How many movie spoofs can you name which poke fun at World War II espionage dramas AND rock ‘n’ roll musicals? There’s only one and it’s also notable as Val Kilmer’s screen debut – Top Secret! (1984). The follow-up film to Airplane! (1980), their enormously successful parody of disaster flicks, Top Secret! was the third collaboration between Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and his brother Jerry and employs the same anything goes style of that previous hit and their first film, The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), which the trio co-wrote but John Landis directed. In other words, outrageous sight gags, terrible puns, anachronisms, broad slapstick, politically incorrect humor and silly pop culture parodies.
The convoluted storyline has rock star Nick Rivers (Kilmer) going behind enemy lines in West Germany to rescue an imprisoned scientist (Michael Gough). Nick also forms a romantic alliance with the scientist’s daughter Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) and together they get involved with a resistance movement leader nicknamed ‘The Torch,’ who turns out to be Hillary’s former boyfriend (a hilarious portrayal by Christopher Villiers). All of it merely serves as the framework for serving up a running stream of blackout sketches periodically interrupted by rock ‘n’ roll numbers. Among the musical highlights are the opening credit sequence (a Beach Boys parody entitled “Skeet Surfing”), goofy original compositions like “Spend This Night With Me,” and Kilmer performing cover versions of “Tutti Frutti” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
The film also provides some unexpected but highly amusing supporting roles for Omar Sharif and Jeremy Kemp, actors who are not known for comedy. In addition, Peter Cushing pops up as a bookstore proprietor and Jim Carter, who is now well known for his role as Charles Carson on the TV series Downton Abbey, stands out in a minor role.
Top Secret! was not an immediate follow-up to Airplane! but arrived four years later. In between, the trio of writer/directors had created the comic TV series Police Squad! for ABC but only made six episodes before it was cancelled. It did star, however, Leslie Nielsen and proved he was the ideal lead for the trio’s popular double hitter of The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) and The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (1991).
The Police Squad! cancellation forced the trio to pitch various other projects to Paramount including a sequel to Airplane! which they decided not to do (Airplane II: The Sequel was directed instead by Ken Finkelman with some of the main cast members returning but the screenplay was written by Finkelman, Al Jean and Mike Reiss). Unable to decide on a parody of war movies or rock ‘n’ roll musicals, Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker decided to do a mash-up of both genres and double the number of jokes and sight gags that made Airplane! such a hit. The result was Top Secret! and David Zucker recalled in an interview for Screen Crush how they found their leading man: “We auditioned maybe four or five actors. And what happened is we went to New York and saw Val in a play called ‘Slab Boys’ and he was highly recommended by our casting people at the time. And we were impressed because he did a reading, did a couple of songs – and we thought, Hey, this is the guy.”
According to an interview for The New York Times by Janet Maslin, Kilmer auditioned for the lead role by showing up in an Elvis Presley outfit with a James Dean hairdo. Despite the fact that he wasn’t a singer, dancer or musician and had only appeared previously in stage productions, he won the part and immediately threw himself into the spirit of things by watching Elvis movies and studying concert footage of fifties rock icons like Gene Vincent.
As for Kilmer’s on-set impressions of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker working relationship, he said it resembled “the Marx Brothers directing traffic.” Jerry Zucker would serve as cameraman while Jim Abrahams and David Zucker would screen the action on a remote video screen. Kilmer recalled that “after each take, Jerry would say: ‘Wonderful. Perfect. Wait a minute.’ Then he’d go check with the others.”
Yet out of indecision and chaos can emerge something unique and exhilarating. While there is no other 1980s comedy quite like Top Secret!, it proved to be a box office bomb. The director/screenwriter trio realized in hindsight that they had spent so much time on creating a joke machine that they hadn’t developed a character with a story arc for their hero Nick Rivers like they had for Robert Hays’ pilot Ted Striker in Airplane! and the result was a series of non-sequitur comedy sketches instead of a character-driven farce.
Nevertheless, Top Secret! has since acquired a cult following and even Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker appreciate their sophomore directing effort more now than they did almost four decades later. Even Val Kilmer has a soft spot for his movie debut. He said in an interview that people still come up to him and want to talk about Top Secret!, adding “Who remembers an actor’s very first film? I’m so lucky.”
Among the renowned critics who succumbed to its sense of the absurd was Roger Ebert who probably said it best when he wrote, “This movie will cheerfully go for a laugh wherever one is even remotely likely to be found. It has political jokes and boob jokes, dog poop jokes, and ballet jokes…It contains a political refugee who fled America by balloon during the Carter administration, a member of the French underground named Escargot, and Omar Sharif inside a compacted automobile…The dance sequence in the East Berlin nightclub develops into something Groucho Marx would have been proud of. The malt shop musical number demolishes a whole tradition of Elvis Presley numbers. And how the ballerina makes her exit in Swan Lake will, I feel confident, be discussed for years wherever codpieces are sold.”
The majority of critics at the time, however, were either mixed or lukewarm like David Ansen of Newsweek, who wrote, “Like “Airplane!”, the film is teeming with funny ideas. Unlike “Airplane!”, the majority do not come off…Top Secret! is mildly amusing at best.” Still, there are those who find the movie’s schizophrenic tone and scattershot approach irresistible. Depending on your sense of humor, you may find it screamingly funny or stare at it without cracking a smile.
Top Secret! has been released numerous times on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray including a 2020 Special Edition that includes a commentary by the directors/producers and alternative scenes from the film.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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