Top Gun (1986)

Tony Scott | 1hr 50min

There is something a little wistful in the opening exposition of Top Gun, informing us of the elite school established by the United States Navy to train the next generation of fighter pilots. It describes aerial combat as a “lost art”, practiced only by the select few men who graduate and go on to serve their nation. Before we are allowed to witness it in action though, Tony Scott leads into it with a slow, steady build, setting silhouettes of jets and pilots warming up on the tarmac against a burnt orange sky and low horizon. The early morning light is delicately diffused softly through a light mist, and then, as these men finally take off, so too does the film, playing out a montage of aerial sequences as exhilarating as they are immaculately executed.

The first time ‘Danger Zone’ turns up in Top Gun’s soundtrack, it comes as a rousing though affectionately cheesy underscore to this opening adrenaline rush, aggressively warning us of the thrills and terror to be found in this line of work. After the fifth time it plays, it hits a point of diminishing returns, edging from tactfully familiar to plainly over-used. Still, the visual awe of the tight jet formations that the song accompanies and Scott’s decision to fix his camera to plane cockpits never quite grows stale, flying us through their air with no regards to gravity or orientation. Whether these pilots are simply playing around, running drills, or engaging in real aerial combat, he keeps up an elated energy in his editing and camerawork, skilfully controlling the tension and release of every manoeuvre his characters execute.

When it comes to defining those characters, Scott opts for clean, memorable archetypes, each one embodied in their call name. There is little that the moniker Maverick leaves up to the imagination when we first meet Tom Cruise’s charming daredevil, and his rival, Iceman, similarly takes his title from his flying style and attitude, remaining cool under pressure and persistently wearing down opponents. Goose rounds out our trio of main pilots here, though joining in as Maverick’s love interest and instructor, Charlie, is Kelly McGillis, offering up a chemistry with Cruise that save even some of the corniest scenes.

Where ‘Danger Zone’ marks Top Gun’s aerial sequences, ‘Take My Breath Away’ is assigned to its romantic narrative thread, and is pulled off to greater effect if only for its slightly less prominent and more varied use. Its introductory riff often teases the sexual tension between Cruise and McGillis as they edge towards a consummation, but it isn’t until Scott brings us into that dark bedroom with dim blue light filtering through its curtains that it is played in full. In the silhouettes of bodies and faces inching closer together, Scott marks another key narrative development with visual splendour, opting for raw emotional power over any eloquent verbal expressions of love.

It is a fortunate thing too given how Top Gun’s screenplay tends to bog it down in plotting that is so signposted one could count down the seconds until the next plot point. Perhaps the main exception to this though is the heartbreaking midpoint turn, which sees Goose killed during a particularly dangerous training session. The weight that this holds over Maverick’s character arc from this point on is significant, tempering his reckless confidence with a great deal of guilt, and re-asserting the stakes that come with aerial combat.

Cruise carries this drastic shift well, shifting seamlessly from his charming action star persona into a broken man grappling with the realisation that his defining gift is also his downfall. Had the chemistry of Top Gun been slightly different with Cruise or Scott replaced by a lesser actor or director, it could have edged entirely into the realm of tacky entertainment, devoid of any redeeming qualities. As it is though, it stands as an admirable piece of action cinema, lifting the genre up to new heights and coasting along on its electrifying pacing.

Top Gun is currently streaming on Stan, Binge, and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

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