Flop Secret!

A look at the film ‘Top Secret’ directed by Jim Abrahams and David & Jerry Zucker.

It’s a cruel fact of life that sometimes, one good thing can completely eclipse all the other good things and drop them off the radar completely.

In the context of films, if you say to someone ‘Airplane’, they will immediately recall the madcap comedy hit from the start of the 80’s that put an end to airborne disaster movies. It was the ultimate comedy film and it has survived to this day because its humour is timeless, the jokes are good, the pace is perfect and it captures all those little stereotypes from all sorts of disaster movies and encapsulates them for easy digestion.

What’s more, I genuinely believe that if it were to be made today, it would be ruined. It would have so much money thrown at it and all kinds of CGI that it would be too glossy and would feel tacky. The charm of ‘Airplane’ was that it had slightly wobbly sets held together with sticky tape and a modest budget and that makes it an honest and admirable effort from all involved.

I have a lot of time and respect for that film and for all those who made it. It must be said though, that it also set the bar very, very high for anything following it and as a result, we tend to overlook other titles that are just as worthy.

You’d have thought that when you put ‘From the makers of ‘Airplane’ on the promotional material for ‘Top Secret!’, it would be a good thing; a chance for people to say, “oh wow, that was great so this will be too,” but reality worked out otherwise. Perhaps audiences were a bit confused by a mad-cap comedy with an actual story, maybe they were a bit iffy about the several very self-aware moments that the film had where it poked fun at itself as well as Elvis and espionage flicks from times past. It could just be that some people couldn’t cope with a comedy that had Nazis in it.

Unlike ‘Airplane’ which was a simple, passenger-lands-an-airliner disaster spoof, this film pokes fun at war films, espionage/spy films, Elvis Presley musicals and even mixes in a little bit of high-school nostalgia in there as well for good measure. All of this takes place in a rather anachronistic East Germany where rock and roll music can be beamed live by satellite to 85 countries simultaneously while a Nazi-esque regime rules with an iron fist, and during a frantic escape attempts, enemies can be wiped out with a well placed Ford Pinto.

There are a lot more visual gags in this film. Unlike ‘Airplane’, we’re not confined to small airliner so there is a much bigger scope for things to be going on. Repeated viewings are recommended and you will keep seeing things each time; chin-straps that stay on the soldier after he’s removed his helmet, the main character being measured up for a fully tailored suit after being denied entry to a restaurant for not having the correct attire, even people playing darts into the roundall painted onto the fuselage of an aeroplane… Just a tiny number of examples of the little background bits to look out for amongst the many, much more obvious visual gags.

And it’s not just slapstick. The writing is also coming from the same great brains that gave us ‘Airplane’ so we still have that mixture of sharp wit and sledgehammer humour in the dialogue.

The acting is just where it needs to be, not Oscar-worthy but not telephoned-in either. Established and well respected actors like Omar Sharif, Jeremy Kemp and Peter Cushing make supporting appearances to the youngest Val Kilmer you’re going to see in a film. And he does a good job, especially when you bear in mind he does all his own singing and nails a role that is neither serious nor silly. It must have taken some doing to get the balance down the middle so well.

Please don’t be put off by the mention of the songs. If, like me, you find musical films clumsy and annoying, you could be forgiven for thinking this is going to fall into the same trap.

It doesn’t.

The songs are there to serve a purpose. Kilmer, after all, does play a singer who is in Eastern Germany for a concert. They are there to add context to his character and to give a reason for people in the movie to either hate or worship him. It’s not detrimental and it never goes on for longer than is absolutely necessary.

But there has to be something wrong with it… Doesn’t there? Well, maybe. If I had to pick holes, I’d say that it feels a little fragmented at times. But fragmented compared to what? ‘Airplane’? Of course it will. That had only one thing happening in it. This is going further and is a bigger story. ‘Secret’ also can be a little strangely paced at times. Though the songs aren’t long, they do seem to slow things up a little and you wonder if you are missing out on some more jokes at the expense of a song. Fortunately, they never completely stall the film and things get back underway pretty swiftly.

‘Airplane’ wasn’t perfect either. No film is, otherwise idiots like me wouldn’t feel the need to write about them, but despite their flaws, ‘Airplane’ and ‘Top Secret!’ both deserve the time it takes to go from start to end.

A reason why you should watch it: Timeless humour that comes at you like machine-gun fire in typical Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker fashion.

A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: Your preferred type of comedy is a Dan Brown adaptation.

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