Friday, September 23, 2011

Top Gun Blu-ray Review

Celebrating twenty-five years of the need for speed, the action-packed, sexy and breathtaking thrill-ride Top Gun is now available on a Blu-ray/Digital Copy Combo from Paramount Home Entertainment.  The story of an elite group of pilots competing to be the best in their class and earn the title of “Top Gun” captured the imagination of a generation and earned a worldwide box office of over $350 million.  Tom Cruise is superb as the cocky but talented pilot known as Maverick and Kelly McGillis sizzles as the civilian instructor who teaches Maverick a few things you can’t learn in a classroom.  Featuring a sensational soundtrack with unforgettable songs from the 80s including Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” and Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone”, the film also stars Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards and Meg Ryan.

Film (4 out of 5 stars) 

When Tony Scott was offered the opportunity to direct Top Gun, he envisioned it as dark and moody much like his previously panned film The Hunger which almost derailed his career when it failedScott almost made the same mistake again as he wanted to make the movie in the vein of Apocalypse Now but on an aircraft carrier but he was overruled.  The film’s producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer quickly let him know that they wanted something more commercial and exciting.  After Scott re-read the script another two times, he finally understood what was being asked of him – he needed to make a rock and roll film with silver jets racing across a blue sky as they were piloted by rock stars.  With this new vision of the film, Scott was in sync with the studio, the producers, and even more importantly – the cast.
Written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., Top Gun tells the story of an up and coming aviator named Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) who’s only desire in life is to be “the best of the best.”  Maverick lives his life on the edge which keeps in trouble and also has a tendency to drag down his best friend and Radar Intercept Officer Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards).  When Maverick and Goose are sent to assist “Cougar” (John Stockwell) and “Merlin” (Tim Robbins) when they inadvertantly are forced to face off again some enemy MiG-28s.  Maverick scares off their opponents and then disobeys a direct order to return when Cougar loses his nerve and is unable to land.  Maverick is able to help Cougar land his plane but his actions end up getting him and Goose in trouble with Principal Strickland…I mean their Carrier Air Group officer (James Tolkan) who chews them out but reluctantly tells them that they will take Cougar’s slot at the prestigious Top Gun school.
Going to Top Gun is a dream come true for both of them, but especially for Maverick who relishes the chance to fly against the best pilots around.  Once they arrive in Miramar, San Diego they quickly discover that the other pilots are just as good as them if not better.  One of the pilots in particular stands out due to his cold and tactical flying ability which earned him the name of “Iceman” (Val Kilmer).  Iceman and Maverick are both so competitive that they naturally view each other as enemies and it gets worse once Iceman sees how Maverick flies.  He believes that Maverick is too reckless and thinks more about himself than the mission or his wingmates which unfortunatley is true. Since he lost his father during a flying mission in Vietnam, Maverick takes unnecessary risks to try to prove his worth and to bolster his own self-esteem issues.
One of those unnecessary risks was his attempt to hit on a lovely lady named Charlotte (Kelly McGillis) at a bbq joint by singing “You Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” to her along with Goose and the other airmen which didn’t work out like he planned.  The next day the Top Gun cadets are introduced to one of their instructors named “Charlie” and sure enough it’s the lady he struck out with the night before.  Not that that slows him down for long since Maverick is Maverick after all.  His pursuit of her almost crosses over to stalking but of course it all works out backed by the huge hit “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin.  Falling in love with Charlie and an unforseen personal tragedy shakes up Maverick’s outlook on life and his confidence.  Without that confidence Maverick loses his edge as a pilot and his life spirals out of control.  It’s not long before an emergency situation develops that calls for the Navy’s best pilots and Maverick will be forced to confront his demons to have any chance of becoming the pilot he wants to be.
When Top Gun came out in 1986, I can remember how huge it was and it ended up becoming the most sucessful movie of the year.  Even then, I think most people recognized that the movie was something special and that it would become a cultural milestone.  The film’s impact was immediate as bomber jackets and Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses sales increased 40% and it made so many men want to sign up for both the Navy and the Air Force, that the military set up recruitment booths in some of  the theaters!  The movie’s soundtrack was also a monster hit as it was #1 on the charts for five weeks!  The movie is slick and glossy, and it’s definitely manufactured to achieve a desired effect which is does easily.  With a perfect blend of action, romance, patriotism, and humor, the film managed to hit every demographic which made it a monster hit.  Even when it was later released on home video and it became the best-selling videocassette in the industry’s history on pre-orders alone.  The sales for the eventual DVD  and HD-DVD release were also huge proving that even twenty years later it was still popular.  I’m willing to bet that this Blu-ray will do quite well especially considering all the incredible extras on it that were missing from the HD-DVD release.
This is the role that sent Tom Cruise into the stratosphere professionally and with fans.  He’s very good in the role that was tailor made for him as the writers specifically wrote it for him.  Cruise is assisted by a great supporting cast with Kelly McGillis continuing her successful trajectory from Witness to this.  Then you’ve got the rest of the talented cast including: Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside, Rick Rossovitch, and in early roles – Meg Ryan and Adrian Pasdar.  Everyone does good work despite a rather formulaic script with Edwards providing a nice easygoing counter-balance to Cruise.
With flying and military sequences that could have only happened with the assistance of the Navy, Top Gun’s aerial combat set a new bar for movies.  The best flying sequences before Top Gun were in The Great Waldo Pepper which came out in 1975 and nothing really had topped that until this movie.  Scott does an excellent job capturing the speed and power of modern fighter jets and his approach revolutionized how these kind of movies were made. Some of the stunts in the movie were so dangerous that Art Scholl, who was the leading stunt pilot of his profession (and did the stunts in Waldo Pepper), died while trying to film one of the signature stunts in the film.  Top Gun is without a doubt a huge, fun, and an extremely commercial movie that could safely be categorized as a popcorn flick. I’m very happy that it got another high def release since this time it was treated with the respect it deserved.

