Classic Film Review: So Was “Top Gun” Ever worth a Sequel?

With the “Top Gun” sequel firmly (Hah!) set for release on May 27, it occurred to me that I should at least re-familiarize myself with this icon of ’80s “High Concept” cinema. And then it occurred to me that I’ve never actually seen it, start to finish.

I was reviewing films for a newspaper when it came out, and I’m guessing the fellow I shared those duties with drew this assignment. It’s not like I didn’t try to watch it, once or thrice. I’d get 5-20 minutes in while channel surfing, mutter “Why people ever liked this is beyond me” and move on.

“Top Gun” is Reagan Era American jingoism at its glossiest, something worth remembering when watching it. A common criticism of this film of-its-time/at-that-time was that it was a “recruiting film.”

Reagan’s gone, the Navy moved on from the ruinously expensive to maintain,/Achilles Heeled F-14 Tomcat, and Hollywood moved on from high concept.

In the ensuing years, I developed a fondness for Tony Scott’s films and interviewed him a couple of times, even chatted-up producers Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, the Kings of High Concept (a movie or TV show you can adequately describe in a seriously-short sentence fragment — “MTV-Cops” (“Miami Vice”), “MTV dogfights” (“Top Gun”).

I interviewed Val Kilmer, later read his autobiography and reviewed his documentary, which touched on the experience of making “Top Gun,” and even tried to dine at a Key West eatery Kelly McGillis opened with her husband some years back. I’d still be waiting for service if we hadn’t walked out after an hour and a half.

The Tom Cruise movie they all made is beloved, one of those pictures that at decades of public appearances, fans have asked, “When are you making a sequel?” of cast and crew. Why is that?

This film was the first “Tom Cruise” movie that shaped his big screen action persona — a swagger built on a determination to do as many of his own stunts as possible (motorcycles, jet fly-alongs). You can tell he’s in the thick of things, even if you can also tell they’re doing things to make him look tall enough to fly jets for the U.S. Navy and not look short next to his leading lady.

He even sings in this picture, not something we’ve heard him often attempt. With cause.

The aerial sequences, stunningly-shot by Jeffrey Kimball in sunbaked tones and breathlessly edited into fighter-bomber porn by Chris Lebenzon and Billy Weber, are still impressive — XCUs of jet exhaust ports, carrier landing crew protocols, wing-mounted/cockpit-mounted camera shots galore, and long before GoPro-sized gear made that easy.

The training simulations are adorably quaint, stick-outline aircraft graphics like the old “Battle Zone” video game.

The cast is packed with great character players, a future Oscar winner (Tim Robbins), and icons-to-be like Kilmer, Meg Ryan, McGillis and “E.R.” mainstay Anthony Edwards.

But. This. Story. It isn’t just the militaria that the military-minded have torn to shreds for its inaccuracy in the days, weeks and decades since the film’s release. The film’s repeated use of “bogeys” for hostile aircraft, which are “bandits” if you know they’re hostile, the strict rules that Maverick flouts with his “$30 million airplane,” which would have washed him out in an instant, etc. are eyeroll friendly.

There’s little attempt to wholly identify the “enemy” here, just an America against the World ethos

The stars have zero chemistry. There is no logical reason McGillis’s smart, connected civilian contractor would have been attracted to this callow pilot who seems younger and dumber, if exciting. As she’s been around a lot of these guys, his close-encounter with a Russian-made MiG would hardly justify her willingness to flirt and accept his childish come-ons. A “You’ve lost that Loving Feeling” duet with Edwards & Ensemble as a pick-up attempt?

 “Listen,” Charlie (McGillis) says, “can I ask you a personal question?”

“That depends.”

“Are you a good pilot?”

“I can hold my own.”

“Great, then I won’t have to worry about you making your living as a singer.

Scott went on to greater glory, and even made a fine comeback picture (“Unstoppable”) before taking his own life in 2012. But here’s a reason these screenwriters graduated from “Top Gun” to write “Dick Tracy” and “Anaconda” and “Turner & Hooch.” Contrived situations, contorted insertions of drama, inane dialogue was kind of their thing.

Which is not to say that when this pre-digital celluloid film came out, it didn’t practically pop off the screen. But there’s very little to this PG-rated war-and-sex picture, and even less that suggests “sequel,” especially over 30 years later.

Rating: PG

Cast: Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside, Meg Ryan, Tim Robbins and James Tolkan.

Credits: Directed by Tony Scott, scripted by Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr., Ehud Yonay. A Paramount release.

Running time: 1:50

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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