"Top Gun," the latest film from producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (via director Tony Scott), throbs with eye-filling visuals, kinetic rock 'n' roll, a remarkable cast and the polish of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking at its most accomplished, all of which is largely lost on a story that leaves the audience totally uninvolved, and a script almost childlike in its attempts at manipulation. If "Top Gun" succeeds, it's on the surface, where it's a pure projection of swagger, a kind of mad, gorgeous hymn to testosterone.
Set at the Navy's dogfighting school in California, the movie centers on Pete (Maverick) Mitchell (Tom Cruise), who comes to the school with great reflexes and a bad attitude. Maverick is arrogant and dangerous, given to maneuvers that throw the textbook out with the afterburners. He's mischievous, too -- he likes to "buzz" the tower in his supersonic fighter, and make snotty remarks in class.
In short, he has a lot of growing up to do. A devil-may-care seducer, he learns about women through an affair with the older Charlie (Kelly McGillis), an instructor at the school. A reckless daredevil, he comes to terms with death (through an aerial accident that kills one of his classmates) and his own past. His father, who was also a flier, disappeared, and since the government won't tell Maverick what happened, he suspects disgrace. Finally, as a self-styled (you guessed it) "maverick" who goes it alone, he learns the value of team play when he's finally thrust into combat.
The movie, in short, hits its emotional marks, but it does so with such insistence that it feels less like real life than an object lesson in the architecture of the blockbuster. The script (by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. along with Warren Skaaren, who is credited as associate producer) is blueprinted to death -- we recognize Maverick as the Man Who Goes It Alone, and we know from the start that he's Going to Discover That He Can't. If there's any hook to get the audience to care about Maverick, the screen writers throw it in. As a result, you don't care about him very much.
The things that happen in "Top Gun" don't grow out of the story -- you can feel them being stuck in there to move the story along. Whatever mystery there is goes no place -- when you finally find out what happened to Maverick's father, the "ghost" who pursues him, it's just a fizzle. And the movie's moralism is annoying -- who wants Maverick to grow up, anyway? He's more fun when he's immature, full of spunk and razzle-dazzle.
On the level of dialogue, "Top Gun" has its moments, but it's mostly a dogfight of dumb double-entendres on a military theme (a singles bar is a "target-rich environment") and recruitment-poster puffery ("You're America's best -- make us proud"). Worse still are the colloquies between Cruise and McGillis, in which the screen writers' version of a Tracy-and-Hepburn contentiousness becomes a one-upmanship of still more double-entendres, as well as some hooters no actress should ever be made to say ("When I first met you, you were larger than life . . .").
Altogether, the romance is dead from the start -- while the movie's intentions are honorable, in making Charlie an astrophysicist instead of another teen-movie bimbo, she hardly figures in the story in any important way. From a narrative standpoint, she's still a bimbo -- a bimbo with a PhD. Scott's at a loss in pacing the romance -- he mistakes slowness for intensity -- and there's no chemistry at all between Cruise and McGillis. On the one hand, she's just too much woman for him (she needs a Harrison Ford, or a Jack Nicholson); on the other, Cruise is so clearly the movie's center that what's left for her is a series of indulgent smiles and slow burns. She's Margaret Dumont with great legs.
What hurts is that the love story could have easily been left out -- the real romance in "Top Gun" is between the men and the men, the men and the planes, and the camera with both. Cruise combines the piercing blue eyes of Paul Newman with Nicholson's killer smile. In "Top Gun" he's got the crazy intensity of a cornered wolf, but it's somehow not a threatening intensity -- he's a nice-guy version of the psychopathic cadet he created in "Taps."
On a dramatic level, the movie's best moments are between Cruise and Anthony Edwards, as his flying partner Goose, a gangly, good-humored actor who aerates the entire movie whenever he's on screen. Edwards is to "Top Gun" what bubbles are to Perrier Jouet, and he's perfectly matched with Meg Ryan, who, as his wife, makes her debut as a delightful wacko with a head like scrambled eggs. Maverick and Goose hang around in the locker room with the other pilots (including Val Kilmer, surprisingly effective as the dour Iceman), half-naked and trading insults, and although the banter isn't much more than the verbal equivalent of towel snapping, the movie feels real and alive here.
Cruise and the others, all heavily Nautilized, glisten with sweat and strut around like an army of cocks of the walk. They're fun to look at without wearing the self-consciousness of, say, a Bruce Weber photograph. Whatever you think of Tony Scott, he does know how to make a pretty picture. The real joy of "Top Gun" is purely esthetic: an F14 lifting off a carrier deck, like a spider airborne on a summer breeze, against a backdrop that Scott has hand-painted with graduated filters -- brick-red skies and a steely, barely blue ocean. Generally, Scott's visual strategy is to drain some colors and supercharge others -- sand that's not tawny, but golden, bushes that aren't green, but emerald -- so that "Top Gun" has the flat-out gorgeousness of an old '50s postcard, the brio of pop art.
The photography of the aerial combat excites you -- jets slash diagonally across the screen, engines booming on the sound track, with Harold Faltermeyer's fun Farfisa and synthesizer score running beneath it all like a fever -- but it doesn't draw you in. Hobbled by its script, there isn't much genuine emotion in "Top Gun." For much of the movie, the only thing at stake is a trophy: It might as well be the Michigan-Ohio State game. When the plot finally thickens, the villain is an unidentified country (we only know they fly MiGs), and while the filmmakers' intentions in not giving us another sneering Hun or slathering Oriental are, again, honorable -- at least this isn't "Rambo" -- they hardly substitute anything in the villain's place. The confrontation is within Cruise's character, but it stays inside -- you're never allowed to share it.
"Top Gun" is a lot like Nicholas Ray's "Flying Leathernecks" -- a similarly didactic film with which it actually compares favorably -- or any number of Howard Hawks movies that find men together, testing their character in a land of extremes. Yet it falls short, not because Scott isn't Hawks (although there is that), but simply because the characters are so much younger. "Top Gun" isn't about men hewing to a code in the face of adversity, it's about boys adopting a code that men feed them. That isn't machismo -- it's just hormones.
Top Gun, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains profanity, violence and sexual situations.