Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Top Gun

Today we examine a film that was obscenely popular when it was first released, a popularity I still cannot fathom. This film established a template for other bad movies. This film cemented the stardom of the Boy Who Cannot Act. This film invited us all to fly into “the danger zone,” which, based on the evidence in the film, is a euphemism for some sort of sewer. Come fly with me.

Top Gun is a bad movie. This is not a matter of opinion. This is not a matter of taste. It is bad on a sub-atomic level that cannot be denied by any physicist. It is NOT that I do not like the military. It is NOT that I do not like airplanes. It is NOT that I do not like Tom Cruise… Wait a minute! I do not like Tom Cruise.

Top Gun is poorly written and poorly edited. Inconsequential matters are given tremendous weight. We spend what feels like seventy or eighty minutes observing four men playing beach volleyball; the first dinner shared by the two romantic leads takes place offscreen. Cruise goes to Kelly McGillis’s house; he is late. CUT! Suddenly we are on her patio; the dinner is over. WTF? At times it seems as if whole scenes (important scenes) have been left on the cutting room floor to make room for more incoherent airplane footage.

Important facts and action are ignored. Near the end of the film, Tom Skerritt’s character shares the secret fate of Cruise’s dead father. This is information for which Cruise has been searching his entire life. One would think that information would be life changing. Not here. Like Kevin James learning that animals can actually talk in this summer’s stink fest, Zookeeper, this information is met with barely a shrug. After hearing the story, Cruise pauses for a nanosecond before returning to the subject of his character’s status at the flight school.

A popular dictum of screenwriting is “Show, Don’t tell.” As this film lurches awkwardly between stultifying dialogue scenes and MTV-quick dogfights, it finds many ways to TELL US AND TELL US AND TELL US just what the hell is going on. Repeatedly, looped pilot dialogue during the aerial sequences informs us that “I’m coming,” and “Look over there,” and “Do you think anyone would actually pay money to see this movie?” The audience is treated to many Top Gun instructor voice-overs helpfully telling us about “how much is at stake” and “what day it is.” At times, this film, once lauded for its visual invention, seems more like illustrated radio.

I used to give this film a lot of credit for keeping the audience acclimated during the dogfight sequences. I was wrong. Watching it again, I cannot believe that I ever felt that way. The aerial sequences are incomprehensible, which is why the filmmakers had to slather them in explanatory pilot exclamations and bad Eighties synthesizer music.

Yet, this was the top-grossing film of 1986. It later became the top-selling videocassette of all time. Need further proof that this film was made in the Eighties? In the first draft of the screenplay, the Kelly McGillis character was an aerobics instructor!

Many have suggested that Top Gun has a gay subtext. Quentin Tarantino, in a hilarious cameo in the otherwise forgettable film Sleep With Me, delivers a memorable monologue on this very subject.

This is funny stuff, although Quentin does change the last line of the film to suit his evil purpose. The line is not “You can ride my tail any time”; it is “You can be my wingman any time.” Not quite as gay – although I am straight, so I do not know if “wingman” is some sort of homosexual euphemism. The only time I can ever be described as a “wingman” is when I visit Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yum.

I beg to differ with Tarantino. This film does NOT have a gay subtext; it bends over backwards (sorry) to establish a crazy hetero vibe. This film contains boatloads of what critic Richard Dyer, in his book Only Entertainment, calls “hysterical male iconography.” We are assaulted by images of fighter jets that resemble penises; beer bottles that resemble penises; sweaty, shirtless men playing volleyball with volleyballs that resemble… volleyballs.

Watching the film again, my lovely wife commented that it was “airplane porn,” and I agree. (I usually agree with her. She is always right. She tells me I am right to agree with her.) Like those middle-aged men who purchase “penis compensation” cars, the main characters in Top Gun use airplanes as just another expression of their gung-ho, bro-centric machismo. This film is really about how awful it is to be a man. These men clearly prefer fighter jets to women. The romance between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis is so demented and chemistry free, it takes your breath away.

It would be hard to find another movie character that is a bigger douche nozzle than Tom Cruise’s “Maverick.” Clearly, the script intends “Maverick” to be a lovable rogue, but that is not what Cruise delivers. His performance is not a performance at all – it is a collection of poses, facial tics, pouts, smirks, and frowns. He is like a tiny little magazine model brought to life.

In every film he has made, Tom Cruise is a black hole where a performance should be. He cries, he spits, he smiles, he screams, but he never actually gives a performance. It is like watching a handsome miniature ape try to give its trainer what the ape knows the audience desperately wants.

