It’s the summer movie season, so the studios are trotting out their big, mediocre action films, the kind that no one hates—and no one loves—and everyone sees them and says “I guess it was OK.” It’s a time when truly wretched films are scarce because studios are releasing their safest, most tepid products, the Spider-Man 3-type juggernauts that use special effects and epic scale to lure in the masses.
But every once in a while something truly awful surfaces during the summer months. This type of movie may be profitable—many of them are—but there’s still something awe-inspiring about its sheer hollowness and vapidity. To cope with the current blockbuster crop, it’s fun—or at least interesting—to look back at the best of the worst of previous summers. And there’s a lot to look back on.
For now, let’s look back to 1986.
The biggest moneymaker that year, inexplicably, was Top Gun. As you may remember, Top Gun was both an action film and an Abercrombie & Fitch ad with occasional dialogue. The movie made Tom Cruise a certified star, long before he became a certifiable one. Cruise stars as a fighter pilot nicknamed Maverick. His defining characteristics are that he’s rebellious, cocky and short. But mostly short. His co-pilot sidekick, the person onscreen who’s the closest to seeming like an actual character, is Goose, played by a pre-ER Anthony Edwards. Goose makes jokes to keep the movie from being utterly devoid of humor.
Maverick and Goose win a coveted spot at the Top Gun school for fighter pilots in Miramar, Calif. Among the other pilots are Iceman (Val Kilmer), who’s notable for his spiky blond hair and lack of expression, and Slider (Rick Rossovich), who often goes shirtless to showcase his oily pecs. The pilots pose and trash talk in locker rooms so they can stand around in various states of undress. It’s notable that Top Gun is one of the few summer movies to trade exclusively in male sex appeal. Maverick has an affair with a much taller flight instructor (Kelly McGillis), but even in their perfunctory love scene he’s clearly the one on display.
The storyline of Top Gun is like that of many of Cruise’s films—the callow young man who’s forced by circumstances to grow up and take responsibility. This recurs ad nauseum in movies as varied as Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Cocktail, Jerry Maguire, Days of Thunder, The Firm, A Few Good Men, etc. In fact, this storyline was repeated so often that for much of Cruise’s career there was a template for screenwriters to follow. In Act I, the (bartender/soldier/younger brother/lawyer/sports agent/race car driver) engages in a struggle to (be the best/get rich/fight for the American way) only to be humbled in Act II by the (death of a best friend/abandonment by girlfriend/loss of job/injury), finally emerging in Act III as a more mature, serious adult. Roll credits.
In Top Gun, Maverick’s friend Goose gets killed in a flying accident, a tragedy that Maverick mourns by standing in front of a mirror clad only in his tighty-whities. He mopes and mopes until he’s sent back into the field for a confrontation with “the other side”—and he kicks their butts, whoever they are (the enemy pilots fly Soviet-made MIGs, but a lot of nations had those in the 1980s). He comes back to home and poses with his motorcycle, pausing only to bask in the admiration of his flight instructor-cum-girlfriend. As the credits appear a song by Kenny Loggins chases people from the theaters.
When male bodies aren’t on display, the movie shifts its attention to the fighter planes. There are so many long, loving shots of planes taking off, idling and making rolling maneuvers that it’s like watching a straight-faced version of the opening sequence of Dr. Strangelove, in which director Stanley Kubrick had a sappy love song accompany footage of planes suggestively refueling each other in mid-flight. In Top Gun you half-expect the fighter jets to stop their acrobatics and finally get down to mating.
Studios must have assumed it was the human love story that helped Top Gun dominate the summer of 1986, assuring that the plane-on-plane romance genre didn’t get a chance to thrive. It’s the latest dazzling technology that draws audiences to these summer movies. Since machines and special effects are the stars, it only seems fair to finally give them love scenes, as long as they don’t blow the PG-13 rating.
Top Gun is available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment, if you really must.
Rated PG for feigned nudity and feigned story.
3 ½ out of 4 stars. Exceptionally painful.
The rating system:
1 star: Lousy
2 stars: Horrible
3 stars: Painful
4 stars: Traumatic
The Movie Masochist is an emotionally wounded cinephile who lives in the United States. He watches bad movies so you don’t have to. Tell him your tales of movie torture. E-mail him at jfranklin AT mcclatchy.com.