Film Review: Top Gun

Believe it or not, despite how big of a fan I am of Tom Cruise, I’ve never actually seen 1986’s Top Gun. Of course, by virtue of its cultural impact, I know some of the moments, like the volleyball scene, or the, “I have the need, the need for speed!” line, or “entering the danger zone,” but otherwise, yeah, I’ve never seen it! Ahead of seeing the sequel 36 years after the fact, I suppose it’s a good time as any to finally watch it (FYI: it leaves Netflix in two days).

Poster for Top Gun.

Top Gun made a lot of money for 1986 and on a small budget of $15 million (way to utilize that budget to the max, I’d say): $180 million domestic and $177 million international for a global total of $357 million. That made it easily the top film of 1986 (the next biggest was Crocodile Dundee at $116 million). Adjusted for inflation, that’s $475 million in 2022 dollars. On the global front, that’s nearly a billion dollar film at $942 million.

Because of that and its cultural impact, I’m kind of surprised it took 36 years for a follow-up, especially also given the advent of CGI and other advancements in film-making that occurred over the four decades after its release. According to Screen Rant, the reason the film never saw a sequel is because of the scandal involving the United States Navy and Marine Corps known as the Tailhook scandal in 1991. Up to 83 women and seven men were sexually assaulted at a hotel.

That resulted in the Navy pulling its support out of the sequel, and even blaming the first film’s popularity (and Maverick character) for Tailhook, mainly that it encouraged the lewd behavior (more on that in a moment).

Apparently, by 2010, when the scandal died down, Cruise, Tony Scott (director of the first film), and Jerry Bruckheimer (famed producer) started going forward with a sequel, but unfortunately, Scott committed suicide. That pushed development on a sequel further back.

Now, we’re here, just in time for Memorial Day, with a sequel.

To just further illustrate how wild this time gap is: Cruise was 23-ish at the time of Top Gun. He’s 59 now.

Anyhow, I don’t think it takes a cinematic genius or film critic to understand why Top Gun was so popular and embedded itself within the popular culture at the time, for the last 36 years, and is going to make its sequel a lot of money: People like to watch things go vroom. Look at the Fast and Furious franchise. But instead of fast cars, we’re talking about fighter jets, with incredible aerial footage, especially for 1986!

Fun fact: The U.S. Navy has the world’s second largest air force (behind only the U.S. Air Force), which is wild to think about. I will say, that you can take off and land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier moving in the ocean is incredible. Human engineering, even for potentially awful ends (war), is impressive.

Everything outside of the aerial footage of the planes could have been Cruise and the rest of the cast sitting at a bar talking nonsense and it wouldn’t have mattered. The draw was the vroom. That said, I think everything outside of the aerial footage gets a bad reputation. The critical consensus on Rottentomatoes remarks upon the incredible aerial footage, but said the movie offers “too little for non-adolescent viewers to chew on when its characters aren’t in the air.” And with the sequel coming out, I’ve seen a lot of chatter on Twitter trashing that aspect of the film, too.

But I don’t know! Aside from playing Berlin’s, “Take My Breath Away,” far too many times as to hit me over the head with it, I thought they told a good enough story! Cruise’s character, Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a U.S. Navy pilot, flies with his partner, LTJG Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (played by Anthony Edwards), as they go through “top gun,” the Navy’s elite Naval Fighter Weapons School in Miramar, California. Basically, they teach dogfighting in the skies.

Which is interesting because, for the most part, the United States hasn’t had to engage in any dogfighting since Vietnam. I know they’ve lost aircraft, like in the Persian Gulf War, which happened shortly after this film, but actual dogfighting with other countries? The U.S. is just too dominant a military power for other countries to tempt that. Reportedly, there was a “dogfight” in 2017 with a Syrian plane, but it apparently wasn’t much of an actual dogfight.

