Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top Secret!

The writing/directing team of ZAZ (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker) certainly earned their spot in comedy film history with the 1980 spoof AIRPLANE!, which remains a staple in the genre.  While it was a relentlessly silly, near non-stop parade of all sorts of jokery, what was also really funny was how little it deviated from what it was spoofing, namely the 1957 disaster flick ZERO HOUR!, but also the series of AIRPORT films of the 70s.  If you watch these movies, you'll observe what howlers they were to begin with.

In 1984, ZAZ followed up with another parody, TOP SECRET!, this time taking aim at both Cold War spy thrillers and Elvis Presley vehicles. One does not have to be intimately familiar with those sorts of films to get a kick out of this, however, and the generous amount of sight gags and puns, while not as fast and furious as in its predecessor, provide enough to entertain your inner 12 year old.

Val Kilmer, back when he was amiable and funny, plays American pop singer Nick Rivers who, in an unspecified time period (all the better for anachronistic jokes), travels to East Germany to perform in a festival. His hit "Skeet Surfin'" provides an amusing opening credit sequence.  Nick quickly alienates his hosts (by threatening to add them to the Montgomery Ward mailing list) and finds himself in prison, where he meets Dr. Paul Flammond (Michael Gough), a scientist being forced to create a weapon of mass destruction for the Germans. Rivers will also meet Flammond's daughter and his potential love interest Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) who is involved with the French Resistance, all of whom have names of familiar French words.

As you can see, the plot is more than a bit absurd, essentially a collection of genre cliches. What matters in TOP SECRET! are the gags, and there are some classics amidst the misfires. Like the visit to the Swedish bookstore, and watch that scene carefully; it may be the most creative and inspired idea in ZAZ history. The East German national anthem. The underwater barroom brawl. There are also several of what I call "perspective" gags, such as a train station that rolls away instead of the train. Or the bookstore owner's (Peter Cushing) eye that really is that large, even when he removes the magnifying glass. There are two separate scenes where a pair of boots appear to be attached to someone, but...aren't. There are also boob and penis jokes, and one prop, a special, erm, "helper" that is sure to make modest viewers blush. And those musical numbers are quite funny.

TOP SECRET! may suffer for/baffle younger viewers as so many of the jokes are very dated, like the BLUE LAGOON inspired flashback, the Virginia Slims tennis tournament reference, and the tank and Pinto gag. ZAZ are willing to mine near anything for a laugh, and with so many attempts the law of averages will guarantee a few duds and groaners. There are some slow stretches, lapses in rhythm and energy. The film was not a box office winner like AIRPLANE! and is surprisingly obscure. If you are unfamiliar and enjoy this sort of silliness, you may make a pleasant discovery.
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