Throughout his time training at the TOPGUN academy, LT Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is repeatedly admonished by his superiors and peers for being reckless. Even his love interest Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), an astrophysicist and TOPGUN instructor, believes his cavalier attitude and risk-taking is going to endanger his teammates. Maverick has already taken chances in the skies during the training ‘hops’ the pilots embark on to win the TOPGUN trophy. After defeating his instructor Jester (Michael Ironside) by defying the rules of engagement and doing a 400-knot flyby, he’s chewed out by his superiors, including Viper (Tom Skerrit), who asks Jester is he would want Maverick with him in battle.
“I don’t know,” Jester answers. “I just don’t know.”
His wingman Goose (Anthony Edwards) also doesn’t seem to know, telling Maverick that his recklessness is making him nervous and that he just needs to graduate for the sake of his family.
Meanwhile, Maverick is in a heated competition with Iceman (Val Kilmer), the program’s best pilot, who not only keeps winning hops, but similarly rebukes Maverick for his dangerous approach to flying. Iceman is ranked first, Maverick second. Their competitiveness isn’t only in the skies, but on full display in a half-nude, jean-wearing game of beach volleyball that’s since become a cult classic scene.
But one of the most memorable scenes comes a few later, after Goose’s family have been introduced (his wife played by a young Meg Ryan), when her and Maverick are embarking on another hop. Walking down the tarmac to their jets, a student tells Maverick that Iceman has won another contest.
His response? Turning to Goose and saying, “I feel the need...” before a slight pause, when Goose joins in to help complete the now-immortal line, “the need... for speed!” The emphasis on the end of the line, “for speed", is further enunciated with a high-five between the characters, and the pause before it makes the delivery iconic, but it also reveals Maverick’s rogue approach, arrogance and his inner character. His life is high-octane in the air and on the ground, and his response to Iceman’s lead reveals his character – propulsion, speed and risks are in his blood, it’s not that he wants to go fast, he needs to, as if it’s a compulsion.
Unfortunately, that compulsion and Maverick’s ego, as well as his refusal to be a team player, results in tragedy.
There was nothing tragic about Tony Scott’s Top Gun though (well, apart from parts of its storyline). The film was a blockbuster, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1986 and spending six months drawing audiences as big as its opening weekend despite being, you know, Navy propaganda. Though critics were divided, the film sold over 47.6 million tickets in America and has since grossed over $356 million USD worldwide. The aerial photography, captured on custom-made cameras mounted on the jets, was unlike anything ever captured on film before and had audiences white knuckled. But jets weren’t the only thing soaring at the time, with the film launching a 23-year-old Tom Cruise to the heights of superstardom, where he’s stayed ever since, and is set to revisit his rogue airman in 2020’s Top Gun: Maverick.
The action isn’t the only thing that’s made Top Gun a classic. Its soundtrack is iconic, and it’s full of memorable scenes and lines. None more so than the “need for speed” line, which has been parodied, reused and remixed in countless other properties. The pause between Maverick beginning the line and Goose joining in, as well as its repetition and rhyme, lend it to being reappropriated. In The Office, Michael Scott “feels the need for tweed”, while in Creepshow 2 the line is repurposed to be “the need for weed”. It’s also been reused in animation, featured in Inspector Gadget and Pinky and the Brain, where it’s amended by the Brain to say “I feel the need... the need for expeditious velocity!" The line also gets an honourable mention in WatchMojo’s Top 20 Movies You Can Name by Hearing Just One Line, and is the inspiration for the long-running videogame series The Need for Speed.
If you look up the cultural legacy of Top Gun, many articles contain the famous phrase, including this one that ranks it number one in quotes from the film, and news anchors even open segments on the film with it.
Considering a sequel is coming out 34 years after the original, seems like audiences are still feeling the need for speed too.