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"You are the top 1% of all naval aviators. The elite. The best of the best. We'll make you better."
The need for speed is in his blood, but it's hardly been an easy ride for Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise). He's held to the most dizzyingly high of standards, given what a gifted aviator his late father was. And yet his father's career ended in disgrace, casting that much more of a leery eye on Maverick. He's prone to insubordination. He's dangerous in the air. But there's no mistaking how supremely talented a pilot Maverick is. Perhaps the Navy's TOPGUN program will smoothen out those rough edges, or maybe the fire that burns within Maverick is precisely what's needed to secure his place on that plaque celebrating the best of the best of the best. The lone certainty is that TOPGUN is going to change Maverick's life forever.
The last time I saw Top Gun, I was a cynical twentysomething who, drawing inspiration from all the wrong sources, wrote an excoriating, borderline-unreadable review dripping with snark. I'm older now. Wiser. Uh, married the daughter of an A-6 pilot, whose family friends I've met include a graduate of and former instructor at the real-life TOPGUN. It follows that, in the proudest tradition of middle-aged men all across this great land, I finally have an appreciation for Top Gun.
And while thoughts of the film may typically turn to the Playing with the Boys volleyball sequence or its onslaught of endlessly quotable one-liners, there really is so much here to appreciate. Top Gun benefits immeasurably from Tony Scott's cinematic eye. Every last frame is stylish as hell and oozes cool. Its groundbreaking aerial photography – a jet-propelled ballet of action – continues to dazzle today, and the overwhelming majority of what you're seeing was shot practically. That infuses these sequences with an immediacy and reality that would be lost if Top Gun had instead relied largely on miniatures, optical effects, or digital effects that wouldn't really have been viable in 1986 besides.
For another, it's rare to find an action movie this iconic with no need for a villain. Fiercely competitive though they are, none of the aviators set out to sabotage one another. Not that it would be terribly hard to guess, but whichever nation is responsible for dispatching those MiG-28s remains nameless, nor is it embodied in some nefarious, moustache-twirling enemy general. Neither does Top Gun culminate in some action movie crisis where the fate of the world/city/loved one lies in the balance, and yet the stakes remain significant.
So much of Top Gun's success in that regard is owed to its cast, from Val Kilmer as the love-to-hate-him Iceman to Anthony Edwards' doggedly loyal goofball Goose to Kelly McGillis as a civilian instructor who'll never be mistaken as some damsel in distress. And this is, of course, the movie that made Tom Cruise a household name, and it's difficult to imagine anyone else in the role of a naval aviator living life on a razor's edge – who's not going to be happy unless he's going Mach 2 with his hair on fire. The camaraderie and brotherhood feel real – feel earned – rather than some cinematic construction. We laugh together. We love together. And because at least some of these characters are so richly drawn, when one of them suffers a fatal accident, it's genuinely horrifying to watch unfold. I'm also impressed by the well-executed arc of Maverick coming to terms with the spectre of his father – a fighter pilot whose unparalleled talent was tarnished by an ignominious end that has as yet gone unexplained. Any other movie would bludgeon viewers over the head with Maverick's desperate search for the truth, but Top Gun approaches it in a much more subtle way. It's always present but rarely in the foreground, serving more to inform Maverick as a character rather than to drive the plot.
And there's a reason why Days of Thunder plays so much like Top Gun-meets-NASCAR, and that's because we're talking about something close enough to a sports movie in the first place. The goal of the TOPGUN program isn't for one aviator and his RIO to get their names on a plaque, no, but everyone's still all too aware of points accrued, who holds the lead, and just how narrow the gap between the top contenders is. But the intention isn't to win at any cost. Top Gun is about being the best – about rising to overcome challenges few would dream possible – and it'd be a hollow victory if unearned. And, again breaking away from convention, the film doesn't build to a climax where supremacy comes down to a final nailbiting challenge pitting Maverick against Iceman. It instead has a different definition of "victory".
I'm all too aware of the irony of saying this about a movie whose sequel is soon to soar into theaters, but it's hard to imagine a movie like Top Gun even being made today. It doesn't settle into a comfortable formula, nor does it embrace the clichés and conventions so often associated with these sorts of summer tentpoles. Why imitate when you can lead? That's why Top Gun proved such a staggering success at the box office. It's why the film was – and still is – so wildly influential. And that's why it continues to endure all these years later. I feel like I've missed out somewhat by failing to recognize this sooner, but an Ultra HD release like this is the perfect opportunity for a re-evaluation. And that's why I can now say that Top Gun deserves its place in the DVD Talk Collector Series.
I try not to throw around words like "revelatory" all that loosely, but...well, the last time I watched Top Gun was on the dismal 2008 Blu-ray release that would be reissued and repackaged more than once in the years since. That disc was dire even by the significantly lower standards of the time, and well over a decade on – cue the dramatic sniff – it stinks. And there's no need to ever suffer through it again, as even the Blu-ray disc in this combo pack has been lovingly remastered.
This isn't a Blu-ray review, though, so let's talk about what a marvel Top Gun is in Ultra HD. Even when I stand just a couple of inches away from the screen, I find myself deeply impressed by the definition and very fine detail so often on display. This grade is drenched in the amber hues of the sun as it begins to set, and such colors as the deep red of Charlie's lipstick are also considerably more impactful now. At no point does the heavy-handed manipulation of years past – excessive filtering and off-the-charts edge enhancement – threaten to mar this immaculate presentation. And such high-contrast photography lends itself beautifully to Dolby Vision. HDR is felt in virtually every shot in the film, adding a presence and a depth that greatly sets itself apart from the SDR presentations elsewhere in this set – even the 4K excerpts in the disc's newly-produced featurette. The specular highlights of all those sweaty brows, the setting sun beating down on the ocean below, the glints of sunlight on metal, and hell, even the moonlight beaming on the strand of saliva connecting Maverick's tongue to Charlie's are all especially striking in HDR, but the benefits extend far beyond those sorts of showstoppers.
Top Gun's filmic texture remains very much present, though it can look a bit strange. At times, it seems as if it's floating above the image rather than being an integral part of it. Standing punishingly close to my TV during the early minutes of the film, the sheen of grain is uneven, it's not always adeptly encoded, and there are flecks of green – chroma noise? – that I don't see on the accompanying Blu-ray disc. And there are moments when the grain is replaced by heavily artifacting noise, such as the jet taking off at the start of the second chapter and that hazy first shot of Iceman in the classroom, though this appears to have crept in during remastering, as they're unmistakeable on Blu-ray as well:
I wouldn't consider any of that to be a persistent nuisance, and I stopped noticing anything along those lines relatively early in the film. Such concerns certainly do little to dim my enthusiasm for what is otherwise such an exceptional presentation, replacing my sour memories of the 2008 release and casting Top Gun in an entirely new light. And for those aching for a couple of additional technical notes, Top Gun soars onto a BD-66 disc at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1.
More impressive still is Top Gun's 24-bit Dolby Atmos audio, which has been included on both discs in this combo pack. I found myself immediately struck by how wide the soundscape is, immersing every square inch of my home theater. The LFE doesn't run quite as hot as earlier Blu-ray editions but feels better balanced. Bass response certainly isn't timid, between the gutteral roar of jet engines, impactful explosions, and Top Gun's thunderous soundtrack. The film's aerial photography is all the more dazzling when reinforced with immersive audio – screaming from one speaker to the next and even encircling me. I'm floored by just how much color is splashed from above, especially the way in which variations in altitude can be felt: the F-14s making their descent towards the U.S.S. Enterprise, Maverick aligning himself alongside an ailing Cougar, and...well, that flat spin. The heights do a wonderful job fleshing out atmosphere and lending the music additional presence as well. Dialogue is reproduced brilliantly, never unduly struggling for placement in the mix. A couple of loudly shouted lines sound a touch edgy, but that's nothing that gives me the least bit of pause. This is a truly remarkable remix and more than deserving of a perfect five star rating.
