TOP GUN - HD DVD review

You get about thirty minutes of good movie in Top Gun, and most of that comes at the end.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"I feel the need...the need for speed!"
--Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards, "Top Gun"

Note: In the following joint review, John and Hock both wrote up their comments on the movie, and John wrote up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Shots.

The Film According to John:
You don't watch "Top Gun" for its plot or its characters or its high moral value. You watch it for its spectacular dogfighting scenes, its thrills, its aerial combat. Which is what makes those parts of the movie more enjoyable in high-definition picture and sound. In fact, the folks at Paramount are so convinced you'll be totally engrossed by the HD DVD audio and video, they figure you won't even notice that there are no bonus items on the disc. They might be right.

The movie, released in 1986 from director Tony Scott ("Days of Thunder," "Crimson Tide") and producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor"), was an immediate success. Tom Cruise, then early on in his career, reached the peak of his game with "Top Gun," and he's been a superstar ever since. The movie itself is little more than a high-flying video game plotted out with schmaltzy romantics, smug characters, and corny melodramatics, but for the purposes of our discussion--HD DVD--it does exactly what action fans (and high-definition fans) want. It delivers mostly sharp images and rock-solid, room-shattering sound. Play it through once to remind yourself how bad much of the film is, and from then on go back from time to time and play selected dogfight scenes for your friends and neighbors to wow and drool over. It's that kind of flick.

The movie's preface states that "On March 3, 1969, the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. Its purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to ensure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world. They succeeded. Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapon School. The flyers call it Top Gun."

The film knows where it's going and what it's about by starting with a rousing flight encounter. If the movie had stuck with this kind of thing, it would have been more fun. Instead, the story centers on a stereotypical young pilot, Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, played by Cruise, who is so cocky and so egotistical we just want to smack him. He's reckless and unpredictable, endangering the lives of everybody around him. But, naturally, he's the best, most instinctive pilot who's ever flown a plane, so the Navy and, apparently, most audiences love him. Worse, the story equally stereotypes the people around Mitchell, from the hard-ass captain (James Tolkan) to the tough flight instructor (Michael Ironside) to the compassionate commander (Tom Skerritt) to the arrogant rival (Val Kilmer) to the endearing best friend (Anthony Edwards) to the best friend's mop-haired, airheaded wife (Meg Ryan).

Most unlikely, perhaps, is the love interest, which goes on much too long between Mitchell and a woman he meets in a bar, Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), who is, believe it or not, an astrophysicist working with the pilots at the flight school. The scriptwriters throw this whole romantic angle into the plot almost haphazardly, obviously hoping it will diversify the action and then trusting to the best. There is practically no chemistry between Cruise and McGillis that I could see, and why a scientist like McGillis's Blackwood would fall for a young, conceited jerk like Cruise's Mitchell is anybody's guess, unless it's just that she thinks Cruise's character is cute. Certainly, Cruise has ample opportunity to flash his famously boyish, toothy smile around enough times.

Oh, and you'd better like 80s music because it plays every minute in the background.

So, what we've got in "Top Gun" is a series of flying segments interspersed with a load of machismo, a lukewarm romance, a tepid rivalry, a dash of tragedy (can't forget the pathos), and a final combat sequence. Fortunately, when the story does come down to that last aerial assault, it tends to make up for a lot of the tedium that came before it. Although this action climax is just as clichéd and predictable as everything else in the film, it does generate some serious excitement, especially, as I've said, in HD picture and sound.

John's rating of the movie: 6/10

The Film According to Hock:
Remember that one girl (or boy) that you might have dated years ago? You know, there was always one that was kind of weird and you dated for a while but it never went anywhere? That person might not have been perfect but at least he or she paid you some attention. Now, many years later, you find out that he or she has been arrested for a felony or something similar. As you sit down and thank your lucky stars you broke off the relationship back then, I'm sure there are times when you must have thought, what the heck was I thinking? For me, "Top Gun" epitomizes that exact feeling and that is, what the heck what I thinking when I worshipped this movie back in 1986?

It's amazing what years of wisdom (and being continually blasted with umpteen amounts of mediocre films coming out of Hollywood) can do to one's taste in movies. Forgive me, but hey, I didn't know better then! I was a starry-eyed teen dreaming about "the need for speed" and about being as cool as Tom Cruise. That, however, lasted until the first time I boarded a commercial airplane and barfed my lungs out. Okay....my own system's imbalance precluded me from trying out for the Air Force, but I had a dream once. And in that dream, I could imagine blue skies and wispy clouds zooming past my cockpit window as I zipped along the blue yonder at Mach 1. I'm sure "Top Gun" inspired many a teenage boy back in the 80s. Who in their hormone-induced minds would not want to aspire to be a fighter pilot--a sexy jock with a control stick between their legs that carries with it enough firepower to level half a major city? Judging by the movie's half a billion-dollar box-office business worldwide, there were very few.

