I've never seen … Top Gun

In 1986, I was 15 and gorging myself on movies of every stripe, so why did I never see Top Gun? My subsequent admiration for Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State proves I’m not immune to the magnetism of its director, Tony Scott. And it can’t be that I was averse to the glossy, pumped-up hedonism that was the stock-in-trade of the super-producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, since I’d coughed up my hard-earned paper-round money to see Beverly Hills Cop twice the previous year. Most likely, the deal-breaker was Tom Cruise. He was too much like the jocks with their laminated skin and torch-beam teeth who flicked one another with towels in the PE changing rooms or mimed slap bass to Level 42 at the school disco. I could get all that for free any time; I didn’t need to pay to watch it on screen.

My resistance to Cruise weakened in the late 90s, around the time of Jerry Maguire and Eyes Wide Shut, so it was with something less than dread that I sat down recently for a first viewing of Top Gun. Cruise plays the trainee fighter pilot Pete Mitchell, known to anyone who loves him (and boy, does everyone love him) as Maverick. All the characters have nicknames. Maverick’s best buddy is Goose (Anthony Edwards). His nemesis is Iceman (Val Kilmer). Even their superiors are called Viper (Tom Skerritt) and Jester (Michael Ironside). The US navy consultants listed in the end credits have nicknames, too, such as Rat, Bozo and Flex. The only ones who don’t are women: Charlie (Kelly McGillis), the instructor who becomes Maverick’s squeeze, and Carole (Meg Ryan), Goose’s wife. Carole gets two scenes, larking around in the first one and then – sad face – grieving over her husband in the second. Should I have prefaced that plot-point with a spoiler alert? I don’t think so. The moment you find out he has a family, this Goose is cooked.

On a visual level, Top Gun has everything I would have expected from a film by one of the Scott brothers: smoke, ceiling fans, Venetian blinds. Not to mention an extreme hardware fetish. In lieu of narrative tension, there are shots of fighter planes scarring the sky. When Maverick has a dilemma to mull over, he rides his motorbike near some palm trees at sunset. To express her desire for him, Charlie zooms around in a convertible displaying a reckless disregard for traffic lights. Bogart and Bacall exchanged sizzling repartee, but this pair may as well be reading to one another from a manual. “You were in a 4G inverted dive with a MiG-28?” Charlie gasps soon after meeting Maverick. She’s thrilled to find a man who knows all about the thrust-to-weight ratio.

There’s a disastrous imbalance between the lead actors, and not only because, as Pauline Kael pointed out in her New Yorker review in June 1986, the “strapping” McGillis is forever slouching, leaning or bending “so she won’t overpower” her smaller co-star. Their skills aren’t evenly matched either. When McGillis is called upon to appear besotted with this grinning bubble of pure ego, this pair of Ray-Bans on legs, the masquerade is as implausible as it is ridiculous. It’s as if Rita Hayworth were making eyes at Joe Pasquale.

It could be argued that Top Gun needs an actor as limited as Cruise was back then. A superior performer would certainly have been under-stretched by the vacuous script and the long sections where nothing happens of any consequence. Almost the entire movie is taken up by training exercises; as pulse-quickening spectacle goes, it’s as compelling as Quidditch. Only in the final reel is there any high-stakes combat, when the young greenhorns are whisked away from their graduation ceremony (“We have a crisis situation!”) for an emergency dogfight with Russia. A mere 15 minutes later, Maverick and his colleagues are whooping and punching the air. Like us, they know the film must be nearly over.

The only surprise after all these years is how little inventiveness and imagination there can be in a movie that has been so influential. The soft-rock songs on the soundtrack keep emphasising how overheated everything is (“The further on the edge, the hotter the intensity,” insists Kenny Loggins on Danger Zone), but few films are so listless and mechanical.

I had also been misled by seeing Sleep With Me, the 1994 comedy in which Quentin Tarantino delivers a monologue (purloined from his Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary) about the subtext of Top Gun: “It’s a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality.” What’s mysterious to me now is why everyone went wild for that Tarantino riff. Because make no mistake: there is no gay subtext to Top Gun. It’s more the case that gayness is the very text itself, the only possible reading available. How else to explain the charged looks and sweaty, nose-to-nose flirting between Maverick and Iceman, the film’s blatant lack of interest in Charlie and her life, or the script’s obsession with anal imagery? (A representative sample: “I’d like to bust your butt but I can’t”; “Nail him, nail him!”; “Stay on my wing, I’ll take you all the way in”; “I want somebody’s butt and I want it now!”)

Looking back, I don’t feel any regret about giving Scott’s film the swerve in 1986 and going instead to see the likes of Aliens, Mona Lisa, After Hours, Desert Hearts, Sid and Nancy, True Stories, Hannah and Her Sisters, Big Trouble in Little China and Jagged Edge. Each of those pictures did what Top Gun couldn’t do: take my breath away.