The list of other audio options is as sprawling as you'd expect. A commentary track is present on both of the discs in this combo pack. Also included on the Ultra HD disc are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in German, French, Italian, Spanish (Castilian and Latin American), Brazilian Portuguese, and Russian. There are two lossy Japanese tracks: the stereo TV Tokyo dub and another in two-channel mono from Fuji TV. Subtitles are served up in English (traditional and SDH), Cantonese, Czech, Danish, German, Spanish (Castilian and Latin American), French, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese (European and Brazilian), Romanian, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, Thai, and Simplified Chinese.
Exclusive to the Ultra HD Disc
- The Legacy of Top Gun (6 min.; UHD / SDR): Leading off the set's seven hours of extras is this brief appreciation, with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Tom Cruise joined by Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski and franchise newcomers Jon Hamm, Jay Ellis, Glen Powell, Miles Teller, Lewis Pullman, Monica Barbaro, and Greg Tarzan Davis. This rightly enthused love letter touches on how influential and enduring Top Gun has proven to be, as well as noting some of the ways in which Maverick pays homage to the original.
On Both Discs in This Combo Pack
- On Your Six – Thirty Years of Top Gun (30 min.; HD): Each segment of this thirtieth anniversary retrospective with Tom Cruise and Jerry Bruckheimer can be viewed individually or played as a single half hour featurette.
- Looking Back
- America's Best
- Into the Danger Zone
- Going Ballistic
- Narrow Targets and the Future
Cruise very much drives the conversation here, whether it's delving into his lifelong passion for military aircraft, using the film as a learning opportunity for every aspect of production and marketing, pushing for Anthony Edwards to be cast as Goose, seemingly on the verge of killing himself on a superbike, or egging on the competitive spirit among pilots during filming. He is, as ever, a wildly engaging presence, ensuring that even a story about vomiting seems charming as hell. Bruckheimer, meanwhile, speaks about how the germ of a concept originated when seeing a picture of inverted F-14s in a 1983 issue of California, endless insurance headaches, and breaking away from the usual "jukebox" soundtrack of discards and leftovers. Also discussed are the Secretary of the Navy being responsible for getting the military to sign off on Top Gun, its groundbreaking aerial photography, and the staggering success of both the film and its soundtrack. And it's kind of fun to hear Cruise speak here about a sequel just beginning to take shape, with Maverick now only months off on the horizon. Though it unavoidably isn't as comprehensive as the far lengthier Danger Zone, "On Your Six" is still a great time and a hell of a way to chase Top Gun. Bonus points for including it on the UHD disc as well.
- Audio Commentary: This archival commentary was pieced together from several separate recording sessions, including turns at the mic by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott, co-writer Jack Epps, Jr., Captain Mike Galpin, technical adviser Pete Pettigrew, and Vice Admiral Mike McCabe. I'm awestruck by just how candid the since-departed Scott is about the experience, describing in detail how many times he was fired from the production and how unhirable he was in the industry following The Hunger. Having actual fighter pilots who've spent so much time at Miramar onboard is a thrill as well, pointing out which elements Top Gun nailed and just how far off it could be. And hey, they even explain that the Righteous Brothers bit was spun off from a Ramones singalong. While there is a great deal of overlap with the feature-length-and-then-some documentary elsewhere in this set, among the topics exclusively discussed here are obscuring the nationality of the film's intended badniks at the State Department's request as well as axing the competition between squadrons and the personalities of each team's individual planes. Having such an expansive variety of participants helps this commentary cast an impressively wide net, and it remains a compelling and exceptionally entertaining listen.
Only on Blu-ray
- Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun (148 min.; SD): By any measure the centerpiece of this special edition is the sprawling Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun – a two and a half hour documentary divided into six parts.
