Love them or hate them, "Airplane!," "The Naked Gun," and "Kentucky Fried Movie" are classics in the harebrained-yet-subtly-witty canon of film comedy. Hell, they basically originated the entire sub-screwball genre. It baffles me, then, that the most absurd film of the David Zucker/Jim Abrahams/Jerry Zucker stable is the most ignored. It's also the best.Top Secret! is a knowing, loving shish-kebab of both World War Two and, get this, Elvis movies. Yes, Elvis movies, where no matter what sort of wonky situation presents itself, no matter how many ne'er-do-wells are out to cramp his style or how many women are aching to wield the King's scepter, The Pelvis always has time and energy to sing a rock and roll tune for a bevy of frenzied fans who just happen to be lounging at the same clambake before he "takes a walk on the beach" with Ann-Margret.
"The forgotten ZAZ film is aces"
The preposterous, threadbare plot hardly matters, but here it is: Nazi bastards are staging a cultural festival so that the world will be focusing on that rather than a secret attack on a submarine fleet using a new secret weapon designed by a captured scientist. Leonard Bernstein is unavailable to represent the United States, so rock god Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) is tapped to replace him. Before he knows it, Nick is trapped in an international incident, aiding the daughter of the scientist and her allies in the French Resistance. Why a cell of the French resistance is so active deep in German territory is never explained, nor should it be, by God.
Keep in mind that NONE OF THIS MATTERS. The entire so-called plot is simply an exercise to set up a variety of set pieces, one-off jokes, clever sight gags, and song parodies whose silliness factor increases exponentially throughout the film. Adding to the movie's mystique for film fans is a medley of homages, from "The Blue Lagoon" all the way to "The Great Escape."
What's absolutely amazing and enduring about this movie is that almost every joke hits. In most flicks of this sort, made by pretenders to the ZAZ throne and sadly sometimes by the ZAZ combo themselves in their later days, three out of ten jokes might elicit a sympathetic titter or smirk, and maybe one in twenty-five will prompt anything resembling a belly laugh. I've probably seen Top Secret! at least thirty times, and not only does it still make me giggle like a third-grader hearing the word "penis," but I still find jokes I've missed or forgotten. From Leroy Nieman to poop humor, from L. Ron Hubbard to erections, it's all presented equally and democratically for our rabid amusement. More importantly, there is never a moment screaming "Look at me, I'm FUNNY!" as there is in every Jim Carrey flick on the books. It's ALL funny, all the time.
Credit must not only be given to the communal entity of "ZAZ," but to a spirited cast of mostly unknowns led by Kilmer in his first significant screen outing (aided and abetted by ace character actors like Michael Gough, Peter Cushing, and Omar Sharif in small roles). No matter how dumb they know the material is, they sell every bit, every time, in every scene, rarely overplaying anything into laugh-track land. Comedy is a delicate, fickle lover, but everyone on-screen here buys her a nice dinner, brings her flowers, and doesn't even ask for a bee-jay in return. Kilmer is actually something of a comic revelation and a master of timing, so it's a shame he went on to gain more notoriety as Iceman and make flicks like "The Saint."
I can't recommend this baby enough. It's certainly one of the better comedies to rise from the muck of the 1980's, and it's been a personal favorite for years. Airplane! and The Naked Gun often get all the credit and the play on cable stations, but this twisted, neglected middle child is the biggest achiever of the family.It goes without saying that this film isn't comedy gold for everyone. But if it is, aye caramba, it's the mother lode.
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originally posted: 11/05/99 20:17:06