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DVD Review: Top Secret! (I Love the 80’s Edition)

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Over a span of more than thirty years, the team of the Zucker brothers – Jerry and David – and Jim Abrahams have, individually and jointly, created a veritable library of American comedy classics.  In 1977, when audiences were also celebrating the cerebral genius of Woody Allen in the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, the first product of the trio’s writing, Kentucky Fried Movie, became an almost instant cult hit.  A collection of sketches that were as funny as they were irreverent and tasteless, it was an alternative for audience tastes that were beginning to diverge. 

Following on the Kentucky Fried Movie, the team followed in 1980 with Airplane!, a unmitigated box-office success that also received a surprising reception from critics.  Their next screen effort would not come until 1984 with Top Secret!, a movie that promised to deliver the same visual gags and tongue-in-cheek deadpan dialogue to a new subject.

Although landing short of Airplane! in terms of the script's ingenuity, Top Secret! did have the prestige of introducing audiences to Val Kilmer.  The exposure almost certainly led to subsequent comedic roles that would pay his bills, bulk up his resume, and enabled him to land the role in Top Gun that would launch him to superstar status in the 1990s. 

Kilmer plays Nick Rivers, an American rock 'n' roll sensation in the mold of Elvis Presley, a role that he plays extremely well.  The movie contains six parody songs, each of which is sung by Kilmer himself, a skill he showed again when playing – no, inhabiting – the part of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors.  Even as a freshman actor, his understanding of comedic timing and line delivery shows great maturity lending some weight to the argument that the greatest talent the Zucker/Zucker/Abraham team have is in making casting decisions.   

Rivers is dropped into a time-warped mixed salad of settings and characters, a world that exists in an indefinite historical context, set in post-World War II East Berlin but one where Nazis still reign over Europe.  Invited to the East German city to perform at a Nazi-sponsored cultural festival, Rivers comes to the aid of Hillary Flammond (Lucy Gutteridge) a member of the French Resistance, the canvas is prepared for hilarious and parodic homages to films like Casablanca, The Great Escape, and The Blue Lagoon.

Paramount Home Entertainment has added Top Secret! to the I Love the 80's collection (in the spirit of VH-1’s hit television series) recognizing its place in the lexicon of that decade's unique style of movie magic.

Top Secret!’s broad parody doesn’t work as well as what can be seen in other works from Abraham and the Zucker brothers, and many of the jokes fall short.  Nevertheless, there is something about this film that has endeared itself to me since I saw it as a teenager. Like comfort food for your senses, it is best enjoyed when your tastes are not geared to demand too much.  As a member on the line of comedic evolution that has given us modern-day hits like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Something About Mary, this film earns its place in your collection.

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About Bryan Myrick