“I feel the need … the need for SPEED!” A recent one week run of the re-mastered 3D IMAX version of Top Gun provided the opportunity to re-evaluate the 1986 film that catapulted Tom Cruise to the highest level of movie stardom. It seems my initial reactions 27 years ago were spot on. The best parts are still exhilarating and pure joy to watch, while the worst parts are still cringe-inducing and torturous to sit through.
Testosterone overload, hyper-competitiveness, and Type-A personalities were perfectly displayed thanks to the cocky actors that made up the Navy pilot training class: Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Rick Rossovich, Barry Tubb, Tim Robbins and Whip Hubley. Whether these guys are prepping for flight, ruling the skies, or peacocking afterwards, they are a blast to watch and perfectly capture that familiar pilot-persona. The Navy cooperated with the filmmakers … producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and director Tony Scott … to ensure the training was realistic and the flight sequences were breath-taking. Additionally, some high-powered and experienced Navy pilots were brought in as consultants.
Tom Cruise was considered an up-and-coming actor when cast as “Maverick”. His 1983 film Risky Business brought him much notice … especially for dancing in his tighty-whities … but this is the role that vaulted him into leading man status. What’s interesting is that many critics pegged Val Kilmer (Iceman) as the future star. While Mr. Kilmer has had a very impressive career, it certainly doesn’t compare to that of Mr. Cruise. The female lead went to Kelly McGillis (Charlie), whose star was rising quickly after Reuben, Reuben (1983) and Witness (1985). Instead of this being her breakout, that label instead went to Meg Ryan (Goose’s wife) who turned a minor role into almost two decades of cute blonde roles in box office favorites.
The sequences featuring the fighter jets and pilots in action are some of the best ever captured on film. We never get the feeling that we are being tricked with slick editing or special effects. On the contrary, it feels like we are in the cockpit and involved in extended dogfights. Another superb element comes courtesy of the two Commanders featured. James Tolkan plays the cigar chomping Commander of the USS Enterprise, while Tom Skerritt plays Viper, the super pilot and Commander of NAS Miramar’s Fightertown, USA … better known as Top Gun. The real life Viper, Pete Pettigrew, is seen on screen as Charlie’s date Perry in the first bar scene (just after Maverick sings “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”).
Over the years, there has been much analysis, speculation and even spoofs concerning the supposed homo-erotic undertones … especially the infamous volleyball game. At the time, no one would have guessed that the real sexual complexity and confusion would come courtesy of a Kelly McGillis confession twenty years later.
The “worst” parts referred to earlier include the post-production add-on scenes filmed to allow for a wider audience (interpretation: to appeal to more women). The love scene between Cruise and McGillis is filmed in the shadows and made even more painful by the blasting of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”. The shadows were necessary due to hair style and color changes of the leads since production had wrapped weeks before. That scene and the elevator scene were added because test audiences were disappointed the sparks between Cruise and McGillis had previously dead-ended. Those scenes combined with the “Miami Vice” feel of many of the non-pilot sequences, and the Kenny Loggins “Danger Zone” agony, provide the Jekyll and Hyde feel that wreaks havoc on the viewer.
The changes translated into major profits for the filmmakers as Top Gun became the highest-grossing film of the year. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won for Best Song (“Take My Breath Away”). Although composer Harold Faltermeyer was not nominated for his Top Gun score, he was nominated the following year for his song “Shakedown” from Beverly Hills Cop II. Simpson and Bruckheimer were the Super Producers of the 1980’s with other hits like Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop. Mr. Simpson died in 1996 at age 52, and Bruckheimer has gone on to produce Pearl Harbor, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and TV series such as “The Amazing Race” and “CSI: Miami”. He is consistently rated as one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. Director Tony Scott mastered his domain in the Action-Thriller genre with Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, and Unstoppable. Mr. Scott, who is the brother of director Ridley Scott, died in 2012.
Should you feel “the need for speed”, Top Gun is a great call … except when it’s not.