Movie Project #27: Top Gun [1986]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Top Gun [1986]

Top Gun [1986] 
Director: Tony Scott
Writers: Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr.
Country: USA
Genre: Action/Drama/Romance
Starring: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards
Running Time: 110 minutes

It’s near impossible to watch Top Gun without thinking of the countless references and parodies it has spawned since its release. Between the running “Danger Zone” gags in Archer and Quentin Tarantino’s infamous homosexuality theory (not to mention Hot Shots!), there’s just no way Top Gun can be taken seriously. Of course, it helps that the film itself is a loud, brash “AMERICA FUCK YEAH!” Polaroid-taking, middle finger-waving, karaoke-singing cinematic spectacle.

Top Gun is about two things: fighter jets and “Maverick” Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise), a cocky navy pilot who is both reckless and dangerous (Danger Zone!) yet can manage to win people over just by flashing his blinding smile. Maverick and his best pal Goose (Anthony Edwards) are recruited to attend the Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School (aka “Top Gun”) where the small group of students compete to be the best in the class. The top competition at the school is the smug and confident Iceman (Val Kilmer), who immediately butts heads with the loudmouthed Maverick. Their rivalry serves as the crux of the movie, with both men attempting to win the prestigious “best in class” award.

Top Gun [1986]

Along the way, Maverick falls in love with his school instructor, Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), deals with the tragic death of his best friend, and continuously gets reprimanded by his superiors. Yet even with so much going on, he never changes. There is a brief respite where he appears to gain some humility, but by the end of the film, he’s still the same reckless S-O-B he was at the beginning.

But who cares about what happens on the ground when we can watch high-class dogfighting in the air, right? Top Gun follows a distinct air-land-air-land-air formula, with the jet scenes full of exhilarating high-octane action. The combative flying is intense and often disorienting, but damn if Tony Scott doesn’t make it look good. It’s no wonder the Air Force enlistment rate went way up after this film’s release — Top Gun makes being a navy pilot look like the best thing in the world.

Top Gun [1986]

What’s most amusing when watching the film today is the clear gay subtext between the pilots. When Maverick and Iceman first meet in class, they can’t stop looking at each other. There is some serious sexual tension right there, moreso than that between Maverick and Charlie. The film overall is dripping in machismo and homoeroticism. There are several lines about “hard-ons” and “johnsons”, constant moments where the men are shirtless and/or in their underwear (while making it a point to talk very closely to each other), and of course, there’s the infamous volleyball scene. When you sit down and look out for these moments, the film gains an all-new perspective. I think Tarantino was onto something here.

And who could forget the classic soundtrack? I had to keep a running tally of which song was played more — “Danger Zone” or “Take My Breath Away“? The latter won, four times to three, though it is “Danger Zone” that is still stuck in my head to this day. These songs still resonate today, as evidenced by the crowd going nuts when producer Giorgio Moroder played both hits at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival.

With the adrenaline-pumping action scenes and Tom Cruise’s otherworldly charisma, it’s not hard to see why so many people flocked to the box office back in ’86. In many ways, Top Gun feels like the definitive ’80s popcorn flick — it’s not a very good movie, but it can be pretty damn entertaining.