If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and parody a close second, "Top Gun" has been under a siege of compliments since its release in 1986.
Two entire movies -- "Hot Shots!" (1991) and "Hot Shots! Part Deux" (1993) -- were inspired by the Tom Cruise Navy flyer romance. "Family Guy" seems to lampoon the Tony Scott film every chance it gets. YouTube virtually overflows with sendups of the movie's homoerotic volleyball sequence. Just two years ago, when Chinese state TV showed what it said was a Chinese fighter jet destroying a U.S. aircraft, it was actually footage taken from "Top Gun."
So it would seem like an apt time to (re)experience the original, in an added dimension: Beginning Friday, the 3-D re-release of "Top Gun" commences in select IMAX theaters for a limited run (Feb. 8-13) in anticipation of its release on 3-D Blu-ray on Feb. 19. (The 2-D Blu-ray is already in circulation). Remastered by its director, who completed the task shortly before his suicide last August, "Top Gun" occupies a singular niche in the culture. Is it the action? The romance? The campy jingoism? The star power? What is it, exactly, that makes "Top Gun" such a resiliently appealing movie?
"I wish I knew, I'd make more of them," said the film's co-producer, Jerry Bruckheimer. "The public knows. I think it came out at an interesting time, and it really showed American ingenuity and capabilities. And it really motivated a lot of the people who are our aviators today to become fliers.
"I remember reading about this leading female pilot at one of the military academies, who had seen 'Top Gun' and decided to become an aviator," he added. "It still gets kids to join the military."
Written by Jack Epps Jr. and Jim Cash and inspired by a California magazine article by Ehud Yonay, "Top Gun" is about Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Cruise), a pilot aboard the USS Enterprise (the naval craft, not the spaceship) who, along with shipmate Nick "Goose" Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), is admitted to the Navy's fighter-weapons school. There, they meet other hot dogs, and the cocky Maverick (nicknames are very big in "Top Gun") gets involved with his civilian instructor, Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), doing some stupid stuff along the way and ultimately finding himself. It's your basic boy-meets-girl, boy-meets-plane, boy loses girl/plane/friend and shoots down some jets of indeterminate nationality.
Ahead of its time
Remembering Scott as "a special guy," Tom Skerritt (who played ace flyer Mike "Viper" Metcalf) said the directorial vision of both Tony and his brother Ridley -- with whom he made "Alien" -- was way ahead of its time.
"It was like they were making 3-D already," Skerritt said. "You'd have your principal characters up front, but in the background there was always something interesting going on. I haven't seen it, but I suspect this is going to be more than just another 3-D remake."
For Edwards, "Top Gun" was a career-changer, albeit a movie of its time. "It's amazing how antiquated the technology seems now. We'd never put actors in real planes now like we needed to then; we're so green-screen-dependent now," he said, referring to the computer-imaging technology currently in use. "But it really was this summer adventure for me, of being immersed in the Navy, in San Diego; the pilots were incredibly open and took us in and showed us their lives and love for flying and love for craziness. They certainly partied. The switch was either on or off."
Director fired and rehired
But no one had any pretensions about what they were doing. "That movie was intended to make as much money as possible," Edwards said. "Bruckheimer was not out to make an art film. But Tony Scott was such a genius. And everything that made that film cool was what the studio thought was going to kill it. All the slow motion, the smoky rooms, we knew it was cool, but the studio, oh my God, they were terrified. Tony was fired two or three times. And then rehired immediately."
Had 3-D technology been as advanced as it is now, Bruckheimer said, Scott would have used it. And he certainly would have used it on the remake -- "Top Gun II" -- which was in the planning stages at the time of his death. "Tony was working on it, and scouting and meeting with pilots," Bruckheimer said, "so it's kind of in limbo at the moment. I know Paramount still wants to make it. We just have to reboot it creatively."
Meanwhile, he said, Tony Scott completed the 3-D re-release version just the way he wanted. "The planes leaving the carriers, the dogfights -- it looks fantastic," Bruckheimer said. "You look at the 3-D version, and you actually think that Tony shot it that way."
Where'd they fly off to?
Whatever happened to Tom Cruise? No one seems to know. But much of the cast of "Top Gun" went on to soaring success, including the following, who continued to make waves in movies and TV.
KELLY McGILLIS (Charlie) She'd already made an indelible impression as Harrison Ford's Amish love interest in "Witness" when she appeared in "Top Gun," and went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination as the prosecutor in "The Accused" (which won Jodie Foster an Oscar). Later, McGillis pursued her lifelong love of theater in productions of "The Merchant of Venice," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and in a national touring production of "The Graduate," playing Mrs. Robinson. Today, she's a staff member of the Seabrook House, a drug and rehabilitation center in New Jersey. She continues to act in independent films, including the recent apocalyptic shocker "Stake Land" and "We Are What We Are," which was at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
ANTHONY EDWARDS (Goose) With his new conspiracy series, "Zero Hour," premiering Feb. 14 on ABC, Edwards continues an acting career that has included every kind of character, but really blasted off when he created the role of Dr. Mark Greene as an original cast member of "E.R." (1994-2008). Like McGillis, Edwards was a presence at the just-concluded Sundance festival, appearing in the Beat Era drama "Big Sur," in which he portrayed the legendary poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
VAL KILMER (Iceman) As moviegoers know, Kilmer strode away from "Top Gun" and into a long string of legendary characters including Jim Morrison in "The Doors," the ghost of Elvis Presley in "True Romance," the tubercular Doc Holliday in "Tombstone," and the Caped Crusader in "Batman Forever." (He also voiced Moses in the animated epic "The Prince of Egypt"). In addition to "Willow," "Heat," and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," Kilmer recently starred in Francis Ford Coppola's "Twixt," and the Harmony Korine-directed segment of "The Fourth Dimension."
TOM SKERRITT (Viper) After "Top Gun," Skerritt continued to work regularly in such films as "Steel Magnolias," "A River Runs Through It" and "Tears of the Sun." In 1992, Skerritt made a memorable return to television as Sheriff Jimmy Brock on David E. Kelley's "Picket Fences" and has had guest roles on such shows as "Cheers," "Brothers & Sisters" and "Leverage." He's also active in the film community in Seattle, where he lives.
MEG RYAN (Carole) Three years after "Top Gun," Ryan earned her first of three Golden Globe nominations for her role in Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally," which led to a series of memorable roles in such romantic comedies as "Sleepless in Seattle," and "You've Got Mail." Ryan's other work has included "Prelude to a Kiss," "When a Man Loves a Woman," "Courage Under Fire" and "City of Angels."