Tony Scott helms Top Gun, the rip-roaring Naval recruitment picture designed to rev the engines of adrenaline seekers and action lovers. This 1986 film is from the production team of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson and features a howling roar of a screenplay by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. It was inspired by an article in California magazine.
Top Gun features plenty of metal under tension, with Jeffrey L. Kimball’s cinematography taking to some compelling heights and generating some quality views of the dogfighting sequences. The camerawork on the ground is stylish and sometimes even poetic, with nice frames and a blue light bathing the touch-and-go love scene.
Tom Cruise stars as United States Naval Aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and he’s on the highway to the danger zone. Along with Radar Intercept Officer Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), they’ve been riding into the danger zone together for a number of years before a promotion sends them to train with the best at NAS Miramar.
Maverick can’t stop being his reckless self and he’s heading into twilight when he meets Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis). She’s an astrophysicist and a civilian instructor and she spreads out her wings as Maverick’s aggressive courtship progresses. She has him jumping off the deck, but his flight performance is still erratic and eventually tragedy strikes.
Cruise really shoves it into overdrive as Maverick, a brash pilot who is his own biggest fan. The actor’s unsophisticated grin is enough to put him on the highway to the danger zone, but it’s his diehard charisma that really sells him as an asshole. He’s willing, ready and able to take McGillis’ character right into the danger zone and the audience believes there’s nothing he can’t do with all that ego.
McGillis plays the sort of character who people don’t really say hello to unless they’re prepared with a follow-up line. She’s intimidating until she gets it on the red line overload and it’s clear Cruise pumps her engines. He’s an aggrieved young man making up for his father’s reputation and she’s the sort who never knows what she can do until it’s too late.
Scott takes their relationship as high as he can go, juxtaposing their on-ground dogfighting against the aerial stunts. And Kimball’s cinematography often sees no difference between the two battlegrounds, with the lens looming out along the edge with fluctuating intensities scorching the Naval bars, dives, classrooms, and bedrooms.
It’s where the characters of this flight-based melodrama burn to be and the soundtrack punches things along with Kenny Loggins and Berlin leading the way. Everything about Top Gun urges further on the edge, from the herds of shirtless men in the locker rooms to the sentient McGillis and her barely-contained libido. It’s all about sex; the hotter the intensity, the louder the roar.
It’s also about movement, with the Navy making a pile of F-14 fighters available for the movie’s highway to the danger zone. Scott takes the audience for every sizzling ride, using the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier as a base of operations and turning canned footage of normal flight operations into a sort of lucrative gold.
Aerobatic pilot Art Scholl was brought in to ensure all flights to the danger zone were captured inside the cockpits, but he crashed into the Pacific Ocean and was never recovered. Top Gun, dedicated to his memory, seems to live inside the danger zone in all ways.
Without question, a lot of this movie is silly. There’s wheezy courtship stuff and there’s a great deal of virility on display with all the slack towels and Val Kilmers and whatnot. But it exudes a treacherous confidence, in large part thanks to Scott’s pluck and Cruise’s infuriating conceit, and that makes this rather palpable flight cruise right into the danger zone with nothing but guts and fire in the tank.