A film review by Craig J. Koban February 26, 2013


1986 / 2013, PG-13, 103 mins.

Tom Cruise: Maverick / Kelly McGillis: Charlie / Val Kilmer: Iceman / Tom Skerrit: Viper / Anthony Edwards: Goose 

Directed by Tony Scott / Written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.


Don’t worry, danger zone and need-for-speed enthusiasts, because TOP GUN - the iconic blockbuster action film from the summer of 1986 - still maintains its unintentional high camp value and all-out decade-defining excesses even in its multimillion dollar three dimensional face-lift.  

The Tony Scott directed and Jerry Bruckheimer co-produced effort, perhaps in pure hindsight, can be considered one of the landmark releases of the 1980s in the manner that it helped define – for better or worse – the pop culture mentality for large scale entertainments.  Infused with propulsive, in-your-face action and an MTV-inspired aesthetic, TOP GUN ushered in the music video movie, an overall subgenre that has been duplicated time and time again in subsequent action films.  You don’t have to like what TOP GUN did, but you have to admire the scope of its sheer influence. 

The film was an unmitigated box office dynamo when released in May of 1986 and easily became the highest grossing film of that year.  It helped launch the careers of both Scott and the then young and rather unproven Tom Cruise as a bona fide and bankable star that would go on to have a highly lucrative career that still pays dividends to this very day.  The film also showed how immensely profitable music tie-ins could be for mass marketed films (TOP GUN's soundtrack alone hit number one on the Billboard Hot 200 chart for five non-consecutive weeks in '86; pretty remarkable).  Beyond that, the film’s ultra jingoistic tone made it a highly popular recruitment tool for the United States Navy; enrolment in aviation went up 500 per cent in the film’s wake.  

Yet, is TOP GUN, 27 years later, still any good, even in a newly minted 3D upgrade?  

Well…the answer is paradoxically both yes and no.  



I’ve seen TOP GUN three times since 1986; the first time on VHS home video (which, to be fair, did not give Scott’s aerial footage the big screen grandeur it deserved), and the second time years later on a wonderful laser disc edition that preserved the film’s widescreen cinematography and channeled a truly rocking digital soundtrack.  My third – and most recent – screening has occurred with the film’s new 3D Blu-Ray release, which has come in the wake of an exclusive six-day IMAX release that began February 8.  To my 13-year old eyes in 1986, I thought that TOP GUN was totally cutting edge.  As for now, seeing it as an adult for the first time in a long while, the film does not quite hold up as well under even modest scrutiny. 

The story is known by heart to those most familiar with it, but as to those that are not it concerns the progress of a young hotshot Naval pilot named Peter “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) as he tries to be the best of the best in an elite fighter pilot school dubbed "Top Gun."  Like just about every other cocky and rebellious persona that has occupied films before and since, Maverick is a rambunctious troublemaker, something that he seems to thrive on.  He’s constantly at odds with his superiors, makes reckless – but infinitely skilful – moves with his plane that no one else can, and manages to find love in the most inopportune ways (like with a PhD flight instructor, played by Kelly McGillis, who looks less like she just came from academia and more like she lunged off the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine).  Yet, a tragic flight manages to cost the life of someone very dear to Maverick, which causes him to have a crisis of conscience, not to mention that he begins to doubt his own skills among the clouds.  Unavoidably, Maverick finds a way to battle his anxieties and insecurities to become a Naval legend. 

It’s beyond easy to see how TOP GUN was so easily spoofed years later with HOT SHOTS, seeing as it’s utterly awash in some of the most overused and banal Hollywood screenwriting conventions and contrivances.  Character conflict is reduced to soap opera levels of dramatic angst, and most of the people that occupy this film are essentially cardboard cut-out props: Maverick is the prototypical…well…maverick: His opposition in Iceman (an engagingly arrogant Val Kilmer) is essentially a one-note jerk that revels in Maverick’s personal failures; and the female love interest is highly educated and liberal minded, but sure reduces herself to dopey-eyed ecstasy when she easily falls for the anti-hero.  The villains that the heroes clash with in the skies during the film's conclusion are so pathetically and vaguely defined that you just kind of want to incredulously laugh. 

Cruise, however, is the film’s magnetic epicenter, and it’s clear from his work here why he became one of the biggest stars of his generation.  He compensates for his characters lame-brained one-dimensionality by infusing in it an intensity and on-screen bravado that helped launch his career post-RISKY BUSINESS and ALL THE RIGHT MOVES.  His chemistry with McGillis, though, is kind of painfully forced, if not dead on arrival.  There never really is a plausible explanation for her attraction to Maverick (beyond physical reasons) and when they do make love, it's shot with such slick and moody cinematography and methodically accentuated by Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” that it comes off more like a Calvin Klein cologne commercial than it does as something intimately erotic.  

People remember the fighter plane footage the most, which, for its time, was considered the zenith of electrifyingly fast paced and kinetic action visuals that have been essentially copied by countless others.  In comparison to today’s horrendous overabundance of queasy-cam hysterics, Scott’s relative editorial restraint in the film looks positively pedestrian and antiquated now.  What’s interesting to note now is that the quick cuts and pans in the aerial dogfight sequences are somewhat ill defined upon a new viewing by me.  At times it’s difficult to understand the spatial relationships between all of the planes and their targets, which seems just haphazardly sandwiched in with cockpit shots and a lot of random stock footage.  More often than not, unidentified planes zip in and out of the frame so irregularly that’s its hard to decipher who’s who.  These sequences now seem ungainly and thrown together, which is hardly the stuff of action film legend. 

As for the 3D?  For such an old release, it’s actually rather well done (the plane footage is undeniably nifty, to be sure, but the rest of the film that concentrates on laughable character dynamics - roughly 80 per cent of it - hardly requires this mostly obtrusive upgrade).  The film sonically reaches nirvana-like states for keen audiophiles: Harold Faltermeyer’s synthesized musical trappings, the pop tunes by Berlin and Kenny Loggins, and the animalistic roar of the jet turbines packs a satisfyingly testosterone-induced jolt, which I guess makes the film’s laundry list of cookie-cutter and hammy dialogue go down better.  TOP GUN, to be fair, is pure cornball through and through, but in many ways it never pretentiously hides its ambitions.  Yes, it boastfully bellows out its well-worn 80’s excesses without any subtlety, but the film, to its credit, did change the modern cinematic language of the action genre for decades in its wake.  Granted, it marked a decided downward aesthetic turn for the movies for placing emphasis on movies-as-a-marketable-product, but not too many films can claim to have changed the medium as much as TOP GUN did.   

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