One of the most memorable scenes in director Tony Scott's "Top Gun" is the shirtless volleyball game. Set to the upbeat Kenny Loggins song "Playing With the Boys," the sequence is about the simple joys of all-male sportsmanship, complete with slow-motion shots of the pilots' sculpted bodies glistening with sweat, and close-ups of their enthusiastic high-fives and butt slaps. It's a cheesy and homoerotic hallmark in pop culture. Many have mocked its exaggerated 1980s style, but more have defended its inclusion in the film. The camera ogles the young, virile military men with a lustful enthusiasm.
According to USA Today, the studio was not prepared for Scott to burn an entire day filming the scene, which was only a short paragraph in the script. Editor Chris Lebenzon says, "Tony shot it like a commercial, and they were angry." In the "Top Gun" home video release, Scott (who passed away in 2012) admits that he wanted female moviegoers to appreciate the men's well-toned bodies:
"I didn't have a vision of what I was doing other than just doing soft porn. I knew I had to show off all the guys, but I didn't have a point of view, so I just shot the s*** out of it. I got the guys to get all their gear off and their pants and sprayed them in baby oil."
His shooting style was inspired by Bruce Weber, a popular fashion photographer who creates stark images of the rippling muscles and chiseled jaws of attractive males.
But "Top Gun" star Tom Cruise does not see the volleyball scene as a buffet of hunky men for a rabid audience; he believes it holds more dramatic weight and moves the story forward.
The Competition Is Fierce
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times during the film's 1986 release, Cruise was adamant that the brawny volleyball game was not just about exploiting handsome male bodies: "I don't take my shirt off to sell tickets. The way I look at it is, let a good movie bring the audience in." He points out that none of the "Top Gun" posters, commercials, or publicity skills capitalizes on his shirtless sex appeal. So when he does show off his muscular frame in the film, it is done with purpose.
Cruise insists that above all, "Top Gun" is "a movie about characters and the human element — not a war picture. This movie is about competition, not killing," and the volleyball sequence is part of that competitive spirit. He defends the scene as an integral part of the narrative, not just a macho music video:
"That scene happens to be very important. First of all, it shows that to fighter pilots, physical prowess is very important. Plus, the scene shows the constant competition between these guys — how they compete on every level."
It also captures Maverick's friendship with Goose, his rivalry with Iceman, and his budding romance with Charlie. Torn between his duties and his heart, Maverick constantly checks his watch throughout the game because he wants to leave for his date with her.
Before the release of the long-awaited sequel "Top Gun: Maverick," audiences wondered if there would be any reference to the famed volleyball scene and what kind of tone it would have.
Top Gun: Maverick Trades Volleyball For Football
The "Top Gun: Maverick" filmmakers wanted to honor the famous "Top Gun" moment, but they shared Cruise's belief that the reference should be included in a meaningful way that motivates the plot — not a thirst trap thrown into the film for the sake of nostalgia.
In the scene, the elite pilots partake in a "dog fight football" match on the beach organized by Maverick. Maverick's superior Cyclone voices the audience's thoughts when he questions the need for this game, and Maverick explains that it is a team-building exercise to bring the pilots closer together for their difficult mission.
The cheery soundtrack of One Republic's "I Ain't Worried" is a lot less over-the-top than Loggins' anthemic song, but there are visual similarities to the original scene. The camera takes in the athleticism of the incredibly ripped bodies slick with sweat, but this time there's also a female pilot. Actor Glen Powell tells Entertainment Weekly that the cast was worried about living up to the scene's physicality:
"There was a lot of pressure. On the original, they didn't know what that scene was going to be. On this one, there were a lot of eyeballs on that scene. So you had a lot of actor anxiety leading up to that day … It was every cast member, until about midnight, the day before we shot that, in that gym, trying to eke out the last bit of anything they had … On game day, there was resistance bands and weights on the beach. It was so funny."
In the "Top Gun" movies, a group of toned bodies frolicing in the sand and sun is more than just eye candy, but it sure is fun to indulge.
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