Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Steven Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies coming to theaters soon, we recommend a few more Cold War spy movies.
Mocking disaster movies in 1982’s Airplane! made a lot of money for the writer-director team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, and gave the trio enough Hollywood clout to make 1984’s rock ’n’ roll spy spoof Top Secret!—a much less commercial but in many ways more inspired comedy. Riffing on Elvis Presley musicals and cornball wartime romances, the ZAZ team reimagined the youth-oriented B-movie for the Reagan administration, making East German communists into cartoon villains while letting the impossibly handsome Val Kilmer represent everything awesome about America. Kilmer plays Nick Rivers, a pop idol who’s touring Europe with his hit single “Skeet Surfing” when he hooks up with a band of resistance fighters (played by Omar Sharif, Peter Cushing, and Lucy Gutteridge, among others) and finds himself fighting the reds. As with all the ZAZ films, the plot is just the long, tall wall against which the writers can hurl one gag after another—some related to the premise, some not.
Over the years, the Zuckers and Abrahams have taken the disappointing financial return of Top Secret! as a sign that they blew it, and that they made a too-digressive, too-whimsical movie parodying too-obscure source material. But they’re protesting way too much. This film’s their most light and playful work (even with the pre-PG-13-era references to butt plugs and enormous cocks). The ZAZ-ers string together gently surreal sight-gags that play up the artificially of cinema: using a giant phone prop to create a forced perspective; figuring out a way to make a station pull away from a train rather than vice versa; and so on. (Top Secret!’s Pac-Man joke, meanwhile, is pretty pointless… albeit funny.)
The movie’s greatest visual effect, though, is Kilmer himself, who always looks great, whether he’s bringing an audience to their feet with one of his song-and-dance routines or having an underwater bar-brawl. His Nick Rivers isn’t the traditional sullen, tortured spy. Instead, he’s both graceful and joyous. In the age of Rambo and Top Gun (another Kilmer vehicle), Top Secret! was a different kind of patriotic entertainment, one that celebrated an American hero for his skill, panache, and derring-do, rather than his brute muscle or shameless sneakiness. It’s cloak-and-dagger by way of Looney Tunes.
Availability: Top Secret! is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.