Volleyball vs. football: A study in Top Gun shirtless athleticism

·6 min read

Top Gun feels the need…the need for letting us ogle sweaty men (and now, women) while they engage in amateur sports competition.

The original Top Gun set the bar high with its now-iconic beach volleyball scene, set to "Playing With the Boys" by Kenny Loggins (who also recorded what is arguably the franchise's theme song, "Danger Zone").

It didn't really serve any true function in the plot. Sure, it furthers the rivalry between "Maverick" (Tom Cruise) and "Iceman" (Val Kilmer), but I didn't need a homoerotic volleyball sequence to tell me they don't like each other (I did and do, however, want one).

Even Loggins was a bit perplexed by it, and was worried that his song might not make the cut. "It's an action movie," he tells EW. "And I wasn't sure the whole beefcake thing was going to make sense, but it did. Tom knows what people like."


Paramount Pictures

Of course, when it came time to make a sequel to Top Gun, many questions came to mind. Who would be Mav's new wingman? Would "Danger Zone" or any of the other perfect needle drops recur on the soundtrack? But most importantly, how would they top the volleyball scene?

It seemed an impossible task (and the original film cannot be matched for glistening subtext), but Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski and screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie upped the ante by giving the sequence a clear motivation within the plot.

Here, it's not just a pickup game staged for the sake of audience thirst (again, not complaining), but a match organized by Maverick as a team-building exercise designed to bring all of his elite pilots together as they prepare for their impossible mission (sorry, different Cruise franchise).

When the base's air boss, "Cyclone" (Jon Hamm), questions Mav about why the pilots are screwing around playing football and splashing in the ocean, Mav gestures at the group and lets the evidence speak for itself: Now they're all playing on the same team.

Top Gun: Maverick
Top Gun: Maverick

Paramount Pictures

Of course, it wouldn't be Top Gun without some glistening flesh to seal the deal, and an upbeat soundtrack to underscore it. Here, Loggins' "Playing With the Boys" gets swapped for One Republic's "I Ain't Worried." (Loggins did record a new duet version of his song with artist Butterfly Boucher, but it ended up not being the right fit.)

Male beauty standards have changed immensely since the 1980s. While the 1986 versions of Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, and Tom Cruise are nothing to sneeze at, the cast of Maverick, including Cruise himself, are exceedingly ripped. As superhero movies have come to dominate the megaplex, we now expect jacked screen gods as opposed to the leaner musculature of the '80s.

This physical expectation combined with the legacy of the volleyball sequence made it the most anxiety-inducing scene in the entire film — and that's saying something considering the aerial stunts and flight training the actors went through.

"I would say there was more pressure leading up to that scene than any scene in the whole movie," Glen Powell, who plays "Hangman," tells EW. "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, just trying to do crunches and pull-ups. On game day, there was resistance bands and weights on the beach. It was so funny."

"There was a lot of pressure," he adds. "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."

Jay Ellis, who co-stars as "Payback," also told EW during our Three Rounds with the cast that Powell didn't help matters. "There was already enough pressure on the scene, and then Glen decides one day to say, 'Guys, montages last forever,'" Ellis says. "Everybody went into hyper-mode. Cause he's right."

The hair and make-up departments knew all too well what audiences would expect here and ratcheted up the glisten. "There wasn't enough sweat, so we had to get some coconut oil, some grape seed oil," Jay Ellis told IMDb, as Monica Barbaro added, "They just dipped us before every take."

"We almost made shirts that said, Top Gun: Maverick: More Sweat," quipped Barbaro.

To make matters worse, they also had to re-shoot the scene after the holidays when everyone had let themselves indulge a bit. "I was very happy that I got to keep my shirt on, and my shoes, and everything else," joked Jon Hamm to IMDb.

TOP GUN, Top Gun: Maverick
TOP GUN, Top Gun: Maverick

Paramount Pictures (2)

And while it may be a beach pick-up game, the cast took it as seriously as training for their flight sequences. "They weren't just thrown out there," Bashir Salahuddin, whose Hondo acts as referee, told IMDb. "There was a football field right next to the facility where we shot, and they would be out there weeks beforehand running routes, learning how to cut, learning how to throw better spirals. For every part of this movie, there was so much training — even for something as fun as a scene doused in baby oil."

Of course, no one anticipated the extra challenge of all that manufactured sweat. "I don't know if you've ever tried to throw a tiny football covered in coconut oil, but it's very tough," Powell laughs. "The hair and makeup people are putting on all this body stuff to make us look all sweaty. And to throw a football after people have been hit in the chest with those things is next to impossible."

Powell grew up playing football and even worked with one of his old football coaches for a few days to be at the top of his game.

The original Top Gun volleyball scene is unmatched for money shots, ass-slaps, and smoldering looks between its male cast members, but Top Gun: Maverick gets to have its beefcake and eat it too — finding a way to justify drenching its unreasonably attractive cast in oil and have them roll around in the sand and surf as if they were remaking From Here to Eternity with a football instead of Deborah Kerr.

We love a good thirst trap, but a thirst trap motivated by the plot? Now, that is sexy.

Additional reporting by Clark Collis.

Related content: