Synopsis: If you were sitting around wondering if the guys who brought you Airplane! and The Naked Gun are crazy, the answer is “Yes.” And Top Secret! proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt! “Top Secret!” pits American rock star Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) against the dreaded East German High Command. It’s a race against time as Nick teams up with Hillary Flammond (Lucy Gutteridge) to find her father before he can create the ultimate super weapon – the Polaris Mine. Along the way, “Top Secret!” manages to do for war epics and Elvis films what “Airplane!” did to disaster movies.
Top Secret! 5.5
eyelights: the Peter Cushing backwards scene. the concept.
eyesores: the limited number of gags. the pace. Val Kilmer.
Before I even knew that ‘Top Secret!’ was by the makers of ‘Airplane!‘ a friend of mine introduced me to it one day, telling me it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. He popped the video tape in and had me watch it, wanting to share the hilarity with me.
I didn’t get the appeal. I sat there mildly amused, but found the film far too low-brow and unsubtle for me to fully enjoy. Meanwhile, my buddy was splitting his sides, wailing with laughter at the sight of the German standing on top of a train and crashing through a low bridge.
Still, over the years, I felt the need to revisit ‘Top Secret!’ a few times, hoping to finally get it.
I still don’t.
I’m not exactly sure why I like Zucker/Zucker/Abraham’s other works but not this one. I suspect that it’s something to do with: 1) the genre that they were spoofing, 2) the cast, and 3) the limited inspiration of the gags.
1) While I do enjoy a good spy movie, ‘Top Secret!’ is primarily based on those WWII suspense films from the ’50s, of the U.S. vs them variety – with Americans being better, stronger, brighter, nobler than anyone else. It also apparently integrates the influence of Elvis musicals, although I haven’t seen one in about three decades, so I couldn’t confirm this. The espionage element is truly secondary, here, and it’s only a by-product of the setting. Which doesn’t really appeal to me.
2) As capable as most of the cast is, there are no truly standout performances (unlike in ‘Airplane!’, or any other Zukcer/Zucker/Abrahams film). And to make matters worse, two of the key stars actually grate on my nerves. Val Kilmer has never been a favourite of mine, and he does perform reasonably well, but his dough-face makes him look like he’s always pouting or about to laugh, which consequently makes me want to smack him. As for the canyon-toothed Omar Sharif, who was fantastic in ‘Doctor Zhivago’, he’s totally out of place as an action hero and as a comic foil. Horrible, horrible stuff.
3) Unlike the trio’s more classic oeuvre, ‘Top Secret!’ delivers the gags sparingly, usually one at a time and with great distance between them. The problem with this approach is that it offers a less innovative formula and it also relies heavily on each individual gag – and since they aren’t that inspired, the movie’s humour trips all over itself more often than not. With a larger gag ratio, at least the quantity might have over the limited quality. Maybe.
Plus which the direction was rather shoddy here, with tons of anachronistic elements conflicting with each other – clearly not for comedic purposes, but out of disregard or flat out carelessness. Further to that, many sequences started and ended abruptly with no apparent rhyme or reason, leaving one with the impression of watching a slightly discombobulated mess, as if the filmmakers had no idea how to put it together in a cohesive or coherent fashion.
Frankly, there’s only one scene that I found fun to watch, and it was the small cameo by Peter Cushing as a bookstore owner. While the looking glass gag was lame and poorly staged, the fact that it was filmed backwards and then played in reverse was quite brilliant – especially since the directors refuses to show their cards in the beginning, slowly unveiling their hand as the scene progressed – and then really going to town with it. Brilliant!
If the film had had more inspired bits like that one, then ‘Top Secret!’ would have been a winner and a keeper. But, for all the chances that I’ve given it, it always disappoints or bores me. It’s worth it for the Cushing sequence, and the final part is not too shabby, but all in all, I would strictly recommend it for diehard Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams fans’ eyes only. All others should just leave it on the shelf, under wraps, and never speak of it again.
Date of viewing: May 28-June 6, 2013