At one point in Top Secret! the rock-singer hero bursts out into a little ditty called “How Silly Can You Get?” The remainder of the film may be considered an answer to this question. That answer: Very silly indeed.
Top Secret! presents an unblushing cavalcade of corny jokes, outrageous sight gags and painful puns. That said, it should come as no surprise that the film is the work of the people responsible for Airplane!, that jumbo jet of foolishness from a few summers back. They also did the late, lamented TV show, Police Squad.
“They” are Jim Abraham, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, and they’ve come up with a fit topic for their brand of parody: World War II movies. Now, Top Secret! is set in the present, and the plot involves some nonsense with an American rock ‘n’ roller (Val Kilmer) whose songs about skeet shooting while surfing have put him on the cover of every major magazine. He’s been sent as a good-will ambassador to East Germany, where he becomes mired in intrigue.
That’s just an excuse to unreel some hilarious send ups of every reliable cliché from the WWII genre. The East Germans look suspiciously like movie Nazis, and there are members of the French Resistance who are lurking quite unaccountably behind modern German lines.
Almost anything is fair game as a target for the machine-gun jokery. Midgets, East German women athletes, the Ford Motor Company – no one is immune. But the real subject of the parody is the cinema. Movie convention and style are wittily and lovingly lampooned.
Not that the humor can be termed sophisticated. But there is good sense behind the jokes, and in the rhythm and the timing of the film. There’s also a sense of friendliness. These guys may perpetrate some outlandishly dumb gags, but they’re not dumb themselves. They know what they’re doing.
War movies and Casablanca are the main source of inspiration, but the scatter shot unloaded by Top Secret! also hits such diverse films as The Blue Lagoon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Wizard of Oz. For good measure, there’s a slap at break dancing, as our hero starts spinning around the floor and bores a hole through to the basement.
What more to say after you’ve considered guest star Omar Sharif, who gets turned into a compacted car; guest star Peter Cushing, who plays his entire role backwards in the space of a single shot; or the most, uh, unusual version of the Nutcracker ballet ever? Not much, because to repeat the jokes is to ruin the movie. Better to keep them top secret.
First published in the Herald, June 23, 1984
Watched this again in the last year and yes, it holds up, gleefully. It was Kilmer’s first film, followed by Martha Coolidge’s fine Real Genius. At the time it was considered something of a box-office disappointment, if I’m remembering right, but it seems to be pretty beloved today. ZAZ came to a University of Washington screenwriting course when Airplane! was in first release, and proved how smart they were about building gags and tying them together.