thunder and A Few Good Men. The archetype is an extension of the basic Luke Skywalker template, a callow youth who nevertheless has a near-divine corner on The Right Stuff. Cruise pushes the edge of that particular envelope further, to include an instinctual, God-given sense of entitlement. Behavior that would be boorish arrogance in someone less worthy only serves to make Cruise's characters more attractive. His personal problems are solved mainly by having the other characters adjust their thinking.

Maverick is one of the lesser offenders in Cruise's filmography, but he's the first out of the mold. Pete Mitchell repeatedly disobeys orders only to be given unearned rewards, supposedly because his superiors are wise men who recognize his natural superiority. Showing initiative is different than bull-headedly doing whatever one damn well pleases, yet much of Maverick's success as a top pilot can be attributed to show-off stunts: he's entitled to buzz field towers against orders, like the crazy pilots in 1930s films written by people like Spig Wead. Maverick attends flight school confident that they have nothing to teach him, that his innate talent will make him the winner.

This fantasy naturally extends to Maverick's prowess with the ladies. Serious babe McGillis apparently hangs out in Navy bars waiting for Mr. Right Stud to come along; Maverick woos her with sure-fire gags like singing off-key, flashing "ain't I sumpthin'" killer smiles and following her into the ladies' room. With charming moves like that, McGillis is a goner. From then on she's an accessory who shows up when needed; Top Guns don't chase skirt, skirts chase Top Guns.

The old template for pre-war service films always puts peacetime cadets in a wartime situation, and Top Gun's comes when Cruise & Co. are rushed back to the Gulf to ward off some hostile fighters harassing a crippled Navy ship. Nobody else is available; loose cannon and recent depression case Maverick comes in and saves the day. A score of planes from the faceless, unnamed "other side" are blown to bits, with wing commander James Tolkan cheering Maverick on. Tolkan dispenses with further complications by telling us that the hostiles were obviously embarrassed by their ignominious defeat; both sides are hushing up the incident. Thus the permanent Reagan war against America's enemies continues.

Top Gun's second-unit filming captures superb flying scenes staged by gung-ho squadrons eager to look good on movie screens nationwide. The cutting is rather quick but nowhere near as fast as what we see today; just the same, the filmmakers must rely on plenty of redundant cockpit-to-cockpit dialogue to tell us what's going on. The pilots shoot one another down via video game-like computer interfaces, which any kid can relate to.

This reviewer can attest to the kinds of flying seen in the film after years of crossing California desert back roads en route to Arizona. I don't know if the planes were from Miramar (Navy) or Nellis (Air Force), but on at least three occasions I've been buzzed by jets flying very low and chasing one another through mountain passes. I stopped my car once to watch them. Just flying those things must be extreme hazard activity; fliers definitely have more than their share of guts and grit. A measure of arrogance goes with any high-adrenaline activity; it's only the political dimension that goes sour. We can imagine the cocky Maverick posing for CNN on the flight deck during Operation Desert Storm, chewing gum and ad-libbing a confident, "Well, I'm off to give Saddam his wake-up call."  1 Top Gun producer Jerry Bruckheimer tried to apply the same 80's mindset to his Pearl Harbor, turning the Day of Infamy into just another feel-good kick-ass testosterone epic.

Fans of Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer will get their fill, and Anthony Edwards is the sentimental favorite as the sidekick, who like everyone else seems motivated by love for that scamp Maverick. Meg Ryan has a smaller, early role, and later star Tim Robbins can be seen only in a few shots as a flier with the nickname "Merlin." Perhaps his scenes were cut.

Paramount's Blu-ray disc of Top Gun is clean and crisp, getting the most out of John Schwartzman's slick cinematography. The disc is liberally slathered with DS and 5.1 options in English, French and Spanish. Savant's viewing reminded him very much of the original multi-track experience, which definitely had the audience in its pocket.

Jerry Bruckheimer gathers his director Scott, writer Epps and some military experts for the commentary, while a multi-part docu Danger Zone covers the making of the film. Tony Scott provides an optional commentary for a storyboard comparison, and an extra docu The Best of The Best lauds the expertise of the Navy's elite fliers, excuse me, aviators.

Top Gun's appeal was due in no small part to its hot soundtrack, and the disc includes music videos for Take My Breath Away, The Top Gun Anthem, Heaven in Your Eyes and Danger Zone, which shows up every time the planes go into action, as if programmed into the automated cockpit environment. Top Gun was criticized for grafting MTV glitz onto our nation's defense, but nobody's denying that the mix isn't effective.

TV spots, more EPK featurettes (one on survival techniques) and Tom Cruise interviews finish up the compact package.

The kind of much-resented government recruitment propaganda sent to my son in Junior High School, circa 1999

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Top Gun Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: beaucoup, see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 5, 2008


1. This quote is remembered directly from CNN cable coverage; it's the kind of key video clip that should be part of history but that has disappeared from view.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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