Anyhow, Maverick is exactly what his aviator callsign suggests: He’s a maverick who bends the rules, but can sort of get away with it because he’s that darn good of a pilot. However, as Goose suggests to him, his risk-taking stems from him fighting “ghosts” in the skies, aka his father’s opaque legacy in the Navy, and trying to prove something. So, there’s that.

At the beginning of the film, Maverick shows off his maverickness by helping Cougar (played by John Stockwell) after they encounter hostile MiG-28 aircraft, often called MiGs, although it’s never explained who these hostile MiGs are and why they would be messing with the U.S. Nonetheless, the entire time, Cougar’s second, I guess the Radar Intercept Officer, keeps screaming at Cougar to go back to the aircraft carrier and land because they’re dangerously low on fuel. Why can’t the number two in the plane land the plane? That seems like a design flaw and a strategic error. If something should happen to the number one, like in this scenario, then shouldn’t the number two be able to take lead? Apparently, the Navy didn’t train RIOs to fly, and there are no flight controls in the backseat. What the heck …

Then there’s the romance angle, with the overused song, between Maverick and Charlie (played by Kelly McGillis), one of the instructors at Top Gun. That’s where the Navy’s complaint about the behavior on display comes in because Maverick, in an attempt to get a date with her (despite knowing she’s married!), follows her into the bathroom at the bar to continue to “pursue her.” Yes, that was wrong, and gross. Take “no” for an answer, Maverick. But because it’s Hollywood, he of course ends up with the girl in the end. The movie seems to forget the Charlie-being-married part, or that she’s an instructor and it would be inappropriate to have a relationship with one of the flight students. Alas.

Finally, there’s also the competitiveness with another Top Gun student, Iceman (played by Val Kilmer), which I’m surprised they never came to blows, or even a heated shoving match.

Ultimately, I’m not going to full-throated defend the non-flying storylines, but I do think there is more meat on the bone here than people are giving it credit for. Goose ends up dying in a training accident when they go into an unrecoverable flat spin (which looks utterly terrifying), and have to eject, but he hits his head on the aircraft’s canopy. That whole sequence is a white-knuckling affair. Because of that, I think if they had focused more on Maverick and Goose’s relationship as friends (and there is some focus, like Maverick telling Goose he won’t let him down) instead of the budding romance with Charlie, then Goose’s death would have had even more impact.

And I shouldn’t laugh, but I did find it rather amusing that after a Navy training accident where the two pilots eject into the water (and one of them is presumed dead), it isn’t the Navy who comes to their rescue, but the U.S. Coast Guard.

Still, vroom! The vroom reminds me a little bit of the Transformers films, though. Yes, I’m one of the people who has always enjoyed that franchise, but one of the rightful criticisms is that it’s impossible to follow the action, especially when the transformers are fighting each other. I feel sort of the same about the dogfighting/training in Top Gun. I, for one, have a hard time understanding what the heck is going on, or trying to be achieved, but like with Transformers, I don’t care all that much because it’s exciting to watch.

I will also note that the ending story is just as confusing as the beginning one: Maverick and Iceman are called in to deal with a “crisis situation” (and then we see that 24 hours transpire after they are told that, which doesn’t make for much of a crisis, huh?), where they need to provide air support to rescue the SS Layton, disabled in hostile waters. Whose hostile waters?! And we never even end up finding out if the rescue of the Layton was successful. Six MiGs end up converging upon Iceman and Maverick. Who are they?! Who would risk starting a war — because shooting American pilots out of the sky would surely count as an act of war necessitating retaliation — with America over a disabled ship, no less?

Anyhow, vroom! Exciting stuff. As mentioned, just as much as I like the vroom, I also like to go “cruising.” Oh yeah.

I can’t wait to see the sequel and more vroom vroom, but supposedly the story is stronger on this one going by the critical response and fan response.

This could (and may) be its own blog post, but has there been a bad Tom Cruise movie? I haven’t seen his entire oeuvre, but of what I’ve seen, I would answer “no.” Tom Cruise does not make bad movies.

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