Should I Watch..? 'Top Secret!'
What's the big deal?
Top Secret! is an action comedy spoof released in 1984 and is the second film directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, the team behind Airplane!. This time, the film is a parody of World War 2 spy films as well as the musical films of Elvis Presley and concerns a rock and roll singer in East Germany who finds himself mixed up with the local French Resistance. The film stars Val Kilmer is his cinematic debut, Lucy Gutteridge, Christopher Villiers and Jeremy Kemp as well as a number of cameos from the likes of Peter Cushing, Omar Sharif and Jim Carter. Although the film received a warm reception from critics, it was considered a box office bomb with domestic earnings of just $20.4 million. The directing trio known as ZAZ would later go on to have more success with The Naked Gun series of films before going their separate ways.
What's it about?
Rock and roll pioneer Nick Rivers travels with his manager to East Germany (which retains many aspects of Hitler's regime) to perform at a cultural festival put on by the authorities. However, the festival is designed to divert attention away from a military operation designed to reunite Germany under a revived Third Reich. Rivers, knowing little of the culture, attends a dinner where he stumbles into the company of Hillary Flammond, a member of the local French Resistance. Seeing that she is in trouble with the authorities, they quickly escape.
Bumping into each other again at a ballet, Rivers finds himself arrested after helping Hillary to flee once again. While incarcerated, he discovers Hillary's scientist father who has been coerced into making a superweapon for the Nazis whilst believing his daughter to be in custody. After a performance at the festival, Rivers meets up with Hillary and tells her that her father is still alive. Soon, Nick finds himself working with the Resistance in order to free Dr Flammond alongside the likes of Déjà Vu, Chocolate Mousse and the leader of the Resistance - Nigel The Torch, Hillary's childhood lover.
Nigel - The Torch
Swedish Bookstore Proprietor
Dr Paul Flammond
Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker
Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker & Martyn Burke
Release Date (UK)
5th October, 1984
Action, Comedy, Musical
What's to like?
Anyone who enjoyed the manic comic pace of Airplane! or The Naked Gun will be delighted to know that things are exactly the same here. The film employs a variety of sight gags, slapstick, witty dialogue and zany humour to extract as many laughs as possible from the material and most of the time, the film is a riot. Kilmer impresses as Nick Rivers, displaying a great sense of comic timing that we rarely see these days. Alongside a supporting cast that throws caution to the wind, the film delivers a wacky war film that dispenses with any sense of logic or cohesion. It exists purely to make you laugh and it succeeds.
However, there is more to it than that. The musical numbers, often reworded versions of songs like Presley's Are You Lonesome Tonight? as well as original compositions like Skeet Surfin', are brilliant although you'll struggle to catch all of the lyrics because you're laughing so much. It also feels more inventive than Airplane! - take the famous scene in the Swedish bookstore that was filmed in reverse but played forward in the film, still with plenty of sight gags on show. If you suit this kind of goofy humour then Top Secret! will more than tickle your funny bone.
- Although the film marked Kilmer's cinematic debut, it was the last appearance in an American movie for Peter Cushing. Incidentally, the extensive prosthetics Cushing wears required a life-mask of his face. This mask was used again for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to help the film-makers digitise Cushing's face for the role of Grand Moff Tarkin.
- Much of the German spoken in the film is actually Yiddish. For example, the train conductor asking for tickets is roughly saying "may you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground."
- The surfing sequences were actually shot in Holywell Bay in Cornwall, a few miles down the road from popular UK surfing destination Newquay. The surf shack is actually the lifeguard's hut which is still there.
What's not to like?
Whether it's the passing of time or the increasing maturity of this viewer (well, relatively speaking), Top Secret! isn't quite as ground-breaking as its airborne predecessor. Some of the humour has dated quite badly such as the somewhat suggestive love song Rivers sings to a girl who looks to be about 12. The film occasionally strays from being saucy to being downright sordid and illustrates the apparent lure for comedic films from Hollywood towards being overly bawdy. The woman on the beach who leaves two craters in the sand where her boobs were is saucy - being sucked off by a calf before being sodomised by a bull is too far in the other direction.
What also works against the film is the somewhat confusing setting. Yes, I know that it's a spoof and not a documentary - nobody is going to watch this film for the narrative. But the combination of World War 2 with Fifties' surf movie musicals is slightly jarring although it doesn't distract too much. But it maybe prevents audiences from investing in the film too much. If Elvis had decided to do a war film then I suspect it might have looked a little like this but as it is, Top Secret! exists in a world of its own and without an invite, you'll end up confused and excluded.
Should I watch it?
It's unfortunate that the film exists alongside iconic parodies such as Airplane! because Top Secret! is a genuinely funny film, albeit one which doesn't quite hit the heights ZAZ had already attained. But the film's hilarious soundtrack, it's relentless pursuit of a laugh and the performances from the cast (Kilmer especially) make the film far greater than you might suppose. Ironically, the film has become something of a secret gem itself and one that any fans of parody films owe to themselves to watch.
Great For: fans of Zucker, Abraham & Zucker, anyone looking for a laugh, immature audiences
Not So Great For: historical accuracy, overly sensitive people
What else should I watch?
Spoof films are a fairly rare breed and finding a good one is even rarer. Generally speaking, ZAZ are the acknowledged masters of the sub-genre with the aforementioned Airplane! widely considered the best of all time. Recruiting Leslie Nielsen again for their TV show Police Squad (which was criminally cancelled after just six episodes), incompetent detective Frank Drebin would return in The Naked Gun - a film so good that it would spawn two sequels, although these follow the Law of Diminishing Returns in terms of quality.
These days, parody films aren't as focused as earlier efforts and often target whatever films happen to be successful at the time, regardless of genre. Such critically reviled efforts like Disaster Movie and Epic Movie have such a scattershot approach to comedy that nothing is funny and display a chronic shortfall in wit and imagination. Probably the last great spoof was Hot Shots! which isn't much of a surprise knowing that Jim Abrahams directed this as well. Taking aim at action movies like Top Gun, the film doesn't exactly shoot it between the eyes but it does hit the target more often than not.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox