Picks and Pans Review: Top Gun

updated 05/19/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Talk about timing. The jangle of jingoism in the air should make a box-office bell ringer out of this Navy recruiting poster disguised as a movie. Ronald Reagan, who may have reigned supreme in 1957's Hellcats of the Navy, will have to shove over for Tom Cruise, making good on his Risky Business promise. Cruise plays Maverick—read Lt. Pete Mitchell—a hotshot fly-boy. He's graduated to Top Gun—read the Navy's elite Fighter Weapons School. It's located in Fightertown U.S.A.—read near San Diego. Clearly the Navy has a nickname fetish. Maverick's world involves his pal Goose (Anthony Edwards), an RIO—read Radar Intercept Officer; his chief pilot competitor, Iceman (Val Kilmer); his base commander, Viper (Tom Skerritt); and his female instructor in astrophysics (the gorgeous Kelly McGillis) who, being a civilian, doesn't get a nickname. There is also his F-14 Tomcat, a $36-million jet that can climb 30,000 feet in one minute. What's most frightening about the movie is that its background is not fabricated. Founded in 1968 to improve Navy fighter pilot effectiveness, the Top Gun school soon raised the Vietnam conflict's early three-to-one kill ratio (three enemy planes shot down for every U.S. jet) to 12-to-1 (the U.S. ratio in World War II was 15-to-1). With Pentagon approval, an ex-Top Gun instructor and a former Top Gun pilot worked as technical advisers to this film. So naturally our side looks pretty tough. From his Learjet perch, British director Tony (The Hunger) Scott has shot some of the most thrilling aerial sequences ever. Propaganda concerns aside (the climax involves a rescue mission in undisclosed enemy territory), the movie is swift, spiffy and shamelessly entertaining. The story's the same arrogant-hero-learns-humility-and-wins-the-war-and-the-girl pap that John Wayne cut his teeth on, but the young cast fairly bursts with high spirits. Anthony (Gotcha!) Edwards, making something freshly funny and touching out of his clichéd best-buddy role, is outstanding, and McGillis, the Amish widow in Witness, deserves a medal. Tarted up in stiletto heels and tight skirts more appropriate for Frederick's of Hollywood than flight school, McGillis still manages to let her natural warmth shine through. She makes the film a lot sexier than Rambo. But it's Cruise who keeps the movie at full throttle. Whether he's coming on to McGillis or riding shotgun in a sleek F-14 cockpit, Cruise has a cocksure camera face that holds an audience in thrall. "I feel the need," he says, winking conspiratorially, "the need for speed." Whatever else it doesn't do—read scratch the surface—Top Gun meets that need by delivering two hours of pure pow. (PG)

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