There aren’t too many hyper-masculine 80s films crying out for the blu-ray treatment; the joy to be found in a peak era Sylvester Stallone movie isn’t in its high-definition video. So what makes Top Gun worth seeking out for its 30th anniversary re-release isn’t its reputation as a near-perfect distillation of the larger than life, oddly plotted, politically bizarre 80s action film, but its place in director Tony Scott’s career.
In 1986 Top Gun didn’t just make a superstar out of Tom Cruise, it also gave Ridley Scott’s younger brother a reputation as a blockbuster action director and a blank cheque that he would be cashing to fascinating effect long into the 21st century.
Top Gun’s plot is so unexpectedly low-key that some of its odder moments are easy to forget now. It is a film that wants to show off the latest military technology from both sides of the cold war but has no interest in nuclear dystopia. It wants to tell a good old fashioned war story in a contemporary 80s setting, and to do that the script has to do some odd work.
For a start, there isn’t a war on. The film is essentially a two hour training montage, with the bulk of the action taking place in the (based on real life) navy fighter training school, where an instructor early on feels the need to remind pilots of the fact that they’re not at war. “We always have to act as if we are” he says, practically addressing viewers. So the pilots and the audience set geopolitics to one side and get on with Top Gun’s real concerns: playing in planes and sketching enjoyably broad characters.
Every character plays an obvious role in the story, but that story is such a simple one that there is plenty of time to relax into them and pick up specific mannerisms that pull them surprisingly far out of the realm of archetype.
Goose is the comic relief and the key to Maverick’s emotional side, but is equally memorable for being a bit nerdy; Kelly McGillis brings vital playfulness to the practically harassed love interest role; cult darling Tom Skerritt plays Viper as the wise old instructor he was written as and his big success is getting through loaded lines like “I flew with his old man” without drowning in the camp value. If Iceman never transcends his buttoned-up antagonist persona, at least Val Kilmer’s performance heightens and defines that trope. The extra work that goes into these characters – and the way the plot turns on their emotions – contrasts with various modern blockbusters where a complex plots often only pay lip service to character motivation.
But in high definition, what really comes through is the surprising number of indelible, colourful images. Silhouettes of everything from planes to faces to Tom Cruise’s overly eager tongue combine with stark oranges and blues to produce constantly striking shots – and that comes long before the digital craze that has seen every action film of the past 10 years shaded teal and orange.
Tony Scott as a filmmaker solidified his own style during the digital era, smearing cold colour across the screen, and looking back at Top Gun now the hints of his future style are all there. His big 80s hit connected with the public because it provided his biggest gifts – momentum and a perfect pulpy sensibility, mainly – without delving too far into the halfway expressionistic cutting and camerawork that would divide viewers of later films like Domino.
It’s easy to have an opinion on Top Gun. It defined a certain type of film and culture – obsessed with guns, bikes and cool tech, and absurdly masculine to the point of homoerotica – and views on that larger movement will colour the film that helped define it. With three decades of hindsight though, it’s Tony Scott’s unique direction and a commitment to character that keep it compulsively watchable as a film rather than a cultural phenomenon.
Dir: Tony Scott
Scr: Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt
Prd: Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer
DOP: Jeffrey L Kimball
Music: Harold Faltermeyer
Run time: 110 minutes
Top Gun is available on blu-ray now.