- From the Ground-Up – Pre-production
- Playing with the Boys – Production: Land and Sea
- The Need for Speed – Production: Air
- Back to Basics – Visual Effects
- Combat Rock – The Music of Top Gun
- Afterburn – Release and Impact
As its deceptively daunting runtime suggests, Danger Zone explores Top Gun from just about every conceivable angle, and yet it's infused with so much personality that it never drones on or meanders. The documentary doesn't whitewash over the troubled production, noting what a challenge it was to get Top Gun off the ground, how neither the writers nor director had any clue what jet fighters were actually capable of doing, the many mandates issued by the Navy and State Department, how any semblance of a story during the flights was wholly crafted in editing, the disastrous first cut and astonishingly awful original ending, and the tragic loss of aerial photographer Art Scholl. The translation of directorial notes to flight maneuevers, the dramatic license taken to crank up the drama, the elaborate rigs used to shoot the cockpit interiors, visual effects, music, casting – very little ground is left uncovered, and virtually everyone on both sides of the camera is offered an opportunity to speak. And it's their stories that ensure Danger Zone is such a blast to watch. Whether it's actors getting booted off of an aircraft carrier, Tony Scott digging tens of thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to turn the carrier around and get the shot he wanted, a sequel Paramount scrapped because there wasn't any leftover flying footage, or bullshitting that the Top Gun theme had already been written and then being asked to hammer it out on piano, there are just entirely too many highlights to possibly list here. Extremely comprehensive, nimbly paced, and a hell of a good time, Danger Zone is essential viewing.
- Multi-Angle Storyboards (7 min.; SD): Tony Scott also offers optional commentary over a pair of storyboard comparisons, chatting briefly about Top Gun's daring photography, the editing process, and his particular approach to storyboarding. The comparisons cover two of the movie's dogfight sequences – "Flat Spin" and "Jester's Dead" – and run seven minutes in total. And, at least in theory, you can switch back and forth between the comparisons and the full-screen storyboards if your remote still has an 'Angle' button. Otherwise – like on my Panasonic DP-UB820 – you're stuck fumbling through 'Options' submenus to change the perspective and would be better off just sticking with the default view instead.
- Best of the Best: Inside the Real Top Gun (29 min.; SD): This half hour documentary explores every stage of the grueling and all-too-real nine week course at TOPGUN's current home at the Naval Air Station in Fallon, NV. It addresses in detail all three syllabi and the roles each group of students play: Air Intercept Controllers, pilots taught to fly like the enemy, and the blue team that gets most of the screentime in Top Gun. Among the many topics addressed here are how TOPGUN training has evolved since its formation following the Ault Report, a runthrough of the pilots' gear, and how much time is devoted to instruction and debriefing.
- Music Videos (16 min.; SD): Another staple of Top Gun special editions is this assortment of videos, which includes Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone", Berlin's Academy Award-winning "Take My Breath Away", Loverboy's "Heaven in Your Eyes", and Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens' "Top Gun Anthem".
- Original Theatrical Promotional Material (24 min.; SD): A behind the scenes featurette (6 min.) leads off this assortment of vintage promotional material, delving into Top Gun's drive for realism and dazzling aerial photography in between many, many excerpts from the movie. This is followed by an eight minute look at the survival training the film's cast had to endure, whether it's how to handle ejecting into the ocean or working around a sudden loss of oxygen at these dizzying heights. An interview with a wildly enthusiastic Tom Cruise (7 min.) touches on how he came aboard Top Gun as well as his experiences soaring in the sky with a naval aviator. Last up are seven TV spots, clocking in at 30 seconds a pop.
Top Gun comes packaged in a glossy slipcover. There's also a steelbook in the wings if you don't mind waiting till the holidays. The accompanying digital copy code was, for a time, redeeming in 1080p rather than UHD on VUDU, but I can confirm that error has since been corrected.
The Final Word
Look, you don't need me to sell you on Top Gun as a movie, so I'll skip past that part. If you've somehow never picked up one of its many special editions along the way, there's a wealth of extras you could practically devote a weekend to exploring in full. And no matter how many Top Gun discs you've had on the shelf, words can't begin to convey just how much of a revelation this Ultra HD Blu-ray release is, from its sumptuously beautiful 4K remaster to a borderline-reference quality Atmos remix. DVD Talk Collector Series.