Video (4 out of 5 stars) 

The film’s 1080p (2.35:1) transfer looks very good but not spectacular and it appears to be the same master that was used for the HD-DVD release from awhile back.  For a movie from twenty-five years ago, this looks good but there’s some defects like specks and dirt pop up with some occassional noise as well.  The transfer offers some nice clarity and there’s several scenes that have details visible that I had missed before.  Some shots look a little soft but there’s also a lot of nice close-ups where the detail is so great that you can see the actor’s sweat and pores on his face. Colors are mostly excellent and the black levels are surprisingly darker than I remember.  While this doesn’t look as good I dreamed that it would, it still is a sharp transfer that looks really good despite it’s age.

Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Top Gun offers two lossless audio options which should make fans rejoice as there’s a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track and a DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 mix! I sampled both and decided to go with the DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 mix since it offered an extra channel and a higher bitrate and I wasn’t disappointed!  From the opening sequence with the scenes from the aircraft carrier leading to the F-14s taking off and the kick off of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” and I’m a happy camper.  I have to say that this mix is superior to the HD-DVD’s as the sound of the jets circling the room during their engagement alone trumped it.  With clear dialogue from the center channels and an active mix that utilized all of the other channels, Top Gun sounded better than I’ve ever heard it.  That also includes the movie’s music from Harold Faltermeyer, Berlin, and Loggins which sounded fantastic.  My personal favorites are “Danger Zone,” The Top Gun Anthem,” and “Take My Breath Away” which especially sounded amazing with it’s synthesized instrumental opening that hit the sweet spot for me across the channels.  The final dogfight also sounds incredible with the planes zooming all around the room seamlessly.  All in all, I’m very happy with both mixes but I’d recommend choosing the DTS-HD mix over the Dolby TrueHD one, but both of them are very good.

Special Features (5 out of 5 stars) 

