For years I have heard great things about Top Secret! but for whatever reason just hadn’t seen it. Now thanks to the current round of movie recommendations at Anomalous Material (suggested by Dan) I have just knocked one hilarious 80’s gem of my “To See” list. A long time coming yes but this was definitely up my alley and in short is a spoof movie with few equals.
To start off I must state that there’s two kinds of Val Kilmer out there. First is the ultra-talented method actor who is able to channel the likes of well anyone (e.g. Jim Morrison). Then there’s an equally charismatic Kilmer who, without trying, can be insanely funny. It just comes naturally to him. In Top Secret! he is both and it’s a winner in all categories. Oh and did I mention he could sing and dance? Yup he does all that and more here and in the long and yet short list of legendary spoof films, Top Secret! can deservedly be placed right next to The Pink Panther, Airplane!, Johnny Dangerously, Hot Shots!. For you trivia buffs this film comes from the minds of Airplane! and Hot Shots! so this is kind of like look at their work mid-career which is entertaining to say the least (Hmm…I wonder it’s an exclamation point in the title which ensures a quality spoof).
From the opening intro, featuring an impressive doppleganger/Beach Boys inspired tune “Skeet Surfing” to the Casablanca-esqe ending there’s no shortage of comic bits in Top Secret! Every shot is crammed with as many sight gags (some you won’t probably won’t notice until a second or third viewing) as possible. From an out of perspective telephone that is actually larger than the actor (see trailer above), to the “submarine magnet”, to the underwater saloon brawl, if you could dream up a crazy scenario it (no matter how outlandish) it would fit right at home in this film.
Nazi’s make for a good amount of film heavies and while it seems like there are too many conflicting time periods the film still works. As there’s little stopping the Nazis in their innumerable quests for world domination we find they again trying their darndest. But to conceal their intentions starting with a sabotage of all NATO submarines, the Nazi’s are hosting a Cultural Festival. While they are unable to get Leonard Bernstein, they are able to secure the American Rock n Roll star Nick Rivers and he messes up their evil plot. A fish out-of-water story our hero Nick, by few means other than singing and dancing, helps the French Resistance win the day. So in what’s essentially a series of live action Looney Tunes skits, Top Secret! is best enjoyed if you allow the lunacy and self-aware humor to wash over you. Then again isn’t that how it works with all spoofs?
Some surprises abound and special appearances such as Omar Sharif (Lawrence of Arabia), Michael Gough (Batman) and a very thin Ian McNeice round it all out nicely. But aside from Kilmer in the starring role, no one else deserves more credit for their work. It’s like he perfectly channeled Little Richie, Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, a bit of Cary Grant and unleashed it on screen replete with a typically 80s androgynous quaff of hair. Now I wouldn’t say that comedy is Kilmer’s strong suit but the sign of a great actor is the ability to act well in all genres. This and Real Genius are exemplary high points in the comedic portion of his resume. I for one think he should do a few more of these.
What works best in Top Secret! is that there were no inhibitions for writers Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and
which made anything to and in fact did work. That’s what makes a spoof work – imagination. Not like what those terrible Scary/Date/Epic Movie films do to dilute the genius of this sub-genre by casting pop-culture look alikes and run them into light poles. It’s refreshing to see that someone took a chance on an idea, got a studio to trust them and tried it no matter how audacious and far-fetched…and some gags were reeeallly out there.
Either way, Top Secret! has passed the torch giving us the Hot Shots! films and to an extent the Austin Powers films (which has it’s own identifiable points of brilliance). I just hope the fire hasn’t completely gone out due the schlock being passed as a spoof these days. If it has, at least we can still go back to Inspector Clouseau, Ted Striker and Frank Drebin and Nick Rivers to ease the pain.