What's the big deal?
Hot Shots! is an action comedy film released in 1991 and is largely a parody of the 1986 film Top Gun. Co-written and directed by Jim Abrahams who found success as part of the team behind earlier spoofs Airplane! and The Naked Gun, the film follows a team of elite US fighter pilots battling personal demons as well as rampant egos on a top secret mission in the Middle East. The film stars pre-meltdown Charlie Sheen, Cary Elwes, Valeria Golino and Lloyd Bridges. The film was a critical and commercial success with global earnings in excess of $181 million and the film would be followed by a sequel in 1993, Hot Shots! Part Deux.
What's it about?
Twenty years ago, fighter pilot Leland "Buzz" Harley is forced to eject after losing control of his jet fighter. Tragically, his co-pilot Dominic "Mailman" Farnham is killed in the aftermath - an accident that continues to haunt Leland's son Topper Harley in the present day. Like his disgraced father, Topper is also a fighter pilot who is recruited by Lt. Commander Block to help join a top-secret mission in the Middle East - Operation Sleepy Weasel. Led by the insanely oblivious Admiral Benson, Topper flies alongside Kent Gregory who blames Topper for the death of Mailman, his own father.
Increasingly unstable whenever the subject of his father is raised, Topper starts seeing therapist Ramada Thompson who finds herself drawn to Topper despite her former relationship with Kent. Reluctantly, Ramada clears Topper for combat missions - where a deadly saboteur appears to be attempting to jeopardise the mission. Can Topper overcome such overwhelming odds to come good in the end or will he flame out like his dad?
Lt. Sean "Topper" Harley
Lt. Kent Gregory
Rear Admiral Thomas "Tug" Benson
Lt. Commander James Block
Lt. Jim "Wash Out" Pfaffenbach
Lt. Pete "Dead Meat" Thompson
Jim Abrahams & Pat Proft
Release Date (UK)
29th November, 1991
What's to like?
As part of the production team known as ZAZ, Abrahams heralded a new approach to comedy - loading every scene and shot with as many sight gags and witty one-liners as possible while understanding your audience's knowledge of pop culture to rip-off scenes from other films. Sure enough, Hot Shots! includes plenty of effort to provide laughs and ultimately, this helps make the film worth watching if you're in need for a comedy. I'd argue that Top Gun might be a soft target for a parody but this film takes that movie's sense of overt patriotism and supreme machismo and takes it to its logical extreme. Naturally, it's a lot of fun.
Sheen plays off his good-looking-but-dim reputation as Topper who delivers a surprisingly efficient performance and one that generates real chemistry with his glamorous co-star Golino. But the whole film is overshadowed by the brilliant Bridges who steps into the Leslie Nielsen type of role, a blithering idiot completely unaware of his own incompetence. It's not an easy role as keeping a straight face during such lunacy is crucial but Bridges is perfectly stoic as Admiral Benson. The film is more scatter-gun in its approach than those iconic ZAZ comedies that established the spoof genre, spreading its aim to other targets like Dances With Wolves and 9½ Weeks. Frankly, even if you haven't seen Top Gun, this film is still likely to make you laugh at some point.
- The role of Admiral Benson was offered to Leslie Nielsen but he turned it down, claiming that "I think I've done enough spoof movies with you" (writer/director Abrahams). However, Nielsen later appeared as Frank Drebin in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult in 1994 and would frequently appear in other spoofs afterwards.
- The scenes aboard the USS Essess were filmed on a wooden deck built onto the edge of a cliff and filmed at an angle to make it look at sea. Exterior shots were actually reused clips from films Flight Of The Intruder and The Final Countdown - a film featuring Charlie's father, Martin Sheen.
- Golino once claimed that the shot of an olive being popped out of her belly-button into her mouth was achieved without any trick photography.
What's not to like?
However closely it sticks to the spoof formula established by those earlier hits, Hot Shots! doesn't hit as many targets as you might hope. It feels more childish somehow and lacks some of the more insightful humour seen in earlier films. This might sound harsh but consider the witless parodies we see these days like Disaster Movie and Vampires Suck, films widely dismissed for their immature humour and out-dated pop-culture references and lack of actual jokes. This film is far more imaginative than modern spoofs but it's definitely a step behind the likes of Airplane! or even Top Secret!
I'm also not a fan of the movie's failure to stick to its primary target. Consider how films like Airplane! and The Naked Gun largely stuck to their respective genres of the disaster film and cop drama respectively. Hot Shots! should have stuck to imitating Top Gun (which had plenty of its own flaws for the film to poke fun at) and not become distracted by films beyond its remit, especially films that are better than Hot Shots! is. It's dangerous trying to poke fun at classic films like Superman because films like that are both with critics and audiences and nowadays is considered a classic. And while this film may have it moments, it's nowhere near as funny as those earlier ZAZ films.
Should I watch it?
It might not have aged as well as other films and it is definitely not as good as other spoof movies. But Hot Shots! is much better than many of the witless and uninspired comedies inspired by Abrahams and the Zucker brothers back in the day. The film has its moments and Sheen reminds us that he's actually a talented comic performer when he's not indulging himself on tiger blood. But if you're expecting a film as brilliant as Airplane! then you might find yourself underwhelmed.
Great For: modern audiences put off by modern spoofs, fans of ZAZ comedies, anyone who disliked Top Gun
Not So Great For: fighter pilots, the US military, Republicans
What else should I watch?
Have you not been paying attention? The team of Abrahams and the Zucker brothers produced some of the funniest movies ever made, not just the best spoofs of all time. Airplane! is a genuinely ground-breaking movie that brilliantly aped the endless disaster movies of the 1970s and set the trend for featuring traditionally dramatic actors in comedic roles - Peter Graves is wonderfully funny while Nielsen enjoyed a career renaissance that lasted for the rest of his life. But my personal favourite remains The Naked Gun, Nielsen's trademark role as incompetent detective Frank Drebin fumbling his way through an apparent assassination attempt that links Queen Elizabeth II, the California Angels baseball team and the boss of his new girlfriend.
Trying to think of a good parody made after the release of Hot Shots! is tricky, excluding this film's sequel. Films like Breaking Wind, Fifty Shades Of Black and The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall And Felt Superbad About It simply remake far more successful or popular movies but play it for dim-witted laughs. Sadly, there isn't a single original joke or idea in any of them - one critic claimed that Fifty Shades Of Black had less laughs than the unintentionally funny film it was trying to spoof, Fifty Shades Of Grey.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox