36 Years Ago, ‘Top Gun’ Was a Surprise Hit — and a Major Game-Changer

36 Years Ago, ‘Top Gun’ Was a Surprise Hit — and a Major Game-Changer

Today marks the 36th anniversary of the domestic opening of “Top Gun,” which zipped into theaters way back in 1986. Though the high-flying Tom Cruise-starring actioner is well-known now, its history and how unlikely its box office success was at the time of its release are less so.

Cruise returns for “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount), which opens on May 27 for a splashy Memorial Day weekend, and already has great initial reaction and early reviews, buzz almost unheard of for a wide mainstream release. That’s already one point of difference between the long-awaited sequel and the not well-reviewed first film: in 1986, when Tony Scott’s film debuted and ultimately defied expectations about what was expected — or even possible — in a blockbuster.

Its potential barriers are fewer this time. Still, there are some: mainly surrounding how much interest today’s prime audience, whose parents and even grandparents were the ones who turned out for the first film, have in seeing “Maverick.”

And consider how theatrical distribution strategy has significantly changed in some ways since 1986. One nuance is that though a May 16 release date would today qualify it as a major release, back then, it suggested risk-taking and a sign of uncertainty. In recent years, early May (sometimes even the last weekend of April) has come to mean the start of the summer movie season, but back then, that start point meant Memorial Day, a that showed in what films were scheduled with that date (and, of course, which were not).

Set for the Memorial Day weekend in 1986? More likely hits “Cobra” (a cop drama starring Sylvester Stallone) and “Poltergeist 2” (the sequel to the Steven Spielberg-produced horror film). Neither was an irrational choice. Both films’ total grosses in today’s terms would have exceeded $100 million. “Rambo: First Blood Part 2” had opened the same weekend in 1985 and ended up #3 for the year. “Poltergeist” was #9 for 1982. And both actually had better opening grosses.



But “Top Gun” ultimately was the #1 film of 1986, with its domestic gross about double both “Cobra” and “Poltergeist 2” combined. One guess is that, though “Maverick” might not open to $100 million, it might end up doing better than some films that open higher.

That’s not wholly unlike the original film, which took a strange route to its ultimate gross. It opened to $8.2 million, which would still only be a little over $20 million today, hardly huge, but it made it to $180 million — around $450 million at current prices. Incredibly, that was 22 times its opening weekend take. Movies then often built up grosses more slowly, but this was extreme.

One element in its success is similar to what might make “Maverick” click now: Top movies in the mid-1980s often were fantasy-related, whatever the genre. Spielberg productions, “Star Wars,” and similar films joined with comedies that also were otherworldly (“Ghostbusters”) tended to be the biggest, most surefire titles, with violent items like Stallone’s films sometimes at that level. Action films often were led by larger-than-life characters played by Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Now? Dominant comic book movies play the same role.

“Top Gun” broke less new ground than it built on some below-the-surface trends that, with its success, became more common. The idea of a high concept movie — an attractive plot that can be effectively conveyed in two sentences or less — applies to “Top Gun” (hot shot Naval pilot defies the odds, with the star of “Risky Business”). It was part of what the producing team of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson (the former back in the same role for “Maverick”) capitalized in their careers.

Before “Top Gun,” they had scored with two breakout hits (“Flashcance,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” the latter propelled by star Eddie Murphy). After Simpson’s death, Bruckheimer continued with such high concept titles as “Bad Boys,” “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” among many more.

Tony Scott, Ridley’s younger brother, with one feature earlier (“The Hunger”) was hired to direct in part because of his background (similar to his brother) in advertising. The style of “Top Gun” (“sleek” is an apt adjective) is closely related to what ads do — sell a concept, if appropriate with the most attractive people possible.

“American Gigolo”

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

This was an aesthetic on the rise because of the biggest visual influence of the 1980s: MTV. Curiously, it predated the video channel for Bruckheimer, who produced “American Gigolo” in 1980, a decent mid-level success. Director Paul Schrader didn’t come from advertising, but “Gigolo” provided something of a template for the sensibility of “Top Gun,” different as the two films are. Both films were seen from the start of examples of a different kind of male gaze, that of glamorizing, even fetishizing its actors (the volleyball scene in “Top Gun,” multiple scenes of Richard Gere in “Gigolo”).

It expanded on another element of “Gigolo,” already elevated in “Flashdance.” The musical soundtrack for “Top Gun” was a key moment in the rise of parallel multimedia success. Its soundtrack, comprised of unrelated songs by different artists, sold nine million copies in the U.S. alone, providing several hit singles (including Oscar-winning “Take Your Breath Away”). And the videos of these songs, with footage from the movie, got major play on MTV. “Maverick” has a just released single from Lady Gaga, but this is not an era of soundtrack synergy that “Top Gun” accelerated.

Tom Cruise is the central element of both films, of course. His ascendancy to top stardom then, and his maintaining that until now are another key story to be looked at further.

These films are arriving during different eras, but “Maverick” has the chance to become a major hit and revive interest in more conventional/traditional movie heroics that, despite taking place in the sky, is still down to earth and closer to real life than our current crop of superhero blockbusters. It could make a difference. The biggest? If it can draw older audiences, i.e. the very people who thronged to the original in 1986, back to theaters.

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