The Seasoned Ticket #208

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

The Oscar nominations are announced next week, and I think Top Gun: Maverick might do better than many people (you know, the people who predict these things) are predicting. I finally saw the film on New Year’s Eve, and was kind of amazed, and occasionally dazzled, at how a dopey movie could be so smartly made. For the record, it is a better film than the 1986 original, but it did put me in mind to recollect my review (for The Herald) of the first movie. (How many times can I make the same “it was written when I was a mere child, of course” joke?)

Anyway, here’s that review. At least this allows me to affirm my opposition to the Great Tony Scott Re-appraisal of recent years. If you think that movies can enhance a culture or degrade it, then I strongly suspect Top Gun is a film with a stain trailing behind it. But in ’86, all that was not yet clear – except that I considered it approximately as dire as Short Circuit, and not a signature film of the Reagan era.

Top Gun

Top Gun has all the earmarks of a summer blockbuster. It has glitz, it has stars, it has high technology, it has the new patriotism (or is that the old xenophobia?). Every little element seems calculated to produce a true-blue audience-pleaser.

Doubtless it will please audiences. But there may be too many earmarks. Somewhere within the yards of shiny jet fighters and the approximately 1,095 close-ups of sweat-drenched faces, somebody forgot to make a movie—a movie, at any rate, with anything like a sense of recognizable life.

The brainchild of those packaging wizards, Paramount producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop), Top Gun is the story of a Navy Pilot (Tom Cruise) who enters an elite flying program called Top Gun. He’s obsessed with being the best there is and he’s willing to break the rules to do it. At the program, he attracts the rivalry of a fellow hotshot (Val Kilmer), the fatherly interest of the school’s commanding officer (Tom Skerritt), and the non-fatherly interest of a knockout instructor (Kelly McGillis, late of Witness). 

Most of these relationships are programmed to fulfill their particular niche in the story, as is Cruise’s friendship with his goofily likable Radar Intercept Officer (Anthony Edwards)—that’ the guy who sits behind him in the F-14. Edwards serves much the same—no, make that exactly the same—function that the David Keith character served for Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. In fact, the screenplay for that film might have served as the blueprint for Top Gun, so familiar are the new film’s plot turns. The big difference is in directorial style. Where An Officer and a Gentleman was straightforward and traditional, Top Gun is full of diffused light, screeching Dolby, and high-powered techno-sheen.

This comes courtesy of British director Tony Scott, whose first film, The Hunger, also was marked by irritating visual tics. Scott undeniably is nervy with the aerial battles, which include a couple of encounters with Soviet MiGs. But he can’t shoot a simple scene of people talking without turning it into a battle of close-ups. This insistent style becomes oppressive, and shuts down whatever life the actors might have provided. I can think of only one scene, when Cruise and McGillis share a dinner and listen to Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” when the human element enters. When Scott labors to inject some humanity, as when Edwards (who displays nice comic flair) and Cruise jam on “Great Balls of Fire,” it’s forced.

Having said all this, I have to admit that there are sequences in Top Gun that are entertaining. Most of the dogfight stuff is engrossing, even through there’s a consistent problem with knowing who’s who in the sky.

But Top Gun really reminded me of Short Circuit, last week’s supposed early summer blockbuster. Both seem wholly derivative of past successes, and overwhelmingly mechanical in their appeal. If they are any indication of the ’86 summer season, we are in for a long dry spell.


January 20, 2023

Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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