I’ll just get this out of the way up top, but know that I’m going somewhere with this; I’ve never liked Top Gun. Naturally, those lovers of the 80s classic are welcome to sharpen those pitchforks now, but hear me out. I watched the movie once in my youth and a whole lot of mainstream 80s pop culture just missed the mark with me in my earlier years. I had never taken the time to revisit the 1986 fighter pilot flick that cemented Tom Cruise as a superstar and helped to put Val Kilmer on the map. But I recently revisited the movie in a pretty special setting and, admittedly, I get it now.
The Alamo Drafthouse recently put on one of its Rolling Roadshow experiences for Top Gun. Essentially, the theater chain picks a movie, then screens said movie at a location that ties into it and tapers an experience to tie it all together. In this case, it was screened at the Camp Mabry military installation in Austin, Texas, and yes, there were volleyball nets set up. But most importantly, Iceman himself, Val Kilmer was in attendance. The actor is currently battling throat cancer, but he was still energetic and charismatic as ever. The 59-year-old star took the stage ahead of the screening to help introduce it and, though he had difficulty speaking, the charm was there. The energy was palpable. This crowd was ever so ready to enter the Danger Zone.
On a personal level, I had no idea what to feel heading into it. It’s an odd thing. We often categorize something in our brains as “not good” and, simply because we have so many choices these days, rarely take the time to revisit those things to see if our opinions on them have changed. In this case, I was willing to see if I could figure out what has helped this movie endure for more than three decades.
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Upon the first Kenny Loggins music cue, my cynicism started to win out. I sank into my chair and was fully prepared to let the cheese drench me for two hours. But about five minutes in, something interesting happened. The unparalleled direction of the late Tony Scott kicked in. Setting aside the beloved yet undeniably corny soundtrack, that initial dog fight starts to unfold. It’s tense. It’s funny. It’s got stakes. It’s thrilling to look at. Charisma oozes from the screen, even though the main actors have their faces covered. I started to care. I started to get wrapped up in this mess.
Really, most of the movie unfolded that very same way. I would hear yet another Danger Zone music cue (I believe I counted six in total) and roll my eyes. Yet, I was always pleasantly surprised at what was unfolding on screen. Even outside of the fighter jet sequences, there was a heart to this beloved piece of pop culture. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Tony Scott, that man who would go on to direct movies like True Romance, Spy Game and Man on Fire, was showcasing his skillset. It just happened to be covered in 80s cheese which, at times, makes it difficult to detect.
In any event, I started to understand. One of my biggest takeaways, though, was pondering the star who made the journey to watch this movie with the crows. Yes, Tom Cruise, at this point, is every inch the movie star audiences still turn up to see all these years later. There’s a reason this helped to launch his career. But Val Kilmer, as over the top as Iceman can be, brings a much-needed perspective to this whole thing. He’s wingman to the star at the top of the call sheet. He’s Chewie. He’s Rick Dalton to Cliff Booth. Say it however you want to say it. Kilmer is the ultimate wingman.
Looking back at his career, in movies such as Heat, Tombstone and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Val Kilmer is always there to be that guy. Be the loyal and trusty man by the protagonist’s side. And he’s incredible at it. Ultimately, Top Gun isn’t going to go down as a beloved movie in my personal rankings, but this special experience undoubtedly led me to a sense of understanding. To put it another way, I’ll say this much; I’m all in for the sequel. Top Gun: Maverick is set to hit theaters on June 26, 2020 from Paramount Pictures, and I’ll be there.