Review: Top Gun (1986)

“I feel the need… The need for speed”

*This review may contain spoilers*

Top Gun (1986) is an action drama directed by Tony Scott (Unstoppable, True Romance) and stars Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer and Kelly McGillis. The film follows young naval aviator “Maverick” (Cruise) and his RIO, “Goose”, when they are given an opportunity to train at the US Navy’s Fighter Weapons School at Miramar.

Given the upcoming release of its sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, I thought the timing was great for a review of Top Gun. All I knew about this film was that every kid wants to be Maverick and no one wants to be Goose. From the very first scene, it’s easy to see why. Maverick is the young, reckless F-14 pilot that rides a motorbike and chooses to disobey orders to help his wing-man in need. His name is literally Maverick (defined as unorthodox or independent-minded). He’s cool, edgy and fueled with ambition, but when you take a step back and think about this character critically, he can come off as a pouty, arrogant and immature schoolboy. If you’re a ride-or-die fan of Top Gun, don’t take that as a negative. Maverick has such a fantastic character arc in this movie, with Cruise playing him with such a level of swagger that you can’t help but have a good time with him. This childlike trait is obvious in every scene opposite Kilmer’s Iceman. Every immediate character to Maverick, including Iceman, constantly tries to give him advice, as they all want to see him succeed, but Maverick is too arrogant to take their criticisms and learn from his mistakes. Iceman can actually be viewed as the real hero-type of this movie, and it creates a great rivalry similar to that seen in 2013’s Rush (although not quite rounded out with the same clout). This film is extremely fun, from the campy 80’s soundtrack to Cruise’s constant, genuine smile, Top Gun delivers some fantastic cinematography and so many memorable quotes.

Each flying scene in this film is shot with so much authenticity that the filmmakers actually strapped external cameras to the F-14 planes, which gives you a level of depth that you just don’t see in a lot of action movies. Some of the shots are taken guerrilla style, with one scene in the sea taken at almost sea level, with the water gorgeously hitting the camera from the propellers of a helicopter. Almost all of the action scenes show off the films fantastic aerial shots, that gives you an idea of what it might be like being at altitude with these characters, flying at speeds of 2,000km/h (yes, I did Google that). The level of detail in these sequences is incredible and I can appreciate any film that makes you invested in a topic that you previously took little interest in *cough*Black Swan*Cough*. There are so many beautiful shots in this film, but the one that might just make it as my desktop wallpaper is of Maverick, sat on his motorbike, watching airplanes take off a runway at night. It’s picture perfect, and I bet it’s what inspired the scene from Star Trek (2009), in which Kirk is sat on his motorbike seeing the Enterprise for the first time. When films begin to influence one another and you already know all the one-liners before even watching the film, you know its probably something special, right?

A lot of the action scenes require the actors to wear flight helmets which cover most of their face. This makes it difficult to keep track of the action, but Top Gun attempts to get around this by giving each character their own unique helmet, with different colours, patterns and their names printed across their forehead. I was lost several times, asking who and what during fast paced action sequences, but this clever costume design always brought me back into the scene. Credit to these actors, as they are forced to portray all emotion almost entirely through their eyes. Cruise nails this in every scene, but none are more apparent than the scenes following Goose’s death. Whether it’s the emotional conversation with Viper or the cockpit shot of Maverick’s ensuing flight, the serious scenes have so much more emotional value in a movie full of cheesy high fives and a topless beach volleyball scene.

Many of the sub-plots seem conventional, with Goose’s death being seen from a mile off. Top Gun builds a strong case for us to be emotionally invested in this character, clearly gesturing to the audience the great relationship between Maverick and his friend’s family. Despite its predictability, it wasn’t the death scene itself that sold the emotion, but in a heart-breaking scene between Maverick and Goose’s wife (Meg Ryan). The film elects for a less-is-more approach when it comes to the script, instead leveraging the incredible talents of its lead.

Despite enjoying the relationship between Maverick and Charlie (McGillis), it felt like many of their scenes together were shoe-horned in. A moment in the elevator (in which Charlie is strangely wearing military uniform) feels so out of place, particularly when following up a great moment where the two finally admit their feelings, but don’t go in for the customary kissing scene. This would be forgivable, if it wasn’t for the unbearably campy song, “Take My Breathe Away”, being played in EVERY SINGLE SCENE. I’m not joking, almost every scene where the two are alone has this song playing over the movie. It even plays whilst the two are arguing and it really distracts from the moment. The corny 80’s vibe dominant throughout Top Gun is fun and era-appropriate on the whole, but this song sticks in your brain like “Baby Shark” and it just doesn’t fly (pun intended).

What really sells Top Gun as a great piece of storytelling is the final flight, where all of Mavericks mistakes are shown to be learnt from. The very first action sequence with Cougar brilliantly sets up the final dramatic low point for Maverick, only for him to recover and demonstrate an understanding of every lesson given to him throughout the movie. This is an incredibly tense and fulfilling scene, where every victory feels earned and Maverick’s arc comes full circle. Well, almost full circle, after he disregards orders and completes another pass by of the carrier, affirming that he is still the Maverick we’ve got to love and displaying a profound understanding of the character in the process.

Top Gun is iconic, and I am embarrassed to have not watched before. It certainly has flaws when the characters aren’t in the air, mainly due to generic plot-points and some cringe-worthy moments, but the film as a whole is hard not to enjoy. It’s fun, fast and everyone involved is clearly having a good time. The cinematography is unique and integral to the film’s authenticity, alongside some serious inside knowledge that gives insight into this high-octane world. I give Top Gun 8/10. I just hope Top Gun: Maverick has just as much to offer in the way of fresh ideas…

If you liked this review, please comment or share this post for others. If you have any similar or, even better, conflicting opinions of Top Gun, please comment to open a healthy debate.

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