Thursday, June 9, 2022

Top Gun Double Feature

    Even though my formative years as a cinephile took place during the 1980s AND I was an action-flick junkie back then, I somehow never saw the original Top Gun. Everyon told me how great it was, but I just never sat down to watch it. Years went by, and not seeing it became a badge of honor of sorts. It was a factoid I could use to shock people who know about my lifelong love affair with cinema. About ten years ago, I told myself that unless they make a sequel, I'll willingly go to my grave never having seen it. How cool and contrarian would it have been for me to always be able to tell someone that I felt no need to see a movie many people think is one of the coolest things ever committed to film. Welp, over thirty years after Tom Cruise's catapult into both superstar and action hero they not only made a sequel, brought him back for it. I mean, he's gotta be 132 years old by now, right? Anyway, and here's the funny part, I strolled over to my movie collection and popped it in the player because I had tickets to see the new one the next day. Yeah, I've actually owned it on blu-ray for several years. Think of it like testing my own restraint. Could I have it in my possession to watch at any moment and still skip over it every time I'm looking for a movie? Damn right I could! I was going great. I was reveling in my defiance. Then Hollywood happened. Damn you, Hollywood.

Top Gun

Directed by Tony Scott.

1986. Rated PG, 110 minutes.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Tim Robbins, Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside, John Stockwell, Clarence Gilyard Jr.

    Pete Mitchell, aka Maverick (Cruise) has been selected for Top Gun, a school for the U.S. Navy's very best pilots to be further trained in combat flying. The goal here is to finish first in the class, and everyone has an ego that beats them into the room. Everyone doesn't apply to Maverick's tech-guy Goose (Edwards) who exists for two reasons. The first is to kiss Maverick's ass. The second, well, he wants nothing more than to get home to his wife and kids. Back to the first reason. Goose knows what we know: Mav is an immensely talented flyboy, but a loose cannon who can't seem to get out of his own way, so he stays in trouble. Add in Charlie (McGillis), the lady instructor Mav has the hots for, and you know all you need to about Top Gun.

    Did I like it? Yes.

    Did I love it? No.

    I like it because it does a number of things well. First and foremost, the aerial acrobatics are a blast to watch. It's damn near impossible not to get caught up in our hero flying a fighter plane upside down just a few feet from the bad guy's plane, or performing some insane maneuver, or even just the roar of the engines as the planes take off from the air carriers. It also gives us a number of memorable scenes, even if they're beyond cheesy. Everyone talks about the homoerotic volleyball scene (by scene I mean the entire movie). There's also the romantic scenes that simultaneously drown out our nausea and create more on the strength of power ballads, and all that damn singing in bars.

    I don't love it because it never makes me feel any tension. Pretty early on, we buy in to the idea that Maverick is best pilot to ever climb into a cockpit. We're never given a villain of any sort. I was led to believe Ice Man (Kilmer) filled that role, but he doesn't. He's barely in the movie and is merely a sensible guy who doesn't care for Mav's anything-goes approach to flying. On top of that, it's clear Mav is much more dangerous to the people on his team than to himself. The people they eventually fight for the finale are literally faceless enemies. I can't even remember what country they're supposed to be from. They are just guys in planes. In fact, everyone else in the movie is just a guy, or girl. Not one of them is remotely interesting. Charlie is just "love interesting." Ice is just "other great pilot." The rest are either other pilots who kinda sorta pick at him or his superiors who keep telling him, "You're great, but reign it in," in a variety of ways. So, the entire movie is in Maverick's head. I don't mean that in the "it's all a dream sense," but in a "this is a full-blown existential crisis" way. Since he's not an interesting enough character to build that type of movie around, I was never fully on his side. He's just another in a long line of talented idiots.

    With these thoughts in mind, I walked into a movie theater.

Top Gun: Maverick

Directed by Joseph Kosinski.

2022. Rated PG-13, 130 minutes.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Jon Hamm, Charles Parnell, Val Kilmer, Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman. 

    Decades after the events of the first film, Maverick (still Cruise) is a Naval test pilot and as loose a canon as ever. After running afoul of the powers that be, yet again, his superiors are about to make sure he never flies again. Lo and behold, an old friend of his has made a few phone calls and Maverick is reassigned to his old stomping grounds, Top Gun, where he will be an instructor. When he gets there he finds out they want him to train the latest batch of hotshot pilots to fly what seems to be a suicide mission to take out a critical target. Of course, Maverick has to do things his way, pissing off all the top brass, except for his one very important friend.

    When the credits started rolling, I turned to my wife and asked if she liked it better than the original, since she watched it with me the night before. She said she did. When I asked why, she said it was because this one had more danger. That’s it in a nutshell. It feels like Maverick might have found a challenge too great. He’s still a pilot of unparalleled talent. Can he get everyone else up to his level and what will it cost? That shift in focus from his ability to the ability of others is enough to create far more tension and get us more invested in the story than its predecessor.

    To go along with the added tension, we get another dive into Maverick’s psyche. He’s older and a bit more complex than in 1986, so even though much of the same ground is tread, it remains interesting. The flip side is that most other characters are cardboard cutouts. Lots of time is given to Mav’s relationship with Rooster (Teller), but Rooster himself is one-note. He just gets more screentime to play that note. The writing makes it effective, so we don’t mind.

    The real stars of this movie, however, are the aerial scenes. Watching the planes zip around and do their thing is exhilarating. It helps that there is just enough jargon about the different types of planes used to properly set our expectations and get the correct response from us when the film meets or subverts them. Villains are still faceless, but the difficulty of the task at hand makes up for it. Overall, it’s a fun and more engaging experience than the original.


  1. It's likely I'll watch the sequel when it comes out on some streaming service or whatever as I have thought about seeing it in the theaters (despite my disdain for Tom Cruise) but fortunately something else had arrived. I grew up on Top Gun as a kid as that is still an awesome film. I think the main reason I want to see the sequel is Val Kilmer as I just love that guy.

    1. I definitely recommend the sequel. It's a blast.

  2. I never loved the original Top Gun either, it was fine. I wasn't going to bother with the sequel because to me it just looked like a Cruise vanity project but with all the praise it's getting, I'll probably check it out.

    1. Fine is exactly right. The sequel really is better, though.