Top Secret!

March 17, 2020

topsecretAt 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.


Willow

February 15, 2013

willowThe advance buzz on George Lucas’s Willow has been that the film is “soft”; not quite strong enough, for instance, to open opposite Rambo III and Crocodile Dundee II (a pair of blockbusters that bow next Wednesday). The industry word was the Lucas’s “Star Wars with midgets” was shaping up as a possible summer stiff.

Some of this, I think, is wishful thinking from those envious of Lucas’s incredible success. The creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones doesn’t play by Hollywood’s rules, and he’s taken considerable blame for supposedly lowering the collective IQ of the movie-going public by dishing up his magical fantasies.

Willow, it turns out, is neither Lucas’s magnum opus nor his giant stumble. It’s simply an entertaining movie, heavily formulaic but a good bit of fun. Lucas, who takes executive producer and story credit, has fashioned a straightforward fantasia that borrows from himself and others. This is not, regrettably, a major step forward for him, but neither is it a sin.

The major inspirational sources are the sword-and-sorcery genre, a la Lord of the Rings, and the Japanese samurai movie. The world of Willow is full of evil queens, talking animals, magical dwarfs, and big two-headed monsters that live in moats. The matter at hand is a baby, an infant princess prophesied to save her kingdom, who needs to be transported away from the evil queen and toward safety.

By a complicated set of reasons, the job falls to a farmer named Willow (Warwick Davis), one of the little people who live in a peaceful country. In getting the child away from Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), Willow naturally goes through much adventure, aided along the way by an irresponsible warrior (Val Kilmer), a sorceress who looks like a squirrel, and two rowdy Lilliputian creatures called Brownies, who inexplicably (but amusingly) speak with French accents.

The movie is full of the expected high-throttle sequences, including a rather nifty sled chase in the snow, a full-tilt carriage ride, and two (count ’em) castle stormings. (It is also marked by occasionally awe-inspiring special effects, produced by Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic.) To all of this, director Ron Howard brings his customary good humor; he’s surely responsible for many of the throwaway sight gags and sardonic line readings.

Some things seem compromised by their familiarity. Lucas uses what has worked for him in the past, and some sequences correspond exactly to their counterparts in other Lucas films. As do the heroes: Willow is a shorter version of good Luke Skywalker, the pretty princess (Joanne Whalley) is a Princess Leia on the wrong side, and Val Kilmer’s wise-cracking warrior is out of the Han Solo mold.

Kilmer has also clearly fashioned his performance—hair, movements, expressions—on Toshiro Mifune, one of the world’s greatest action stars. And the final battle, fought in a driving rain, invites comparison to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (Lucas is a longtime Kurosawa admirer), though Willow suffers by the measurement.

The question is, does Lucas keep making the same movie because he’s obsessed by similar stories, or because he wants to mine a profitable formula? Either way, and as enjoyable as Willow is, this particular Lucas method seems to have run its course.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Haven’t seen it since, but this all sounds about right. How innocently promising the career of Val Kilmer seemed at the time—and Ron Howard’s too, come to think of it.