A Raging Conflict Between Talent and Testosterone: ‘Top Gun’

Let’s get it out of the way: Tony Scott’s suicide last summer was as shocking and saddening a Hollywood tragedy as I can remember. The world lost a great entertainer and a massively influential director of big-budget spectacle, and in a truly disturbing fashion. Seeing his broad grin during the Oscars’ “In Memoriam” segment last week brought all these feelings back home.

Top Gun bears not a trace of this shadow. Drenched in evening sunlight and glistening with sweat, Scott’s best-known work blasts off like a rock opera take on the 1939 film, Only Angels Have Wings, in one of the early memorable scenes as the characters get to know each other is a piano singalong; characters with Hawksian callsigns like Goose and Merlin indulging in peppy cockpit banter before Cruise’s Maverick makes his mark on the opening sequence with an aerial stunt that sees him flying inverted over the (presumably Russian) bogey and snapping a Polaroid. “I crack myself up,” he chuckles, like a Bugs Bunny at War cartoon: “Ain’t I a stinker?” Later, the Only Angels Have Wings echoes as a key relationship cements itself in a singalong around the piano at a bar.

Embracing Top Gun’s particular pleasures means sifting through its only occasionally amusing swaths of dead wood, the first of which surfaces in Commander Stinger’s paradigmatic loose-cannon tirade after Maverick’s opening transgressions against flight protocols. Real name Pete Mitchell, the Maverick character essentially embodies a raging conflict between talent and testosterone. The talent’s easy to admire, Maverick’s apparently genetic wankery less so. Of course, he can’t so easily come to terms with the late Duke Mitchell’s reputation as a similar flight risk; as he whispers in one of many dull, moody third-act scenes, the past is “classified”.

For those willing to endure some of the most ponderous Bruckheimer-approved boorishness ever committed to film, though, Paramount’s Blu-Ray will fulfill all your needs. Scott’s only Hollywood credit when he was approached by producers Bruckheimer and Don Simpson was The Hunger, a dusty lyric poem about vampires whose chiaroscuro visuals ripple throughout Top Gun’s sunset flight scenes. Add Kenny Loggins and you’ve got a Malick-ized music video: Days of Heaven with wingtips instead of wheat. The 1080p transfer preserves the grain and texture of an original print, not just in the golden hues and shadows but in the reds, greens, and blues of a digital image that looks so good you’ll want to reach out and stroke it.

Plenty has been written about Top Gun’s man-love quotient and comparative lack of heterosexual spark (the only love scene between Maverick and Kelly McGillis’s Charlie is lit in blue-backed silhouette with all the chemistry and sizzle of one of The Hunger’s expositional interludes), but where the film really gets fun is when Charlie challenges Mav’s advances and he actually rises to the occasion. Of course, the karaoke come-on that ignites their relationship and his subsequent restroom intrusion might have been far less welcome if Charlie hadn’t witnessed the sheer level of male-on-male chemistry aroused in the barroom singalong… or if audiences in the summer of 1986 knew more about Tom Cruise. The sound of an engine revving bookends the outrageously cheesy “Take My Breath Away” seduction sequence, first as Maverick speeds away on his motorcycle and Charlie writhes restlessly on her sunroom lounge and then, after his calculated elevator tease, as she pursues him across town and through a red light to express her respect for his work in the cockpit.

It’s not just Cruise’s creep/scamp of a pilot who paces this sequence, it’s the wry decision to space out each moment of romantic tension with the same opening synths from “Take My Breath Away”, as measured a usage of music cues to construct a sort of filmic foreplay as had ever been released for consumption by bored teenagers. To continue the Only Angels Have Wings line of inquiry, Scott’s film accomplishes a keen bastardization of the earlier picture’s fraternal themes, as well as a neat inversion of its romantic politics: Charlie’s already assimilated into the Top Gun commune, and it’s Maverick who must win her over, however routine that task proves for his capabilities.

Like most movies pitched as “Star Wars in ________”, Top Gun sags considerably in the mopey third act that lets the dialogue shoulder the entirety of Maverick’s emotional development, in a series of expository exchanges on the topic of his father’s legacy and perpetual, in Goose’s words, flying “against a ghost” (which the Wachowskis would literalize in Speed Racer’s opening over two decades later — who said CGI was bad for characters?). Cruise, too understated here when grandiose grief is really called for, barely reacts until he’s given the opportunity to show up and do his thing in the finalé: a triumphant dogfight and the celebratory bro-hug with Val Kilmer’s Iceman, the movie’s other beach-blonde flirt.

It’s perfectly reasonable to point to Maverick’s way-too-strong overtures to Charlie as a classic example of Hollywood misogyny, no less that she ends up chasing after him before the movie’s half over. Remember, though, that the volleyball scene rife with all-consuming competition comes right before the former peels out for the mellow, weirdly gauzy dinner at Charlie’s. Dig the sheer triumph and welcoming, brotherly embrace of that deckside climax… now try to frame Charlie as the true object of desire.

Bruckheimer and Simpson’s cooperation with the military, plus Scott’s blazing commercial sensibilities makes Top Gun absolutely the proto-Michael Bay film, but their titillation is respectably knowing, not to mention a few shades more subtle than a zoom-in on Megan Fox straddling a motorcycle. Top Gun‘s flaunting of its built-in sensuality was at the very least a breakthrough in big-budget excess; the movie might have no respect for a woman’s personal space, but what could be worse is that the guys get all the good sex.

Extras: Same as the 2008 Blu-Ray, with storyboards, music videos to supplement the (truly incredible) soundtrack, interviews with Cruise, a commentary featuring Scott, Bruckheimer, screenwriter Jack Epps, Jr. and concurring opinions by a crew of Naval experts, and the massive, 2.5+ hour “Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun” to fulfill all your archival Tony Scott footage desires. You’ll get your fair share of Bruckheimer, too, but the sheer excess of this package should balance out the tan. With both a 3D and 2D Blu-Ray, plus the complementary digital copy for those who’d rather squint at it on their phone, this is the definitive home release of Top Gun.

RATING 6 / 10