|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 16 July 2002|
“How silly can you get?” croons our hero Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) in a Chapter 15 song. It is a question that “Top Secret!” aims to answer. This sublimely ridiculous spoof of WWII spy dramas and Elvis musicals (how’s that for a mix of genres?) is brought to us by the troika of directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, who wrote the script here with Marty Burke, and are also the guiding hands behind the “Airplane!” and “Naked Gun” series.
For some reason, “Top Secret!” didn’t hit big the way the trio’s other movies did on the big screen. The fault is not in the film – “Top Secret!” has the same high laugh-to-running time ratio as its celluloid siblings. Nothing is too absurd for the filmmakers to think up, showcase and deftly bounce around, whether it’s “skeet surfing” (just what it sounds like – surfers who shoot skeet while hanging ten), an insane parody of folk dancing in ballroom or men disguised as a cow wearing rain boots. Every gag glides by, often supported by two or three others in the background, with magical parody timing. The jokes are endlessly inventive, knowledgeable and often completely unforeseeable – there are tinges of Monty Python as well as pure crazy schtick, and all of it is blithely straightfaced.
“Top Secret!” sends up a horde of different styles from the ‘40s to the ‘60s. It’s some time after the Carter presidency, but there’s still a heroic French Resistance fighting the good fight in East Germany, where singing sensation Nick has come to give a concert. But soon Nick is embroiled in espionage when he comes to the aid of beautiful Hillary Flammond (Lucy Gutteridge), whose father is being held captive and forced to develop a terrible weapon.
The writing/directing team plays with every gag that occurs to them, throwing in weird little asides and sight gags wherever possible. Romantic fireplaces parachute through the sky; a glance down at traffic far below shows actual mice wandering around the mouse-sized cars. Nick isn’t quite as thoroughly idiotic as the leads in “Airplane!” and “Naked Gun” – he’s more bewildered and resolute than a walking disaster area. Kilmer, in his first feature film, turns out to be quite the song and dance man, showing off his vocal skills in Chapters 3, 10, 15, 18 and 22, and swiveling his hips like the King when the occasion calls for it.
A few of the early chapters have a grainy look, but this appears to be an intentional send-up of fading film stock (the humor is nothing if not thorough). Otherwise, the picture is clear and clean, a thoroughly respectable digital transfer.
The surround sound is mostly good, although there are a few places where the dialogue gets a bit low and sometimes seems slightly separated (though never disturbingly so) from the ambient track; moreover, this seems to be the state of the original rather than an aspect of the DVD version. There are occasional discrete effects like a good crash in the left main in Chapter 11 and very precise directional gunshots (and tap-dancing) in Chapter 21, though the rears just echo the mains. There are also some nifty, precise sound effects, like the fizz and crackle of a wine glass being eaten away by a bad vintage in Chapter 9. Kilmer’s singing comes through very well – the mix makes it sound like he’s on an LP, which is no doubt the idea.
Speaking of LPs, there’s a very funny audio commentary track by the directors/writers, along with producers Jon Davison and Hunt Lowry, in which they point out everything that will be obsolete to the 2002 DVD audiences: LPs, Montgomery Ward’s department stores, East Germany (which actually still exists, though not in the form sent up here) … Other extras include four deleted scenes (the one with the apple is pretty funny, the one with the dog is not) and storyboards.
“Top Secret!” is a hoot. If you love “Airplane!,” “Naked Gun,” Monty Python and/or just inspired silliness, you’ll have a great time.