27 November 2011

DANGER ZONE

It being Thanksgiving weekend, and thus the time of year for being thankful, I figured I would at long last express my gratitude towards the last three contributors to the Carry On Campaign, who all requested an essay that I was unable to achieve in a timely fashion for one reason or another. The first one up is the review requested by one Cameron Shaw, who was by some months the last person to make a request, though she was also the very first person to donate. I gave her a pass on account of she is a close personal friend of mine; and it is because she is a close personal friend that her request was for me to watch and review one of the all-time iconic movies which I had, to my endless shame, never actually seen before now.

Top Gun is not a subtle movie. It is a movie where watching it, you get the feeling that every last sentence in the screenplay ended with an exclamation point. It is a movie in which the characters are all so uni-dimensional that they're not even given proper names, just adjectives describing how we're meant to feel about them: "Maverick" is the free spirited rule-breaker that we can't help but admire for his moxie, "Iceman" is the rock-steady, cool-as-a-cucumber jerk, "Goose" is the charming, amusing sidekick. I'll confess to being a bit rankled by it all, but that is my fault and not the film's - it knows what it is and it is quite the best possible version of what it is. Complaining, "I didn't like Top Gun because it's loud and the plot is barely there and the characters are flat and all that matters is sleek photography of Navy jets gliding in and out of frame like a sports car on a mountain road in a TV commercial" is like complaining that broccoli tastes like a green vegetable.

Some of us do not like green vegetables, and some of us do not like big noisy dumb action movies, but I'll admit this much about Top Gun: it is the exemplar of its form. It takes being willfully stupid and shallow and wildly stylish - not the same thing as "stylised" - to a whole other level of artistry. There is an extremely good reason that at 25 years old, this is still an iconic film amongst those who like their action movies to double down on the sizzle and don't give a shit about steak, which is that not a single one of the movies to follow in its wake - which includes not just the vast majority of director Tony Scott's subsequent filmography, but countless summertime blockbusters and popcorn movies from Michael Bay's explosion porn and all his many imitators, to Luc Besson's flashy Euro-trotting action adventure epics - has come even close to replicating its absolute purity. Top Gun informs us at the beginning that it expects us to like our jets shiny, our heroes ballsy, and our patriotism full-throated, and it proceeds to spend one hour and forty-nine minutes exploring those ideas with the minimum possible level of self-reflection. It is the ideal time capsule of the Reagan '80s right down to its synth-soaked musical score and the two hugely successful pop songs it kicked off, Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone" and Berlin's "Take My Breath Away", both produced and co-written by Giorgio Moroder, the man behind earlier quintessentially '80s piece "Flashdance... What a Feeling"

In fact, Top Gun is basically "Flashdance for Boys",* producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson's third great success (Beverly Hills Cop was second) at capturing the Zeitgeist in a bottle with a film that is unabashedly and unashamedly tacky, trashy, and wildly stupid. Indeed, Top Gun might be as stupid, and as proud of its stupidity, as any major box office hit of the 1980s, and this is a feature, not a flaw.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Maverick (23-year-old Tom Cruise, in the role that took the promising newcomer of Risky Business and made him a for-real Movie Star), whose real name, Pete Mitchell, is completely irrelevant next to the fact that he is a hotshot pilot with a killer smile and charm to spare, and a total lack of interest in how things in the Navy are supposed to be done. His skills far outweigh his dangerous recklessness, and he is sent to TOPGUN, where the absolute best of the Navy's pilots are trained to be even better, and there he continues to be a hotshot and a smiler, effortlessly seducing his civilian intstructor Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood (28-year-old Kelly McGillis, in the role that... oh, sorry about that Kelly, you should not have tried to break out as the female romantic lead in the most homoerotic movie of all time), sparring with the far more disciplined hotshot Iceman (Val Kilmer), and raising all kinds of hell. At one point, his radar intercept officer Goose (Anthony Edwards) dies in an accident that is, shockingly, not even remotely Maverick's fault, and this sends the ace spiraling into self-doubt, which he recovers from just in time to learn that teamwork is even better than being a lone wolf, if you're the best member of the team, so that he and his TOPGUN buddies can win the Cold War, or some such. Truth be told, the final act doesn't make any sense on a number of levels, but it lets Maverick Cruise kill Commies in a plane, and that is the part that matters.

The film appeals to the most reactive, lizardlike part of the 12-year-old male's brain: the filmmakers have done such a good job of it that they even manage to nail the 12-year-old's difficulty deciding whether girls are hot or if they're still gross. This makes life awful for poor Charlie, who has to adopt a man's name just to show up in the cast, and also be played by the, let us say, handsome McGillis, while Goose's wife is played by Meg Ryan at maximum bubbly girliness. In the meantime, there is a rather lengthy scene during which Iceman flirts with Maverick in a locker room, and later there is a volleyball scene in which most of the cast are shirtless, sweaty, and filmed like the bottles in a tequila commercial, while Kenny Loggins sings the spectacularly mis-titled "Playing with the Boys". The film is itself too pre-sexual to actually feel like a PG-13 gay porno - the only sex that matters is the onanism of having the biggest flying dick, and not the kind that goes on between two persons of any gender (as evidenced by the hastily stubbed-in Maverick/Charlie sex scene that was filmed in response to test audiences, and feels that way). But it is certainly hyper-male, obsessed to the point of psychosis with male-male bonding; so it's probably more homosocial than homoerotic anyway. But basically: boys being boys with boys. It caters to laddishness, to immaturity, to being a dude among dudes.

It's altogether disreputable, then, and in a way that has made a lot of people very happy over the years, though there's a huge part of me that is sort of terrified by that fact. For sure, it's glossy as all hell: Tony Scott even at his worst is a magnificently flashy craftsman, finding a nice balance between clarity (the film's editors, Chris Lebenzon and Billy Weber, earned an Oscar nomination and it's hard to say it wasn't deserved) and pizzazz that has always kept his films coherent, at least; this was less of a concern in the '80s than today, but the degree to which Top Gun manages to look like an advertisement (for planes? the military? masculinity itself?) while functioning as a motion picture is to its credit even in the context of its time, when few movies were willing to adopt such balls-out shininess, the kind that if not perfectly handled, turns into the worst kind of superficiality, viz. the aforementioned Mr. Bay.

Not that Top Gun is anything but superficial. It is a pinnacle of superficiality - a masterpiece. It contains the most superficial of all important Tom Cruise performances; its theme barely even has the substance to count as "jingoism", which at least has a literate Britishness associated with it. I will confess that even though it commits absolutely no errors whatsoever, I did not like it much at all; but even my dislike is from a place of awe, rather than derision. Top Gun is basically perfect, even it is perfect at one of the worst sorts of things a movie can attempt.

3 comments:

RickR said...

Ah, Paramount in the 80's. That's almost a subgenre in itself.

Mysterious F. said...

Tim this has nothing to do with the movie, but I have a question since I know you're a hardcore Legend of Zelda fan. Do you have Skyward Sword yet?

Tim said...

Yes, as a matter of fact, and I was planning on writing a few words when I completed it. But I am savoring it a bit first.