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Still Top Gun? 25 Years With "Maverick"

Michael C here to commemorate an auspicious occasion. This week marks the 25th anniversary of Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986). Having managed to navigate this last quarter century having never seen Scott’s slick recruiting poster of a movie, I though it might be interesting to evaluate it with fresh eyes. Up until now my only experience with Top Gun was as an enormously frustrating Nintendo game from the late 80’s.

So I was eager to finally catch up with it. This is a film, after all, that Avatar only just bumped off the all time 100 highest grossers (adjusted for inflation). Surely there was some core entertainment value that held up underneath all the dated Berlin songs and catch phrases.

So I watched it.


Okay, let’s start with the stuff that holds up.  The aerial dog-fighting scenes remain beautifully executed. If anything, with their clarity of action and still-convincing effects they may actually play better in the current age of cartoony CGI and hyperactive film cutting.

And for the record Tom Cruise performance remains as slickly effective as ever. I noticed no evidence that his current cultural infamy intrudes on Maverick. He basically has two poses – smug smirk and jaw-clenched intensity, each in sunglasses on and off varieties – and Cruise executes both about as well as humanly possible.  

Two Poses: Smug Smirk and Jaw-Clenched Intensity

As for the rest of the film, let’s just say it was tough to get involved in. 

Here is an incomplete list of the subsequent pop culture landmarks that intruded on my viewing of Top Gun:

Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988)
Top Gun
really suffers when compared with the legacy of its ultra-violent action contemporaries. All these films have been ripped off ad infinitum but Top Gun offers nothing like that the Gibson-Glover chemistry or Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber that holds up despite the familiarity.

Rain Man (1988)
Cruise’s personal life doesn’t detract from the movie but that doesn’t mean Cruise’s other roles don’t haunt Maverick at every moment. I could name any of a dozen talented, yet arrogant wild cards with Daddy issues, but I singled out Rain Man because Levinson’s film has the wherewithal to peg Cruise's character as an insufferable prick in need of redemption from frame one, whereas Top Gun seems to think he’s a charmer.

Speaking of which…

Frank TJ Mackey approves of Maverick's mastery of the muffin

Magnolia (1999)
I couldn’t shake the impression that Cruise's Pete Mitchell had just completed a Frank Mackey seminar. Seriously, he is one of the most unlikable protagonists I’ve encountered outside a Neil LaBute film. Kelly McGillis's character seems to drop 50 IQ points in the process of falling for him. I kept siding with Kilmer’s Iceman and his entirely reasonable requests that Cruise stop showboating before he kills everybody.

Quentin Tarantino
So, yeah, I was never able to forget QT’s notorious monlogue on Top Gun’s gay subtext and it pretty well destroyed the volleyball scene which was ridiculous to start with. If anything it built it up too much for me. Homoerotic, sure, but I was expecting a cross between 300 and a number from Showgirls.

Team America World Police (2004)
You would think Hot Shots would be the one to distract but Parker and Stone were the ones who conclusively eviscerated the action clichés present in every moment of Top Gun. Try to get through Tom’s serious speech about his father’s past without thinking of Team America’s CATS monologue.

And as long as we’re on the subject…

Every Action Movie Ever
From the end of act two crisis of confidence to the evil black-helmeted pilots who flew in from the nearest Bond movie they really do leave no action trope unturned. If you had a drinking game where you took a shot every time someone yelled at Maverick for being too damned awesome you'd be blotto by the thirty minute mark.

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Reader Comments (5)

Not great, but serves it's function as a piece of 80s cheese. Overall: B-.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

love this piece Michael. It really is a product of its time. But that's also partially because it was so definiing that pop culture can't referencing it. Funny how those things happen, self-reinforcing time capsules.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I've always felt like Tom Cruise was one of those actors who mostly plays himself in everything. Like here's Tom in the future (Minority Report), here's Tom with aliens (War of the Worlds). I don't have a problem with that or anything it's just something that I've noticed. I do at times forget that he is Tom Cruise in Interview With A Vampire but I'm one of the few people who enjoyed him in that role.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary

God how I disliked that movie back in the day but my brothers, predictably, LOVED it - and it was everywhere, it seemed. (Then again, so was Cruise, at the time.) I think you pegged this one pretty precisely, Michael - and I love the Rainman and Magnolia references (both of which I actually thought he did a good job in.)

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Oh I was in love with Tom Cruise when I was a little girl so of course I loved this movie. I don't think I understood much of what was going on in it (I was very young, pre-Kindergarten young).

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjessica
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