R008 Top Gun

(1986, Action/Drama, color)


Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett

I’m suffering from cool name overload.

Rating: ***

In a nutshell:

A handsome but unreliable pilot learns to trust and love again.


Cruise's expression of self-satisfied smugness says this is the 80s.American and Russian fighter jets clash over an undefined ocean. One of the Russians flies off when our hero Maverick (Tom Cruise) achieves missile lock on him. The other leaves when he and his copilot, Goose, fly upside down within a few feet of his cockpit and flip him the bird. In the meantime, one of the Russians has achieved missile lock on the other American fighter. They don’t fire, but their target, an American pilot called Cougar, is so badly rattled that he can’t concentrate on flying his plane. Maverick disobeys orders to guide Cougar back to their aircraft carrier, where Cougar turns in his wings and retires. The commanding officer delivers a top-volume speech to the effect of, “That was amazing, so you’re in a lot of trouble; here’s your reward!” Then he sends them to Top Gun.

Top Gun is apparently a kind of graduate school for fighter pilots, and (again, apparently) it is a great honor to be sent there. At the school in question, they meet their instructors Jester (a taciturn Michael Ironside) and Viper (a bemused Tom Skerritt), as well as their chief rival Iceman (an emotionless Val Kilmer), and their civilian consultant Charlie (a sultry Kelly McGillis). In a section that occupies the bulk of the movie, Maverick divides his time between wooing the lovely Charlie—a process that involves bad karaoke, following her into the ladies room, and showing up late and stinky to their dates—and performing stupid and dangerous stunts during training missions—like flying too low, deafening the control tower, and flying too close to other planes. Charlie eventually succumbs to his arrogant, boyish charms while he and Iceman run neck and neck for the school’s top honors.

Worship me, for I am an pompous jackass.And now, the humbling tragedy you heard coming from miles away: Maverick flies too close to another jet’s engines; both his engines flame out, sending his jet spinning across the sky like a Frisbee; the eject malfunctions, bonking Goose’s head against the cockpit; and Goose dies of head trauma. Maverick’s hopelessly overacted grief knows no restraint, and though a navy investigation of the incident clears him of any wrongdoing, he starts to fail his training missions by flying too timidly.

He goes to see Viper, who clears up a mystery about Maverick’s father’s death. (Oh, didn’t I mention the “father died under mysterious circumstances” subplot? It’s supposed to be the internal conflict that grants Maverick’s character depth, and justifies his reckless behavior. Sorry; must have slipped my mind.) This emboldens Maverick to graduate with the rest of his class. The main players all go directly into their first combat mission, where the first two fighters sent up, flown by Iceman and the lesser-known Hollywood, meet more Russians than they could reasonably be expected to handle. Hollywood gets shot down almost immediately. (Take that, mostly anonymous peripheral character!) Iceman takes out one of his opponents before gunfire cripples his fighter.

Of course the only American fighter in helping range is Maverick. He goes into a panic at first, but quickly pulls out of it to single-handedly wipe out the entire Russian squadron. And then, just to prove that he’s regained his reckless, order-disobeying abilities, he buzzes the carrier control tower. Having succeeded at his first combat mission out of Top Gun, he decides to retire and return to Top Gun as an instructor, where he and Charlie will presumably live happily ever after.


I acknowledge the inferiority of my calculating competence to your undisciplined recklessness.A question about the action sequence at the beginning of the film: Do navy fighters routinely stay out on patrol missions until they have only seconds worth of fuel remaining? Assuming that they do, and also assuming that they ran into enemy fighters near the end of one such patrol, would they then proceed to engage said fighters without, say, heading back to the carrier to gas up first? Just curious.

Another thing I’m curious about is Japan. You may well ask what Japan has to do with this movie. I’ll tell you. Top Gun was nominated for perhaps a dozen cinematic awards and won a handful of them, though they were almost universally in praise of the eighties pop rock that permeates the film. (Which, I must admit, is better than your average eighties pop rock.) Japan’s Academy Awards, however, named it the best foreign language film of 1988. Why, I ask you, with hundreds of movie-producing countries to choose from, would they pick the biggest, dumbest, loudest American film of the era? Sure, they churned out Pokemon, Mighty Jack, and any number of rubber monster flicks, but they’ve also given us Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa, so I know they know what good movies look like. Did they deliberately choose something that would make the lowliest episode of Dragonball Z look subtle by comparison? Or maybe they looked at all they had to choose from and said, “This totally reminds us of America. Yes, this is the movie that epitomizes American-ness as we know it!” I’m joking, sort of, but I’m also a little afraid that the latter scenario might not be very far from the truth.

Whether or not you consider it to be a bad movie depends on your appetite for cliché. Top Gun is constructed from 100% pure, uncut cliché, but is perhaps one of the most well-crafted examples of cliché available. Like Road House, it is so committed to its virtuous machismo that it will tell us things like, “An inability to accept criticism makes a woman’s heart go pitter-patter;” and “Our nation’s armed forces prize individuality over obedience;” and because it said these things with a straight face, over the urgent strains of Kenny Loggins, we accept the inherent ridiculousness without question...at least until the end.

On the Rifftrax commentary, Mike Nelson and guest riffer Bill Corbett want you to know a lot of things, but mostly they want you to know that this movie is amazingly gay. (Indeed, the last time I saw this movie was when I was young enough to think of fighter jets as “radical,” and thus did not notice that almost half the movie consists of wet, mostly naked men engaging in hygiene, sport, and tender embrace. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that it deserves the title of Most Unintentionally Homoerotic Family Film, 1986 to 1996—1997 being the year marked by the advent of Joel Schumacher’s nipple-encrusted superhero epic, Batman and Robin.) They also want you to know that, “Tom Skerritt [is the] world’s most grizzled man,” (Bill) and that “Stripey and Captain Fun” (Mike) would be good fighter pilot call signs. Another, and perhaps my favorite bit of fun comes when Mike starts to sing “House on Pooh Corner” every time the Kenny Loggins song kicks in. It’s a good, solid commentary for one of the biggest, dumbest, loudest movies ever made.