Top Gun


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Top Gun
"Cruise, the cheesy soundtrack and the stunning aerial photography that marks out its combat scenes are its three main selling points."

In 1986, Tom Cruise was the latest big thing. He'd just made his breakthrough in Risky Business and survived the flop (later to become a cult favourite) that was Legend with his fan appeal intact. He was pre-Scientology, between relationships, and possessed of a grin that had teenagers everywhere swooning. When Matthew Modine turned down the role of ace fighter pilot Maverick for a film with a very different attitude to the military - Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket - producer Jerry Bruckheimer took a chance on the young star and cemented his success.

It's hard to imagine the film working any other way. Cruise, the cheesy soundtrack and the stunning aerial photography that marks out its combat scenes are its three main selling points. Narratively it packs in a lot of plot that amounts to very little, and its script contains some real clangers. The non-action scenes really drag. It's shot like an advert and is glossy to the point of becoming cloying.

Copy picture

Top Gun is the first Bruckheimer film to really look like a Bruckheimer film - there are hints of it in Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop but here the bright blue skies and orange petrol explosions come into their own. It's a look that would also make its mark on director Tony Scott, staying with him for the rest of his career, and as in much of Scott's work the focus here is very much on style over substance. His action scenes are genuinely thrilling and the young cast handle them well. In a time before anybody had really got the hang of film merchandising, Scott's film made aviator sunglasses the hottest fashion item of the year.

The story, such as it is, hinges on Maverick's trials and tribulations at flight school, where he's trying to come to terms with his father's death in combat and compete with daring rivals including Val Kilmer's peroxide blond Iceman. He also engages in a heavily overdramatised romance with one of his teachers (Kelly McGillis) in the days before the public started to worry about that sort of thing. Here the film encounters a weakness, however, as there's far less chemistry between Cruise and McGillis than there is between Cruise and Kilmer, hence the film's reputation as a classic piece of repressed homoerotica, as celebrated by Quentin Tarantino. It doesn't need to be read that way, but the connection between the male stars adds a degree of much-needed tension and the hint of camp in their interactions gives the film a kitsch charm which has enhanced its staying power.

This is something it badly needs. Most of what gave it that wow factor at the time of release has since been outdone, even to the point of becoming commonplace, and it's difficult to imagine a similar film released today having much staying power beyond a big opening weekend. In its time, however, it captured a moment, as as such it remains a fascinating piece of film history, even if it's best watched at home so one can read a book during the dull bits.

Reviewed on: 31 Jan 2016
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Top Gun packshot
A trainee fighter pilot romances his instructor.
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Director: Tony Scott

Writer: Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr

Starring: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer

Year: 1986

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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