It never ceases to astound me that films with more glamour than substance can do so well, given the right conditions, and "Top Gun" is the perfect example. Taking the cue from a magazine article about the U.S. Navy's Top Gun advanced fighter pilot school in Miramar, California, producer Jerry Bruckheimer hit upon the idea of making a movie about this unique breed of fighter pilots. The first thing they had to do to get this project off the ground was to obtain permission from the Navy for them to shoot on location at an aircraft carrier (in this case, the U.S.S. Enterprise) and also to use actual F-14s and real Top Gun pilots to carry out some of the show's amazing aerial stunts. Jack Epps, Jr. and Jim Cash, whose other writing credits include "Turner and Hootch" and "Anaconda," were commissioned to write the screenplay, and their completed work was first unceremoniously dropped by Paramount, which was at that time helmed by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner. Fortunately for Bruckheimer, after both men left Paramount for Disney, the new management team at Paramount picked up the script again and gave the green light for "Top Gun" to start production. That decision helped produce a moneymaking machine that heralded an era of films with little substance but plenty of what many would like to call, the "wow" factor.

After suffering low-kill ratios during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy established the Fighter Weapons School, better known as Top Gun, at the Miramar Naval Air Station to train a nucleus of fighter crews on the skills of Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) or dogfighting. The crews who attend Top Gun are expected to go back to their squads and impart their knowledge to their fellow pilots. Many of them even come back to Top Gun as instructors. This elite school for fighter pilots becomes the setting for this movie. Initially, after being approached by producers Bruckheimer and Don Simpson about directing "Top Gun," director Tony Scott (brother of the better-known Ridley Scott) first envisioned a dark movie in the same vein as "Apocalypse Now." Of course, the producers quickly squelched that idea and impressed upon Scott that they wanted a summer popcorn flick. And for better or worse, a popcorn flick was what the masses got. Bruckheimer has shown over the years that he is a master when it comes to producing summer blockbusters with a safe formula that almost guarantees success. "Top Gun" came in the early part of Bruckheimer's career and together with "Beverly Hills Cop" only two years earlier in 1984, established a successful formula that he has followed religiously ever since.

"That SOB cut me off!" --Tom Cruise

Lt. Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is a skilled but brash and sometimes even reckless Navy fighter pilot. Mitchell's call sign, "Maverick," alludes to his rebellious attitude. Together with his more sensible radio intercept officer (RIO), Lt. Nick "Goose" Bradshaw (an unlikely Anthony Edwards), by his side (in this case, behind him) Maverick flies the Navy's potent strike fighter, the F-14 Tomcat. After an incident involving another flight crew on the aircraft carrier they're serving on, Maverick and Goose are elevated to the top slot and are ordered to go to Miramar to attend Top Gun. Once there, Maverick finds that his reputation precedes him and he predictably goes head-to-head with another calculated pilot called Iceman (Val Kilmer), who becomes sort of Maverick's nemesis in competing for the title of "Top Gun" that is given to the best pilot of each class. It is here that the movie took some liberties with what is the reality at Top Gun. First of all, there is no real competition or any trophy to win. The movie only created this fictional scenario to inject conflict between the main characters. The guys at the Navy were, shall we say, bemused by this but in no way tried to block it.

After establishing who the hero and the bad guy (sort of) are, the formula then calls for a love interest for our rebellious hero. This damsel comes in the form of a civilian contractor working at the base evaluating the pilots, and her name is Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood (Kelly McGillis). An interesting fact to note is that the Navy nixed the initial script idea of the female lead being an enlisted officer, as it does not encourage fraternizing among officers. My first reaction to McGillis was, wow, an older woman! Even though only five years separate their ages, you have to admit that next to Cruise's boyish good looks, McGillis comes across as someone who is more suited for a role as, let's say, the Admiral's wife than Tom Cruise's love interest.

"Sorry, Goose, but it's time to buzz the tower" --Tom Cruise

The story in "Top Gun" is as straightforward as a Sidewinder missile coming at you. There are no twists or turns, and the writers and director go out of their way to make sure the audience gets it. This is the kind of filmmaking that tries to cater to the lowest common denominator, or as Bruckheimer likes to put it, to mom and pop in Oklahoma. Maverick is the troubled but talented hot shot whose reckless nature not only puts himself at risk but also unnecessarily endangers others around him as well. As he goes through various trials and tribulations at Top Gun, he meets the girl of his dreams, and the self-confessed playboy falls in love for the first time (a collective awwwwwwww fills the room). By the time the final act of the movie rolls along, he is presented with the one chance to vindicate himself and to set things straight. Oh, and have no fear, in the end, our hero, naturally, gets the girl, too.