These extras are the reason I agreed to review this Blu-ray since I already had it on HD-DVD.  If I had known how good these extras were, I would have already pre-ordered it.  My biggest complaint about the HD-DVD release was the complete lack of extras.  It seems that Paramount must have heard the movie’s fans loud and clear because they outdid themselves here.  Not only do we get an incredible documentary from Charles de Lauzirka, but a ton of other extras as well including a digital copy of the film!   Let’s dive into this wealth of extras…
  • Audio Commentary – This is a very good commentary by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott, co-screenwriter Jack Epps, Jr. Captain Mike Galpin, technical advisor Pete Pettigrew, and Vice Admiral Mike McCabe.  While it’s obvious that the commentary provided by Scott and Bruckheimer are taken from the video interviews that are on this disc, in some cases you hear things from them that was edited out of the documentary which adds some value to it.  Mainly, the best reason to listen to this track is for screenwriter Jack Epps, Jr. and the naval experts who actually recorded their dialogue while they watched the movie.  The pilots’ input was very informative as they talked about how they tried to keep the movie realistic and what could happen and where it did capture the truth.
  • Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun (six-part documentary) – With a two and half hour run-time (which is longer than the movie itself), this comprehensive documentary covers every aspect of the film’s production which can be viewed all at once or can be watched in each individual part.  With input from the cast and crew in both new (circa 2004) and vintage interviews, this is the kind of extra that I’m always looking for on my Blu-rays and it’s a good example of Charles de Lauzirka’s excellent work.  Here are the parts in order:
    • The Making of ‘Top Gun’ From the Ground Up Pre-Production which covers how Jerry Bruckheimer read an article about the Top Gun flight school and persuaded Jeffrey Katzenberg (then at Paramount) to buy the rights to it.  Then we learn how Tony Scott and the cast came on board the movie and the discussions between the studio and the U.S. Navy.
    • Playing with the Boys Production: Land and Sea focuses on the filming of the land and seas scenes and what was happening behind the scenes.  One of the best anecdotes is the one where the aircraft carrier captain turned the ship in a new direction which ruined the lighting Scott was trying to capture.  When Scott was informed that it would cost $25,000 to turn the carrier back in the original direction, Scott prompty took out his checkbook and wrote a check out to the Captain for the 25k to get his shot!
    • The Need For Speed Production: Air – A look at the effort required to make the air combat look realistic while keeping the pilots safe.
    • Back to Basics Visual Effects – A look at the work of Gary Gutierrez and his crew who handled the visual effects for circumstances that the Navy wouldn’t allow.  We see models being constructed and blown up and how hard it was to show the aircraft gunfire being used against the models.  For fans of old school visual effects like myself this section is a treat.
    • Combat Rock: The Music of Top Gun – We learn the lengthly process that occurred for Simpson/Bruckheimer to find the music for the film.  They eventually asked their frequent collaborator Georgio Moroder to give them some help and also asked his frequent arranger/composer Harold Faltermeyer to contribute the score.  The decision to hire these two was brilliant since Moroder wrote two of the film’s biggest hits “Danger Zone” for Kenny Loggins and “Take My Breath Away” for Berlin.  We also hear from Loggins and Terri Nunn of Berlin who talk about how they got involved and how the songs changed their career drastically.  For Loggins, it gave him a much needed rock song, and for Nunn it was a bittersweet success since half of the band Berlin didn’t want to do the song as they only wanted to do their own, and she wanted to do it.  When the song became a massive hit, it eventually broke up the band since the half that didn’t want to do the song hated it being their biggest success and having to constantly perform it.
    • Afterburn Release and Impact – Finally, we see the results from the first test screening where audiences had a hard time understanding the fast moving combat while others wanted more romance.  The editors talk about how much last minute work they had to do reworking dialogue and footage and having to include some new romance footage that was added at the last second.  The good news is that all their work paid off and the movie was a huge hit.
  • Multi-Angle Storyboards with optional commentary by Tony Scott – This extra gives you the option to view Tony Scott’s storyboards for two scenes ( “Flat Spin & Jester’s Dead) with optional commentary from Scott.
  • Best of the Best: Inside the Real Top Gun – A thirty minute look at the actual Top Gun school where you see how they train and teach the course.  This is a fairly comprehensive look for those that would like to know more about the school.
  • Music Videos:
o   Kenny Loggins -“Danger Zone”
o   Berlin -“Take My Breath Away”
o   Loverboy -“Heaven In Your Eyes”
o   Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens -“Top Gun Anthem”
  • TV Spots – Seven different TV spot targeted for a certain demographic such as romance, patriotism, etc. that shows how the film was originally marketed to reach a wide audience.
  • Behind-the-Scenes Featurette – A vintage look filmed during the making of the film which is pretty standard EPK fluff but there’s some footage from here that was included in the main documentary but some good nuggets that were left out that can be seen here.
  • Survival Training Featurette – All of the cast except Val Kilmer actually went up in real fighter jets to see what it was like but before they were allowed to do that, they had to take the Navy survival course that taught them what to do if they had to eject and the worst case scenarios that might occur after that.  Not only was it cool to see the cast to this, but it was cool to see anyway.
  • Tom Cruise Interviews – There isn’t a whole lot of recent footage of Cruise talking about the film in the new documentary so if you want to hear from him, this is the best place to do it.  There’s some good stuff here including learning that Tom Cruise viewed the aircraft carrier they filmed on as a “prison with the threat of drowning,” and how hard it was for him to get rest there since his bunk was under the constantly busy flight deck.
  • Digital Copy – I always love getting digital copies! This is offered in Windows Media for PC and iTunes for Mac & PC.

Final Thoughts (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

One thing that struck me while watching these extras is that Tom Cruise looks even better now than he did back in the 80s, while the rest of the cast looks like they drank from the wrong Holy Grail.  I suspect he’s somehow discovered the Fountain of Youth. Top Gun doesn’t get the respect it deserves nowadays where it’s apprarently cool to badmouth the movie.  While I don’t love it like I once did, I still enjoy it and recognize it’s cultural importance since it’s essentially a time capsule for the decade it was made in.  Top Gun encapsulates the fashion, the world-view, the music, and the attitude of the 80s which is ok with me.  The movie has never looked or sounded better, so I recommend that all fans pick this up now especially when you factor in the incredible extras this Blu-ray offers!
Order your copy today!

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