Top Gun at 35: A Look Back at the Aviation-Themed Classic

1986 was famously a banner year for Tom Cruise, whose appearance as Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun helps skyrocketed his career to superstardom. Looking back, it was particularly an impressive feat, considering Cruise was only 23 years old at the time of the movie’s release.

He even popularised the aviator shades that he wore for the movie, specifically the now-classic Ray-Ban RB3025 or otherwise known as the Top Gun sunglasses, which reportedly drove the sales up to a whopping 40% for the eyewear company.

Tom Cruise popularised the aviator shades in "Top Gun" (1986)

Cruise’s successful career from his Top Gun days onwards was largely attributed to his signature cocky hotshot roles, as evidently seen in (most) subsequent films like The Color of Money (1986), Cocktail (1988), Days of Thunder (1990) and A Few Good Men (1992). His magnetic baby-faced charm, coupled with his devil-may-care attitude was among the biggest reasons that made Top Gun a huge box-office hit, debuting at US$8.1 million during the first 3-day weekend on May 16, 1986.

Although it didn’t stay on top of the chart long enough with Cobra quickly overtook the movie the following weekend, Top Gun eventually proved its longevity throughout the year. By the end of its original theatrical run, the movie raked in an astounding US$176.7 million in the US box office alone and a worldwide total of over US$356 million against — believe it or not — a US$15 million budget. By comparison, the long-awaited sequel Top Gun: Maverick — currently scheduled to be released in November 2021 — no doubt cost a lot more at over US$150 million to produce.

To coincide with its 35th anniversary of Top Gun, I rewatched the movie on Netflix and found out this otherwise cinematic classic wasn’t exactly a timeless one. Some scenes are terribly dated by today’s standard, notably the cringe-worthy karaoke scene where Tom Cruise’s Maverick and his Naval friends sang The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” to impress Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis).

Even the (in)famous volleyball scene where Maverick and his buddy Goose (Anthony Edwards of pre-ER series fame) go against Iceman (Val Kilmer) and Slider (Rick Rossovich) feels more of an excuse to showcase their half-naked, well-toned (and baby-oiled) bodies. Interestingly enough, Val Kilmer may have delivered an unforgettable supporting performance as Maverick’s rival. But their rivalry wasn’t just restricted in front of the cameras but also offscreen as they reportedly did not get along with each other. According to his 2020 memoir titled I’m Your Huckleberry, Kilmer wasn’t even interested to play the role in the first place because he “didn’t care about the film [and] the story didn’t interest [him]”. But his agent ended up pressured him to take the audition and the rest, as they say, is history.

The (in)famous volleyball scene in "Top Gun" (1986)

The story itself — credited to Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., who both inspired their screenplay from Ehud Yonay’s “Top Guns” article from the May 1983 issue of California magazine — remains as superficial as I watched the film for the first time back in the 90s. Top Gun also suffers from an erratic pace whenever the film slows down to make ways for some of the non-action moments and yes, cheesy melodrama as well.

Cruise and McGillis certainly look good as an onscreen couple. But despite their sizzling chemistry, I couldn’t help the fact that their love story feels as if they were involved in a music video for a romantic song. All glossy but little substance.

And yet, it’s hard to deny the way Tony Scott, whose only prior feature film credit was 1983’s The Hunger, shoots his film in a distinctive visual style. Coming from an extensive TV commercial background, Top Gun may have been Scott’s second feature film but he already proved himself as an ace visual stylist. His signature colour palette at the time, where he favours a stylish mix of deep red and warm orange skies can be seen during the memorable opening scene itself scored to Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone”.

Tony Scott's signature colour palette in "Top Gun" (1986)

Together with cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball, where they later collaborated three times in Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Revenge (1990) and True Romance (1993), the film is both visually stunning and cinematic. The latter particularly rings true when comes to the film’s aerial sequences, all of which are thrillingly staged to visceral perfection and Scott even goes as far as mounting special cameras on the fighter jets. The result makes you feel as if you are part of the aerial action with the strategically placed cameras on the likes of the cockpit and tail of the jets.

And given the fact that Top Gun was shot during the pre-CG era with Scott’s insistence on shooting the film as realistic as possible, the film deserves all the credits for its impressive technical achievement. In fact, Top Gun went on to earn three Oscar nominations for the technical categories including Best Film Editing as well as Best Sound (both lost to Platoon) and Best Sound Effects Editing (lost to Aliens).

The film, however, did win a sole Academy Award for Best Original Song for Berlin’s memorable synth ballad “Take My Breath Away”. The song was so popular that it also featured in Wong Kar-Wai’s directorial debut, As Tears Go By starring Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung two years later, where Sandy Lam sang the Cantonese cover version.

Now, whether or not the long-delayed (thanks to the seemingly neverending COVID-19 pandemic, that is) Top Gun: Maverick managed to recapture the cinematic magic of the 1986 original remains to be seen. While (all) of us are still waiting for the sequel to arrive in cinemas (hopefully) this year, you can revisit the first film on Netflix.