Top Secret!: I Love the 80’s
February 6, 2009
Partway through Top Secret! (1984), the film’s hero, rock star Nick Rivers (Kilmer) cuts loose with a song called “How Silly Can You Get?” It could easily apply to all of the films directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, the kings of the modern spoof movie. Fresh from the surprise success of Airplane! (1980), they followed it up with Top Secret!, a parody of World War II spy films and Elvis Presley movies (with several other genres getting skewered along the way). It was no where near as successful as their previous effort but over time it has developed a small but loyal cult following.
Top Secret! opens with a hilarious parody of beach movies from the 1960s complete with a dead-on Beach Boys spoof song, “Skeet Surfin’” by Nick (Kilmer). In an amusing bit, the song is shown topping the charts with three other Rivers songs occupying top spots (Eric Clapton only ranks #5). Nick is playing a festival in East Germany and while there he unwittingly gets caught up in a plot by the French Resistance to rescue a scientist (Gough) building a secret weapon for the Nazis. Nick meets and falls for Hillary (who explains that her name is German for “she whose bosoms defy gravity”), a vital member of the Resistance and whose father is the aforementioned scientist.
As with other Zucker Abrahams Zucker (ZAZ) films, Top Secret! is filled with tons of amusing gags, like while Nick and his manager are sitting in their train car, the train station pulls away (complete with a commuter chasing it) instead of the train. There are also many quick, throwaway gags, like a room filled with propellers called, naturally, the “Prop Room.” The filmmakers are always drawing attention to the fact that we are watching a film with bits like a long shot looking down at a busy city street that are actually toy cars as reinforced by a couple of white mice that are let loose in the model.
There are some really clever, even ambitious gags, like when Nick and Hillary visit a Swedish bookstore and the entire scene was shot backwards (because they’re “speaking” Swedish) and then projected forwards, all done in one, uninterrupted take. As if to top that, there is even a barroom brawl between Nick and a traitor to the Resistance staged entirely underwater. There are also all kinds of amusing wordplay, like the names of some of the French Resistance group that Nick hooks up with: Montage, Avant Garde, Déjà Vu, Croissant, Soufflé, and, my personal favourite, Chocolat Mousse (who is, of course, a black man).
Remember when Val Kilmer was funny? Long before he portrayed Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s crazed biopic about The Doors, he showed off his singing and dancing chops in Top Secret! with a rousing musical number scored to “Tutti Frutti,” transforming a stuffy old orchestra into a rock ‘n’ roll band complete with one elder musician smashing his guitar a la Pete Townsend. Along with Real Genius (1985), Kilmer shows a real affinity for comedy. He has excellent comic timing and is not afraid to look silly, which is very important in a ZAZ film.
Top Secret! may be ZAZ’s most ambitious film to date – the one where they really tried to push the envelope on the formula they perfected with Airplane! This may explain why the film did not do well with audiences. Perhaps, they went too far out and people weren’t ready for what they were doing. Looking back at it now, Top Secret! has aged quite well. It may not be quite as funny as the aforementioned film but it certainly ranks right up there among their best, if not unappreciated efforts.
If you have the previous edition, you might want to skip this one as the only new feature is a four-song CD sampler of ‘80s tunes. Hardly essential.
There is an audio commentary by directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, producers Jon Davison and Hunt Lowry, and moderator Fred Rubin. They start off telling a story about how they invited Omar Sharif to an expensive dinner and he stood them up. Naturally, they talk about casting Val Kilmer and their impressions of him at the time. They spend a lot of time cracking jokes and banter back and forth like the long-time friends that they are on this entertaining track.
Also included are four alternate scenes featuring an explosive apple; a cheesy gag with a dog playing fetch near an open window; and a funny bit where Nick offers Hillary all kinds of beverages.
There are storyboards for three sequences.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.