Top Gun meets the need for speed
Superior gun: Up there with the best of the best.
The morning sun paints the sky a brilliant hue of orange and gold. Warm colors pour over the aluminum and steel of the F14 Tomcats. Staff members clear the tarmac. The motors turn in circles. The radio control signals the take-off authorization to the pilot and his radio interception officer (RIO). A thundering fire roars from the rear exhaust. The pilot and the RIO both feel this need. The need for speed. This is the world of the Top Gun program, the popularized name of the most reputable fighter pilot training school in the United States. It’s also a colorful depiction of much of what viewers see in the 1986 Tony Scott-directed film. Superior gun.
Scott’s romantic and adrenaline-fuelled portrayal of American fighter pilots and their adventures has been remembered for its iconic attitude, music and imagery. Whether it’s next, Top Gun: Maverickup to the billing remains to be seen at the time of this writing.
Discounting the musical release date chairs game the sequel played due to the pandemic, it would have been released 34 years after the original (originally slated for summer 2020). Why would stars Tom Cruise and Paramount return to it so long after its release? What is its engine made of and what makes it work after all these years?
Built for speed
Legendary Hollywood producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson were the driving force behind getting Superior gun made. A May 1983 issue of California Magazine published an evocative article titled “The best gunsabout school. The text and especially the striking aerial photography struck a chord with both men, prompting them to seek funding from Paramount. The writing process proved to be a challenge, as evidenced by the documentary Danger zone: the creation of “Top Gun”. Screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. did a few tries to fine-tune the direction of the story, ultimately determining that it should play out like a sports movie, with a trophy up for grabs at the end.
The hiring of Tony Scott was a minor controversy given that he only realized Hunger. The latter was not considered a financial success, but when Scott’s vision merged sufficiently with that of the writers, the game plan was set. The cast was filled with relatively young and hot actors for student roles (“hot” being the key word). Tom Cruise as Maverick, Kelly McGillis as Lovers, Val Kilmer as Iceman and Maverick’s rival, Anthony Edwards as Goose and Rick Rossovich as Slider, Iceman’s RIO. Tom Skerritt and Michael Ironside were chosen as instructors.
The filmmakers had to find a lot of common ground with the US Navy to make their dream come true. On the one hand, simply getting permission to film at locations like the USS aircraft carrier Business was a test in itself. The cast and crew didn’t even know exactly where they were at sea…because they weren’t allowed to know! There was also the figurative crash course in what fighter jets could and could not do. Former pilot Pete Pettigrew was Scott’s primary contact in the Navy, serving as a technical advisor. He helped make the movie as realistic as possible while still indulging in some necessary Hollywood flourishes.
Archetypes take flight
The story is simple. Maverick and Goose are overconfident pilots who sign up for Top Gun through the back door, much to the chagrin of Ironside’s Rick Heatherly, as well as Kilmer’s Iceman. Maverick flies like his namesake, often throwing caution and rules to the wind. As long as he and his wingmen return alive, nothing else matters. The truth is that Maverick is battling his father’s ghost. The old man was also a fighter pilot but died mysteriously many years ago, tarnishing the family name. His presence annoys his classmates, but civilian instructor Charlie takes a liking to the young male. Love, loyalty, and a glorious trophy for the student with the highest grades are at stake.
One of the key elements of Superior gunThe success of is its reliance on archetypical characters. Those who inhabit this world enhance experience rather than hinder it. What do we really know about Goose other than that he’s a carefree guy and married to the delicious Meg Ryan? Who is Iceman? A discreet and confident rival. Who is Slider? A tall, muscular guy who is Iceman’s friend. Besides, who is Maverick? A confident rebel fighting to prove himself. The character with the most nuances is, without a doubt, Charlie. Arguably, this is only because the viewer briefly sees her struggling to juggle professional obligation and personal desire.
One of the main reasons the broadly drawn characters make for an entertaining film is that the filmmakers immerse the viewer in the depths. Trying to understand this world is like jumping out of a plane with a defective parachute. Not much is explained. There are a few classroom scenes where technical flight terms are used without explanation. The audience is alone in reconstructing some of it as best they can.
It’s not like Superior gun is unforgivably complex. On the contrary, the easily identifiable characters are not only well interpreted by the cast, but their simplicity also serves as a comfortable buffer against technical gibberish. God knows what the professor said, but Maverick and Iceman just looked at each other so you know it’s on! There’s not even an obvious outside threat posed to the protagonist, except an ill-defined “enemy” at the end. Maverick’s biggest obstacle is internal: his own consistency.
Thunderous noise and metallic shine
Whether a viewer understands the physics of why one plane will spin after flying over another doesn’t matter because Superior gun looks and sounds amazing. Cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball shoots as if the project was the last he would work on. Sunny tarmacs early in the morning, deep blue skies, cameras placed inside fake and real cockpits, on the side of F14s, and gorgeous shots of Maverick on his motorcycle at dusk. Lest it be overlooked, glitzy burly men playing beach volleyball.
In 1986, camera and editing techniques really pushed what filmmakers could do when capturing aerial action. While there are obviously a few models used for explosions and some close-ups, most of the action in the sky involves real planes performing real flight patterns and stunts.
As beautiful as the pictures are, many fans remember them most for their music. Harold Faltermeyer’s rock-inspired score is iconic (it plays Top Gun: Maverick trailers), with a leitmotif rendered differently throughout the film depending on the emotional context. However, there is no doubt that from a musical point of view, the film’s soundtrack is a legend. “Take My Breath Away” performed by Berlin, “Playing With the Boys” by Kenny Loggins, and who can forget “Danger Zone”, also performed by Kenny Loggins. Honestly, “Danger Zone” is a great song, no need for F14.
Always sunny skies
Even at 36, there is no sign that Superior gun will one day retreat completely from the pop culture conversation. It just has too many memorable qualities that stand the test of time. It solidified Tom Cruise as a star, it’s one of Tony Scott’s most memorable films, is packed with delicious dialogue only Hollywood can scribble, and boasts a soundtrack that virtually anyone who knows anything about distance American pop music will recognize. That’s true even if they haven’t seen the movie!
It feels like it will never fail to satisfy the need for speed. Action movie junkies can have him as a winger at any time.
Watch Superior gun