Film review: Top Secret! (1984)

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Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker. Writers: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Martyn Burke. Starring: Val Kilmer, Lucy Gutteridge, Jeremy Kemp, Christopher Villiers, Michael Gough, Peter Cushing, Omar Sharif, Ian McNeice, Jim Carter, Dimitri Andreas.

American rock star Nick Rivers (Kilmer) is invited to an East German culture festival, and reluctantly gets involved in the resistance movement against the totalitarian regime. Also, everyone in East Germany is completely bonkers.

While not quite as chock-full of gags as the directorial trio’s more famous Airplane!, this is one funny movie if you like your comedy unabashedly silly. The weird sight gags, puns and slapstick are all but non-stop, and you’ll discover new ridiculous delights upon repeat viewings. Top Secret! parodies everything from Nazi Germany to The Beach Boys, but also features enough original ideas in the area of “idiotic genius” to be much more than just, say, the rocky Scary Movie shores where David Zucker’s career subsequently stranded.

On the downside, Kilmer seems a little too preoccupied with looking cool and pretty, the sexist and racist gags are a few too many, and the opportunity to have Gough show off his dry comedic chops is almost wasted. There’s also a love story which, for all its comedy asides, constantly hovers near the spectre of tedium, and which doesn’t really suit the film’s energy. Depending on your inclinations, you may also find that the musical numbers, parodies and pastiches of 1950’s and 60’s rock classics, are too numerous, but I like them, all the more because there’s so much silliness going on during them. Not every joke is a zinger, but who cares when there are so many of them?

Some of the finest aspects include Kemp sending up his usual uniformed fascist character, the “magical reality” impossibility of some of the events and the utterly surreal interlude where Peter Cushing shows up as a Swedish bookshop proprietor, playing his entire scene in reverse. The resistance fighters – who are all French, because that’s what resistance fighters are, right? – are wonderful too, especially Déjà vu (Carter) and the chronically critically injured Latrine (Andreas). It’s also amazing fun seeing a serious actor like Sharif reveling in the opportunity to have himself joyously humiliated in as many outlandish ways as you can imagine – talk about being a good sport. But really, as in all the trio’s good films, there’s too much going on all the time on different visual and auditory levels to be accounted for here, suffice to say that the entire raison d’être for Top Secret! is to cram as many jokes as humanly possible into the 86 minute running time.

To return to Cushing for a moment, in his brief appearance he is given the chance to parody one of the classic shots from his Frankenstein movies, but following that his scene is more dreamlike than funny … it is in fact almost creepy in that the-dwarf-in-Twin Peaks kind of way. He acquits himself well, but it’s less of an acting performance than a technical exercise in being able to play an entire single-shot scene backwards. It’s great to see him, of course, but I would have been happier if he and Gough had switched roles, much as I like Gough. Top Secret! was, according to Cushing himself, the last film he appeared in before his health troubles started.

Top Secret! has a wonderfully wacky script and the performers to give it life, and if you like Abrahams’ and the Zucker brothers’ other work, like Airplane! and The Naked Gun, this film is on that level, but for some reason less well known.

Rating: 7 of 10.

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