Top Gun had it all — at least by 1986 movie standards. The Tom Cruise-driven classic had leather bomber jackets, songs by Kenny Loggins and military fight scenes. It was the top-grossing film of 1986 and was added to the prestigious National Film Registry by the U.S. Library of Congress as an example of the culture of the time.
For better or worse, it was not a complex story. It was a coming-of-age film. Except, we know from trailers for the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, that Cruise’s character didn’t actually grow up. Some 35 years later, he’s still up to his same old fly-boy shenanigans.
That’s fitting. Top Gun was brain candy. The plot was simple, it had cute actors and everyone went home happy. But Top Gun wasn’t just fluff and product placement for Ray-Bans. The movie had high points that separated it from its peers. There were also critical mistakes. Here’s a look at the best and worst Top Gun had to offer.
The Best of “Top Gun”
Goose’s death: The plot hinged on the relationship between Cruise’s Maverick and Anthony Edwards’ Goose. The original script for Top Gun didn’t include a love story between Maverick and Kelly McGillis’ instructor; the only romance was supposed to be the bromance between Goose and Maverick. They had genuine affection for each other. They’re a comedy duo, when the time calls for it. Goose flies as Maverick’s wingman when he’s trying to pick up a girl in a bar.
So, it hit especially hard when Goose died. This was supposed to be a feel-good 80s movie; instead, audiences were treated to Maverick wrestling with actual emotions. In a decade where action movies often involved Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger shirtless and firing an unending stream of bullets, Top Gun at least bothered to work in some character development.
The soundtrack bangs: Has any musician had a bigger run of success in movies than Loggins? The singer had the title track to Footloose and the theme to Caddyshack before he was tabbed to work on Top Gun. Loggins’ “Danger Zone” was the machismo-soaked song the movie needed to cross over to MTV viewers. Oh, and “Playing with the Boys” provided the soundtrack for the movie’s infamous beach volleyball scene. More on that in a minute. Powered by Loggins and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” the soundtrack reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart and has sold more than 10 million copies to date.
The combat scenes were incredible: Top Gun wouldn’t have been a good movie without the help of the Navy. U.S. military officials recognized Top Gun could be a powerful recruiting tool, so they gave director Tony Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer all access. The result was action sequences unrivaled by any other American film, with actual F-14 Tomcats jumping off of aircraft carriers and doing battle with MIG-28s (that were actually just American F-5s painted black to make them look more evil). While audiences enjoyed the payoff of cool fight scenes, the Navy saw a huge boon in recruitment, with applications up about 500% in the year following Top Gun.
Speaking of noteworthy ’80s moments, Bruce Willis had a few of his own.
The Weirdest of “Top Gun”
The beach volleyball scene in “Top Gun” defies categorization. It stands alone here because it should. Not that you need the reminder: Maverick and Goose go play volleyball shirtless with Val Kilmer and other flyboys. The scene goes on and on to the soundtrack of “Playing with the Boys.” It is quintessential 1980s movie viewing, and crucially, was utterly unimportant to the plot. Scott, the director, once said he didn’t know why he was doing that scene. Whether that is a good thing or bad thing, we leave to you to decide.
Tom Cruise isn’t all pointless volleyball, however. Revisit the most dangerous stunts throughout his career.
The Worst of “Top Gun”
A pointless love story: The romance between Maverick and McGillis’ character, Charlie, was an afterthought. Quite literally. The movie was shown to test audiences who said they might enjoy a love story in this tale of military bravado. After filming had already wrapped on the rest of the movie, Scott and Cruise worked on scenes with McGillis to add romance to the movie. Which explains why you could take every McGillis scene out of the movie, and it would still make sense (though we would be deprived of Cruise singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” in a bar full of Navy men).
Also not great: how Maverick pursued Charlie, following her into the women’s restroom when she clearly didn’t want to talk to him.
Unaddressed mental health issues: Judging entertainment by modern standards is always going to turn up some problems. But really: Were there no mental health counselors available in the 1980s? At the start of the movie, it was Maverick’s wingman, Cougar, who was shaken by a run-in with Russian pilots; Cougar gave up his wings, and Maverick was off to Top Gun. Then it was Maverick, shaken by the death of Goose, who struggled. Are we supposed to feel safer thinking aviators with mental health problems are flying around with missiles under their wings?
An utter lack of diversity: Nearly 41% of enlisted sailors (and airmen) in the Navy are people of color. You’d never know that from watching Top Gun, where just one character, Sundown, was Black. That was the only character with speaking lines played by a minority. Along the same lines, it was inevitable that a military movie in the 1980s would have this problem: There are only two women with significant speaking roles. And how many lines did Meg Ryan have as Goose’s wife, anyway? At least Ryan’s lines were in the script before filming started.
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