The storyline may be cheesy and predictable but the aerial footages of the F-14s dogfighting are genuinely breathtaking and exciting. With skillful editing and tight stunt coordination between director Tony Scott and the Navy pilots who actually flew the planes, never once did I get confused about the fast-paced on-screen action. You always know who is who by the distinctive markings on the pilots' helmets. It really helps that the actors are wearing breathing masks over their mouths, which enable the editors to insert any dialogue they want over the shots in postproduction. What this really means is that all the accumulated rolls of aerial footage may not have a decent story structure in the first place, but with clever editing and voice dubbing, anything is possible, as is clearly shown by the resulting film.

"You can be my wingman anytime!" --Val Kilmer

Sometimes, I tend to think of "Top Gun" as a rock-and-roll musical with fast jets rather than an action movie with great music. The movie was clearly written and constructed with rock music in mind. Scenes like the shameless pseudo hard-body show-off event on the beach volleyball court are only meant for one thing and one thing only, and that is to bring legions of women into the theaters to watch the movie. With Kenny Loggins' "Playing With The Boys" thumping in the background, it is funny to note that Goose, who is played by a rather scrawny Anthony Edwards, is the only person on the court with a shirt on. Everyone else, Cruise, Kilmer, and Rick Rossovich (Slider, Iceman's RIO) have their shirts off and their buff bodies oiled to perfection. As with many movies from that time period, the movie's soundtrack became a whole new entity that sort of defined the movie itself. With famed producer and songwriter Giorgio Moroder penning two of the film's biggest hits, "Danger Zone" sung by Kenny Loggins and "Take My Breath Away," performed by Berlin and which won an Oscar for Best Original Song, it was not a big surprise to find that many of the songs on the soundtrack album became singularly synonymous with the movie.

Tom Cruise was far from giving one of his better performances in "Top Gun." Not that we can blame him because the script doesn't call for anything remotely passable as effective dialogue. We do, however, come to find out in the film that Cruise can't sing to save his life! "Top Gun" may not be his best effort, but it did put Cruise on the Hollywood map as a bankable, dependable star. The same can be said for Val Kilmer. Also, look out for a very young Meg Ryan before her breakthrough performance in "When Harry Met Sally." Luckily, by then, Ryan had lost the awful hairdo she sported in this movie.

Hock's rating of the movie: 6/10

Video:
The video quality is variable on this disc, although it does not appear to be the fault of the 1080 resolution, MPEG4/AVC transfer. I think any blemishes it might possess are related to the slightly old, slightly flawed print Paramount used. The picture stretches to its original aspect ratio, 2.35:1, and since the first shots it contains are actual aerial footage, we see a touch of inevitable film grain. Colors are bright, sharp, and clear most of the time, although they are occasionally a tad glassy, too. Definition fluctuates, but indoor shots and close-ups are excellent. The overall video quality is a bit dark, with unpredictable facial tones, sometimes natural, sometimes too orangish or purplish. In addition, there are a few scenes where hues seem washed-out in spots, perhaps from age. When the HD image is good, it's as good as high definition gets. Too bad it's not as consistent as it could be.

Audio:
Paramount provide three English soundtracks: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and DTS-ES 5.1. While they are all strong and dynamic, switching among them shows up differences. The DTS track, for instance, is noticeably louder than the TrueHD, and it is more center-channel oriented. The two Dolby tracks seem better at spreading the audio information around among the speakers, and with TrueHD, especially, the sound is smoother. There is less difference between the TrueHD and DD+ tracks, but expect to hear a little less brightness and a more prominent bass response in TrueHD. Finally, figure on hearing some good surround effects in the rear channels from all three tracks. Those dogfights never sounded so real.

Extras:
Here's what we have in the way of extras: Sixteen scene selections but no chapter insert. English, French, and Spanish spoken languages. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles. English captions for the hearing impaired. A gauge for elapsed time. Bookmarks. And an Elite Red HD case.

Parting Shots:
You get about thirty minutes of good movie in "Top Gun," and most of that comes at the end during the climactic aerial combat sequence. Other than the dogfight scenes, the rest of the film is filler and better left forgotten.

"Damn, this kid is good." --Tom Skerritt

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
7
Extras
1
Film Value
6