We generally regard Airplane! as the masterpiece of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker school of filmmaking: the kind where you just machine-gun gags at the audience with no thought for plausibility or causality. It’s a brilliant film, and certainly looks a lot better these days than the airport disaster movies it mocked. But I maintain that the filmmaking trio actually reached perfection a few years later, with the comparatively little-seen Top Secret! (It bombed like the Enola Gay when it first appeared, though time has earned it a modest cult following.) Unlike its predecessor, it isn’t content just to skewer one genre. It mashes two of them together, and in the process creates something approaching a work of genius.
The two genres – World War II spy pictures and Elvis Presley musicals – are both ripe for a pasting. Moreover, they make strangely appropriate bedfellows, especially when you plop Val Kilmer in the lead (his first major film role) and let him save democracy between increasingly bizarre musical numbers. He plays Nick Rivers, an American pop star travelling to Communist East Germany as part of a cultural festival masking a military move against NATO. The plot is agreeably convoluted (it includes, for some reason, a heavily armed French Resistance cell in a farmhouse outside town), and Nick jumps right into the middle of it when he inadvertently helps a beautiful resistance member (Lucy Gutteridge) in distress.
It starts out as nonsense – the most beautiful nonsense you’ll see -- and kicks into overdrive whenever Nick stops with the amateur spy shtick to swivel his hips and croon like the King. You could imagine a more serious version of this cropping up in the 60s somewhere – produced by Colonel Parker, natch – with the plot left more or less intact. The directing trio did as much with Airplane! (based note-for-note on a straight-up thriller called Zero Hour!) and their knack for retaining just enough familiarity to tug at our memories serves them very well here. They need only throw in a few puns, find some supremely silly visual gags (my favorite: the German commandant with a rubber stamp that says “find him and kill him”), and let the movie do its thing.
As with the other efforts in the directors’ canon, they aim to overwhelm us with the sheer volume of jokes on display. Some of them are quite inspired (such as the sequence with the late Peter Cushing in one of his final roles); others a little more predictable. But a good 80-85% of them hit the nail right on the head, and the rest are such minor misfires that their passage occurs without note. (Besides the basics, Top Secret! also takes some very broad swipes as The Blue Lagoon and Frankie-and-Annette beach movies, similarly broad targets that make for marvelous comedy.)
That, at the end of the day is the first and only purpose of the exercise. As long as we laugh – particularly as consistently and hard as we do here – the film can do no wrong. The directing trio took basic cues from Monty Python’s brand of absurdity, along with the British troupe’s willingness to abandon any concept once it’s outlived its usefulness. And like Airplane!, Top Secret! expresses a profound love of the movies. A film like this can only come from people who adore the medium as no other, and the laughs are all the larger for the glowing fondness at their heart. It helps Top Secret! stand up to viewing after viewing, even after we’ve learned all the beats by heart. Like its hero asks, “how silly can you get?” You’ll never have as much fun discovering the answer as you do here.