When most of us think of the movie “Top Gun,” we think of Tom Cruise’s wide grin, of guys playing volleyball to a bouncy Kenny Loggins beat, of Cruise and Anthony Edwards agreeing that they, indeed, share a need for speed.
What few ponder are the directorial choices of Tony Scott, the filmmaker who flew “Top Gun” to massive box office success in 1986 and, sadly, committed suicide Sunday at the age of 68 by jumping from a Los Angeles bridge.
As obituaries and appreciations have flowed on to the Internet Monday morning, the prevailing theme regarding Scott’s career — which also included films such as “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “True Romance,” and “Crimson Tide” — has been that he never reached the cinematic sophistication of older sibling and fellow director Ridley Scott, the man who has given us “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and, more recently, “Prometheus.”
“Tony Scott always was overshadowed by his brother,” says this Associated Press piece, adding that, “critics often slammed his movies for his hyper-kinetic style and an emphasis on style over substance.”
It may be true that Ridley Scott’s films are a bit more intellectually provocative, even if it seems a bit harsh to point that out in the wake of Tony Scott’s decision to end his own life. But that doesn’t mean that Tony Scott — a master of male-centric action fare that provided moviegoers with pulse-pounding suspenseful escapism over the course of more than two decades — lacked cinematic gifts. There was a slickness in his work, a glossiness that appealed to our post-dawn-of-MTV sensibilities. And that slickness was in full effect in “Top Gun.”
Okay, we can all admit that the story of Lt. Pete Mitchell and his struggles to overcome his daddy demons and engage in dangerous fly-bys without fear of repercussions is often cliché in the most fist-pumping, patriotic of ways.
But it works — works so well, in fact, that a sequel is in the works, as well as a 3D re-release. That’s partly because the actors (Cruise, Edwards, Kelly McGillis and the deliciously fierce Val Kilmer) turn on their charisma at full blast — perhaps too much for some tastes, but just right for those who swooned over Cruise and Kilmer’s 80s-era charms. The movie also works because Scott understood how to shoot action scenes, how to take all those inverted airplanes and transform their erratic flight paths into something marvelously dynamic and easy to make sense of narratively. In the hands of a lesser director, “Top Gun” would have made us dizzy. With Scott at the helm, we understand just enough to keep up, and comprehend what we needed to in order to escape into the skies with our arrogant, profanity-spewing yet thoroughly likeable heroes.
The New York Times review of “Top Gun” criticized the film for its lack of a legitimate conflict. “Not having a real war to fight lowers the stakes, and the climactic dogfight with a batch of MIG’s over the Indian Ocean is too contrived, the enemy too vague to elicit the feelings that memorable air-war movies, from ‘Wings’ to ‘Command Decision,’ could take for granted,” wrote Walter Goodman back in June of 1986.
I’d argue, though, that that’s precisely what made it a perfect film for its time, an era when many Americans were feeling super-patriotic, removed from concern of potential international conflict and highly entertained by soaring images effectively paired with a pop-rock soundtrack. Despite being a Brit, Tony Scott understood that, and tapped into the zeitgeist so effectively that “Top Gun” became the No. 1 movie of the year.
Several years ago, a friend of mine had just acquired a brand new home sound system and was itching to show it off. “Sit down,” he commanded as he fired up a DVD through his new 5.1 surround setup.
The movie he chose to play was “Top Gun.” And the sound of that opening — the goosebump-raising “gongs” of Harold Faltemeyer’s theme that eventually segue into the reach-for-the-skies pseudo-rock of Loggins’s “Danger Zone” — did indeed sound great. Technically, he didn’t even need to show the movie to demonstrate his audio equipment’s capacity to rattle the walls.
But he did, because the thrill would not have been the same without the exhilarating images of those shadowy uniformed men directing those planes to start their engines and soar. It wouldn’t have sounded as good without Tony Scott’s imagery to go with it.