A film review by Craig J. Koban



20th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1984, PG, 90 mins.


Nick Rivers: Val Kilmer / Hilary: Lucy Gutterridge / Cedric: Omar Sharif


Directed and written by Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker


Anyone that says that comedy can't possibly be seen as a legitimate art form of the cinema clearly has never seen TOP SECRET.  One scene in particular illustrates this perfectly.  There’s a small virtuoso moment where two characters go into a Swedish bookstore.  Why Swedish?  Well, I’ll explain.  The two enter the bookstore and engage in an  questioning of a character for information pertaining to their quest.  Never mind the particulars, just hear me out.   A lot of people, for some strange reason or another, seem to think that if you listen to a tape of someone speaking English and play it backwards that it sounds a lot like Swedish. 

What this scene does in TOP SECRET is a small masterpiece of comic inventiveness.  The directors actually film the entire scene backwards and then later plays it forward so that the actors, when they speak, sound like they are speaking Swedish (which is then laughably translated at the bottom of the screen into English subtitles).  The technique involved in this scene is pretty flawless, and it is not readily apparent at first until a couple of shots at the end of it that completely gives the technique away.  By that time we are to busy laughing and being quite amazed.  The scene demonstrates what Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker do so well: they will cheerfully and audaciously do absolutely anything and are stopped by no barriers to make us laugh.  Their comedy inspires not only big laughs, but also a feeling of intimate respect.  For them to go to those complex and arduous lengths to get a laugh is borderline insane, but strangely inspiring at the same time.

TOP SECRET iIs one of the all-time great overlooked comedies.  It came out in the shadow of the popularity of ZAZ’S (Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker) AIRPLANE, which is the funniest film I have ever seen.  Both films are many things: predictable, corny, cheesy, formulaic, way-to-obvious, clichéd, scatological, crude, silly and dumb.  Scratch that last characteristic, the films are spectacularly dumb.  They are among the goofiest films I have ever seen, and I mean that with a high degree of reverence.  What ZAZ does is not easy. 

Like the Farrelly Brothers do now, ZAZ’s appeal and respectability is derived largely from the fact that they are willing to borrow, steal, appropriate, beg, and  adapt from any possible source to create their comedy.  Secondly, they are equally up to the task of doing WHATEVER IS NECESSARY to get or find a laugh and to get the response out of their audience…and I mean anything!  Their films play like a living MAD Magazine on high dosages of caffeine supplements.  Nothing is NOT funny to them, whether it be dog poop, Swedish people, human saliva, ballet dancers, terrorists, foreign dignitaries, famous American singers, hell, even orphans and barnyard animals (the latter being especially true for TOP SECRET!). 

Juvenile?  Completely.  But one thing remains unavoidable true: their willingness and iron-clad tenacity to inspire laughter in us is remarkable, and their timing, skill, and imagination in doing so should have them revered with the other great filmmakers of our time.  Orson Welles was a master dramatic storyteller and used light and shadow better than anyone to convey mood.  ZAZ are manic and remarkably droll misfits that use every possible item at their disposal to create the crazy and hilarious mayhem of the screen.  No one, and I mean no one, has made funnier films.

TOP SECRET, like AIRPLANE, is at its smallest core a strong satire and spoof.  Okay, Mel Brooks was doing this a decade before ZAZ became even remotely popular.  Brooks feels tame and pedestrian compared to the consistency and scale of the laughs that ZAZ presents to us.  TOP SECRET uses sight gags, political humor, modern in-jokes of the time, ethic-pointed wisecracks, and vulgar and crude humor for its effects.  It’s really an epic anthology of borrowed and ripped off movie clichés.  But underlining this all is ZAZ’s energy, style, and impeccable sense of timing.  TOP SECRET just may have the most consistent amount of laughs of any modern film. 

The film has its highs and lows, but they are always a laugh to be found at every second, crevice, and bodily function in this film.  Most modern screen comedies only dream of having this sort of consistency.  TOP SECRET never is dull and lifeless, even twenty years later.  I laugh just as much with each new viewing, if not more.  Actually, this (and AIRPLANE) is really the only film I can think of where you laugh three times at every joke.  You first laugh because it’s incredibly funny.  Then you laugh a second time at yourself because you can’t believe you laughed at something so silly and dumb.  Lastly, you laugh with a sense of whimsical and cheerful envy and respect for the filmmakers and come out appreciating their painful and tireless efforts at trying to make me laugh the first time.