Proof of this can be found in the celebrated “You Can’t Handle the Truth” scene in A Few Good Men, where we witness the splendor of Jack Nicholson out-acting the vapidity of Tom Cruise. By the end of the scene, Cruise is practically foaming at the mouth, but Nicholson wins the competition BY RAISING AN EYEBROW. It is really something to watch and savor.

Much has been made of Cruise’s “stretch” performances, where he tries to branch out and play something other than his usual smirking, self-obsessed twit. There was Born on the Fourth of July (overwrought), Magnolia (self-conscious to the point of self-parody), and Tropic Thunder (obnoxious and unfunny). In fact that cameo in Tropic Thunder bears some discussion. Many people think that little puppet show is a hoot because Cruise plays a fat, bald man who wears glasses. Take a look:
Do you get the joke? Cruise is playing a bespectacled, balding chubster, but HE is not like that at all! Oh! I get it! I am shaking my head, and I finally get it! It is funny because Tom Cruise is thin, does not wear glasses, and has by all accounts an amazing head of hair. Comedy.

Hey, I am bald. I wear glasses. I am a “substantial” man. Hmmmm… The next time I want a laugh, I am going to pretend to be a tiny, dyslexic, closeted, smirking elf. An elf that cannot act.


THIS JUST IN: Top Gun has been slated for rerelease in 2012 – in 3D! Because American moviegoers have just not been throwing up a little in their own mouths nearly as often as they should.


  1. Thank you, JB, for summarizing in far more eloquent terms than I ever could, the crap-fest that is Top Gun -- a movie that, sadly, falls on my wife's, whom I love very much (to borrow a phrase of yours), list of Movies You Must Finish Watching. I, like you, have NEVER understood the appeal of the film. Yes, it has some nice aerial photography, but that's enough to keep me going for about 10 minutes. The rest is a bloated mess of a film, and I never even noticed the missing dinner scene until you pointed it out. I guess I've always checked out long before then. I don't have quite the angst for Tom Cruise as you do, but he's awful in this film, and so are just about everyone else. James Tolkan, whom I usually really like, just phones in a Principal Strickland bit and Michael Ironside is, well, Michael Ironside, but that's not enough to save the film. Val Kilmer? Bad (*bite*). Meg Ryan? Ugh. Anthony Edwards? Bad...and dead. Hell, they can't even make THAT pay off properly.

    Ultimately, I think it boils down to the fact that Tony Scott has about 1/20th the talent of his brother when it comes to directing and, in my opinion, has only made one movie worth seeing (Crimson Tide).

  2. Great post, Carl. Thanks for the nice words...
    You should see the paragraphs I cut!

  3. Oh! Almost forgot! James Tolkan actually plays Napoleon (and Napoleon's double) in Woody Allen's Love and Death. I caught this on MGM-HD last week, and he is a major hoot. Much better than his shouting and vein-sticking-out-on-the-forehead performance in Top Gun, where he seems to be channeling every apoplectic police commander in every buddy-cop action film ever made. "I'm gonna have your &%$#@! BADGE for this!"

  4. The exception that proves the rule, pal. Days of Thunder? Spy Game? Domino? I could go on all day like this! Imdb is the best!

  5. True Romance was written by Quentin Tarantino...I'd argue that even Tony Scott couldn't totally mess that up (just like I bet it would be even better if Tarantino had directed it). For Tony Scott films, I feel like that credit "Scott Free" is just a false promise. Don't get me started on Pellham 123 (though replacing Robert Shaw with Travolta is being dealt a really crappy hand).

    And JB's description of Tolkan in Top Gun made me laugh. He just takes the face from that extreme close-up in Back to the Future and holds it for the entire film: "No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley!"

  6. I agree that the script is great, but I actually think Tony Scott's direction is part of what makes that movie work. It's so slick and overdirected (his usual bag of tricks) that it gives the sense of Clarence and Alabama are living out their lives as a Hollywood movie. I don't think Tony Scott did this on purpose, of course; I think it's the only way he knows how to make a movie. It's more of a happy accident.

  7. Amen...December 2016 and Top Gun still holds its place as one the worst films ever made.

  8. Amen...December 2016 and Top Gun still holds its place as one the worst films ever made.

  9. You are jealous of Tom Cruise. No, people would not want to watch you onscreen. Yes, Tom Cruise is much much better looking than you. The End.

  10. Terrible movie. F5s become MiGs? Cockpit to cockpit because the Soviet pilots can't find the American F14, a huge smoking monster of a jet. Dumb lines. A "Naval aviator" screws with everyone while joyriding about in the US Navy's property. And geez, can't these guys get haircuts like we'd see on a USN pilot, instead of the surf look. McGillis goes from distanced professional to sophomore in high school all because Maverick walks into the woman's bathroom. There's real appreciation for women for ya. Vapid.