"Top Gun" Still Doesn't Quite Take My Breath Away

Of all the films I remember from my childhood, “Top Gun” stands out as one of the few that I never bought into. I’m not sure if I was 5 or 10 years-old when I first saw the film – which would have been the early to mid 90s – but by that time, the picture had already aged beyond its years. It had been building a devoted fanbase for the better part of a decade, but even I could tell that it was hopelessly trapped in the 80s, that mythical decade that I was born into, only experiencing it in fragments as it whizzed past me. By 1993 I was in love with film and music, so Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic theme song made it on to several of my movie mixtapes, but the picture itself brought out the critic in me. Maybe it was because my younger brother adored the film – sibling rivalry was as strong as ever those days – but I like to think that it was the beginning of the conscious formation of my own opinions, no matter how poorly thought out they were.

2013 is an ideal year to re-release “Top Gun.” The revival of 80s pop culture, especially in regards to music, has reached its zenith. Tom Cruise is in the middle of a career renaissance, making movies as fast as studios can release them. And director Tony Scott just recently passed away, making it especially meaningful to revisit one of his biggest successes. So through that lens, “Top Gun” is as relevant as it ever will be. If you’re going to spend any time analyzing it, it’s now or never.

Fortunately, it seems that “Top Gun” works best as a sort of time capsule, a window into a pretty spectacular decade for big-budget filmmaking. It’s essential to remember that no one had ever seen anything like it. How exactly do you direct fighter jets? Sure, the on screen aerial sequences are a bit confusing, but it seems that shooting as much footage as possible and patching it together into something relatively coherent would be a miracle unto itself. Yet, Tony Scott did it. And would any prominent director today be able to shoot a single action scene without extensive use of CGI, let alone an entire picture?

The film has plenty of shortcomings, but some of them lend a distinct charm to the proceedings. The music! The Righteous Brothers, Otis Redding, Berlin, Kenny Loggins – all used to memorable and entirely overbearing effect. By the fourth reprise of “Take My Breath Away,” the song has become a parody of itself. None of the dialogue is given any room to breathe and each character is defined by which song happens to be playing in the background. Even the soaring electric guitar of the “Top Gun Anthem” eventually takes on a mind of its own, drowning out important story beats because, “USA! USA! USA!” If one ever longs for Ronald Reagan’s presidency – and plenty of people do – I suggest they bust out a drum machine and an electric guitar. Faltermeyer’s work here is 80s patriotism in musical form.

The screenplay is kind of a joke, but I’m sure no one has ever considered it the strong point of the movie. It’s fragmented beyond almost anything I’ve ever seen. The entire picture just stops on a dime and devotes twenty minutes to developing the love story. When that’s been sufficiently driven into the ground, it does the same thing with Anthony Edwards’ Goose. Then, of course, it kills him. Because the story is going nowhere at that point.

I don’t blame the writers for killing off a lead character in the way they did – it’s fairly effective – but its inevitability is almost comedic. Why else introduce Goose’s wife and kid and spend so many uneventful minutes on the ground with them if you’re not going to take him away? Val Kilmer’s incredibly memorable turn as Iceman provides a nice foil for Maverick, but it’s not enough to drive Maverick to success. Only a life-changing event, like the loss of a close friend, could do that. At least the picture is relatively forthcoming about its brain dead-ness.

The love story? Mostly pathetic. There’s absolutely nothing interesting about it and since it is so self-contained, it has no real bearing on the rest of the story. Kelly McGillis is fine in the role, but her character is so unbelievable that it takes us out of the movie every time she appears. Oh, really? An attractive, young woman schooling the Navy’s most elite fighter pilots? And she’s obsessed with Soviet MIGs? Good one.

Regardless of the flaws that have been there from day one, the 3D conversion turned out surprisingly well. The opening scenes in particular are quite immersive and the aid of IMAX picture and sound polishes the movie to a sheen. Overall, it’s a lovely experience, and I’m sure it will be just as worthwhile on the impending Blu-ray release. I don’t love “Top Gun,” but I loved “Top Gun 3D” as a historical experience. It’s a time warp worth seeking out, even it’s just to imagine yourself sitting in a theater in 1986, experiencing a much simpler time in movie history – when audiences were a little less jaded and a little less cynical. And filmmakers were right there with them.

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: February 8, 2013
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Tony Scott
Screenwriter: Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside
MPAA Rating: PG