TOP SECRET was, unfortunately, not a mainstream hit when it premiered at the theatres in 1984, and it did less than $20 million at the box office (peanuts compared to the success of AIRPLANE).  Yet, the film created a sensation on home video and has subsequently become a cult hit.  Why?  Well, maybe because these films have such a strong and powerful sense of self-referential comedy.  The characters are paper-thin and the plots are completely meaningless.  Yet, there is sophistication behind the comedy, almost to the point of weird surrealism. 

ZAZ juxtaposes strange cinematic and cultural references with their satiric strength and wit combined with the absolutely THANKLESS jobs of the actors to remain calm and play everything with a straight face while delivering the most ridiculous and inane lines ever.  When one character tells another, Listen to me Hillary. I'm not the first guy who fell in love with a woman that he met at a restaurant who turned out to be the daughter of a kidnapped scientist only to lose her to her childhood lover who she last saw on a deserted island who then turned out fifteen years later to be the leader of the French underground”... you don’t come out raving about the actors, you love the writers.  As David Zucker once said very appropriately, With our style, the writers are the funny characters. When people watch our movies, they're aware that somebody had to write this stuff."  TOP SECRET is one of the most self-aware films ever made.  You never once doubt that you’re watching a film with people behind the scenes crafting every minute of it.

The plot, which is redundant in this film, is about as moronic and silly as it gets (but then again, just thinking of it makes me laugh).  Val Kilmer (in his very first film role) plays Nick Rivers, an obvious spoof of American pop and rock singers (he’s kind of a combination of Elvis, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys all rolled into one).  The American government sends him to an East German cultural festival.  Any Elvis fan will get up and cheer (and laugh hysterically) as Nick, in an early scene, sings at a banquet and suddenly has all the oldsters grooving and the kitchen help dancing in the doorway, waving their spatulas.

This moment is again recreated in a Swedish pizza-parlor hangout that has to be seen to be believed and begins and ends with the funniest lines in the film.  At the beginning one of the characters says, “how do we know that Nick Rivers is NOT Mel Torme?” and at the end of the scene, when it is obvious who he is after all of his Elvis-inspired moves and antics are clearly displayed, another character looks directly at the camera and deadpans, “he’s definitely not Mel Torme!”  Another scene, early in the film, is also a moment of inspired political commentary, when a group sings the German National Anthem, with the subtitles showing us the lyrics, which go: "Hail, hail East Germany / Land of fruit and grape / Land where you'll regret / If you try to escape / No matter if you tunnel under or take a running jump at the wall / Forget it, the guards will kill you, if the electrified fence doesn't first.”  PC?  No, but very funny and it goes to show the outrageous lengths that ZAZs goes for to get laughs.

Anyway, Nick’s story becomes even more odd when he meets up with the beautiful Hilary.  They have the typical exchange when two characters meet in a film:

Nick:  Hillary. That's an unusual name.

Hilary: It's a German name. It means 'she whose bosoms defy gravity'.
Nick: I'm pleased to meet you. My name's Nick.
Hilary: Nick? What does that mean?
Nick: Oh, nothing. My dad thought of it while he was shaving.  

Hilary’s father, a professor, is being held by the Germans and forced to work in their laboratory to create the ultimate superweapon. Some agents have tried to save him but fail, such as one played by the great Omar Sharif, in a very rare comic performance (you got to give your props to Omar, he comes across as a real big sport in this film).    Nick, eventually attempts to rescue Hilary at one point but eventually is captured by the East Germans.  He’s briefly imprisoned, and in one fantastically funny scene, goes unconscious while being beaten by guards.  The film drifts into dream mode where Nick finds himself in school.  One student asks if he studied, where Nick replies, “no, oh no, I have not studied, I’m back in school.”  The film drifts back to reality and Nick wakes up from his nightmare, looks behind him to see his captors whip him.  He then deadpans, “it was just a dream, thank-God!”

Nick eventually escapes, meets up with Hilary.  Of course, no film involving an Elvis-inspired singer, evil East Germans, and a young female runaway, would be complete without a French resistance that wishes to combat the Germans.  Why?  I haven’t a clue, but its funny.  The members of the resistance all have sly and drool names.  They introduce themselves that concludes with another of the film’s big laughs:

[Introducing his men]

Du Quois: This is Chevalier, Montage, Detente, Avant Garde, and Deja Vu.
Deja Vu: Haven't we met before?
Nick: I don't think so.

Of course, the true leader of the Resistance is the remarkably chiseled Nigel, who seems to have just walked of the set of THE BLUE LAGOON (all he wears is a loin cloth!).  You see, Hilary and Nigel were once lovers, and she recounts how they first met, which is an intensely funny spoof of THE BLUE LAGOON, right down to the story and setting.  They were stranded on a desert island where the young lovers discover "strange feelings" for each other.  Oh, while that occurred, the two still managed to, as Hilary recounts, build suburban-style housing out of "seaweed and snot."  After the lovers unite, the whole group bands together for one last stand versus the East Germans.

TOP SECRET has more laughs than I could ever consider keeping track of.  I can’t honestly remember loosing myself more in a film.  Nothing, as I have stated, is off limits for ZAZ to spoof, from Elvis musicals, spy films, foreign films, lesbian tennis players, white basketball stars, American singers, East German female Olympians, and national anthems.  The jokes are enormously far ranging.  ZAZ throws everything at us from simple jokes (Hilary, when asked if here uncle was American, replies, “he was one of the lucky ones. He managed to escape in a balloon during the Jimmy Carter presidency.”), intelligent and well-crafted movie allusions (THE BLUE LAGOON, THE GREAT ESCAPE, various spy films and musicals, to name a few, incredible one-liners (a blind informant once says, “In women's tennis, I always root against the heterosexual.”) large set pieces (the opening musical montage features the remarkably silly Beach Boys spoof of SURFING USA called SKEET SURFIN’, with the lyrics, “if everyone had an oozie, and a shotgun tooooo…”) to incredibly crafted sight gags (one is incomparable -   we all know that pigeons always seem to crap on statues of human figures.  In the background In one scene, there is a giant statue of a pigeon where human’s fly on to, nature in reverse, get it?  It also demonstrates ZAZ’s willingness to put a joke in every corner of the film; you just may see something you never did the first time).

They’re just so many other wonderful moments in the film.  I think the other key to the absolute success of this comedy (beyond the impeccable writing and direction) is its actors.  Yes, they are not realized characters, but ZAZ directs them flawlessly and sensibly in the way in which they make them all play it completely straight, as if they were in any other drama.  I think this serves to heighten the farcical tone of the film and even sells the jokes that much more effectively.  Of course the film is self-obvious, but a more heavy handed approach of every star over-playing the parts would have been overkill.  When Doctor Flamond, Hilary’s dad, states at one point, If they find out you've seen this, your life will be worth less than a truckload of dead rats in a tampon factory” and when Hilary tearfully tells Nick later, “People change, hairstyles change, interest rates fluctuate”…they both play the scenes so earnestly and straight that it embellishes and heightens the effect of the dialogue.  It makes it that much more funny.  Val Kilmer does the best job, and this first film is complete proof of his remarkable range as an actor, not to mention his willingness to look like a complete idiot  for 90 minutes.

TOP SECRET is a silly masterpiece and a manic example of comic style and timing.  Twenty years after its original release, it still remains as funny as ever.  Interestingly, the more I watch the film the more I see it as something that is kind of  intellectual  and remarkably sharp and sophisticated.  It does take audacity to do what ZAZ does, but it also takes a certain perseverance of mind and quick wits to go for broke and attempt anything to instill laughter in their audiences.  Strangely, the film is sophisticated in just how goofy it is.  One friend I know says the film was just too stupid.  But, it’s funny because of its complete goofiness and stupidity.  Of course there are more intellectual films out there that are smarter than TOP SECRET, but the problem is that they are just not as funny.  TOP SECRET is a parade of all things dumb and crude, and I agreeably applaud its efforts.  And any film that has the nerve and lack of regard for taste to film a ballet the way they do commands some sort of perverse respect.


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