Revisiting Childhood Movies Part XIII:

Yes, the cow is an important plot point that will lead to a really tasteless gag.

Yes, the cow is an important plot point that will lead to a really tasteless gag.

Top Secret!

  • Director:  Jim Abrahams / Jerry Zucker / David Zucker
  • Writer:  Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, Martyn Burke
  • Producer:  Jon Davison / Hunt Lowry
  • Stars:  Val Kilmer, Lucy Gutteridge, Christopher Villiers
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Award Nominations:  none
  • Length:  90 min
  • Genre:  Comedy (Parody)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  22 June 1984
  • Box Office Gross:  $20.45 mil  (#52 – 1984)
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #131  (1984)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Notables:  none
  • First Watched:  On HBO sometime in 1985 probably
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  at least 5

As a Kid:  Even as a kid, long before I started thinking about films in terms of quality, when I just thought about what I liked and what I didn’t, I somehow knew this was inferior to Airplane.  Maybe it’s because it’s a comedy and I didn’t laugh nearly as much as I did during Airplane.  Maybe it just didn’t have lines that really stood out.  Aside from all the brilliant little moments in Airplane, there are great recurring lines and great individual lines.  There are some decent lines in this film, although some of those I didn’t really get as a kid (“In women’s tennis, I always root against the heterosexual.”) but not a lot.

There were a few moments of this that really stuck with me through the years.  The first was the incredibly silly opening song, “Skeet Surfing”, a blatant rip-off (homage?) of the Beach Boys.  The second was the moment when they introduce all the French freedom fighters named with random French words like latrine and deja vu.  My favorite, of course, was chocolate mousse.  I also enjoyed the presence of Peter Cushing.  I still didn’t know that much about particular actors but I instantly recognized him, even in his brief scene, as the man who had played Grand Moff Tarkin.  I might have only seen this a few times as a kid but I saw Star Wars hundreds of times (not an exaggeration).  But then, this film went away and though I had memories of it (sadly, that includes my memory of Omar Sharif saying “You forgot your fake doggy doo”, which came into my head after Sharif died and prompted us watching this in the first place), it had been possibly over 20 years since I had last seen it.

As an Adult:  As has been the case with several of the RCM films, I had Veronica watch it with me.  And, again, this was a film that Veronica had never seen before.  She seems to be a good barometer for these films – she doesn’t have the attachment to these films like I do (except for Lost Boys, which we watched because of my hope to snap her attachment to that film – other films like Christmas Story or Big Trouble in Little China, which I can’t stand and where I have no hope of breaking her attachment will NOT be reviewed in this series).  This was definitely not working for her and it wasn’t hard to see why.  It’s simply not very good.

The first problem is on the structural level.  It’s an Elvis rock and roll film.  No, wait, it’s a cold war thriller.  Except that this cold war thriller really seems to think it’s a behind-the-lines World War II film.  In Airplane, when we hear propellers with no propellers it’s funny, or we watch the war scenes and wonder what the hell war it is they’re referencing, it’s all part of the gag.  But here, it just seems like a burden.  This film really doesn’t know what it wants to parody and as a result it feels lost.

To be fair, when it decides what it wants to do, it can be quite funny.  As I said, the opening song is actually quite funny and really parodies both the style and American values.  Or, when it’s a spy thriller and they stop in for help from the bookseller and we’re thinking they’re talking in a foreign language, only to get to the end of the scene and realize that it’s all been played backwards.  Those scenes, doing a broad parody of a style rather than a specific film, can work well.  Others, like when they’re specifically doing a parody of The Blue Lagoon just come off as dated and awkward.  The brilliant thing about Airplane is that, even though it was parodying a lot of specific scenes in the Airport films, it didn’t rely too much on the set-ups and so they become more timeless and are not limited by your knowledge of the original.

It doesn’t help that there is such a gulf between the two leads.  Val Kilmer was clearly a find – he could actually sing and he had a ton of charisma.  Just a year later he would end up staring in Real Genius and that’s definitely a film that will be covered in a later post.  On the other hand, there is Lucy Gutteridge.  She had actually come to the film from an RSC production, which is stunning.  She claims in the film that her name means “she whose bosoms defy gravity”, and that seems to be the only point of her in the film – that she has magnificent breasts which are showcased in every outfit she wears.  But she’s absolutely terrible in the role and with her as the female romantic lead a lot of the film just falls flat.

The team of Abrahams and the two Zuckers had been together for a long time and had made the very uneven Kentucky Fried Movie and the brilliant Airplane.  After this they would make a more mainstream film (Ruthless People) before going separate ways, all of them finding different levels of success.  One of the Zuckers would hit box-office gold and even the Oscar circuit with Ghost.  The other would make the hilarious Naked Gun (and the less hilarious sequels).  But, personally, I’ll go with Abrahams – after all, he would make the two Hot Shots films and those still stand up as pretty damn funny.

But at one point in the film, Kilmer gives a ridiculous detailed description of the plot so far and Gutteridge replies “I know.  It all sounds like some bad movie.”  Then they both look at the camera.  It’s supposed to be a gag, but this film is close enough to being a bad movie that it’s not quite as funny as the directors hoped.

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