Viking Night: Top Secret
By Bruce Hall
March 12, 2013
What if Elvis had been the star of Casablanca - except it wasn't really Elvis. And it wasn't really Casablanca. And instead of a drama, it was a cynical Cold War farce involving diesel powered sex toys and an important message about water conservation? If you've ever wondered this would look like (and who hasn't), the closest you'll come is Top Secret - the completely insane mid- '80s comedy from David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, the directors of Airplane. Like its predecessor, Top Secret is mostly a series of surreal, often topical sight gags and wordplay stretched over a paper thin plot.
Since I am inherently a child, I laughed hysterically through parts of this movie. And since I am physically an adult, I sat stone faced and perplexed through other parts, the way I usually do when I watch Saturday Night Live. It’s easy to suggest the comedy is outdated or that I’m just a little too grown up to laugh at a platter of cow balls, but I think it’s more complex than that. Top Secret is a highly ambitious movie that aims high but falls short. And it's also a schizophrenic mess that bites off more than it can chew and ends up with cow balls all over the front of its shirt.
Top Secret is - among other things - the story of Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer), an American rock star who is invited to a cultural festival in East Germany. The trip takes on an ominous tone when it becomes clear that the Festival is a ruse and the East Germans (despite being a Soviet satellite state) are actually secret Nazis. To help with their whole taking-over-the-world thing, the Nazis East Germans kidnap eminent scientist Dr. Paul Flammond (Michael Gough), who has nearly perfected a water desalination machine. But the Germans have other plans, and force the good doctor to pervert his machine into a weapon of mass destruction.
You can guess the rest of the plan.
Nick gums up the works when he crashes a swanky dinner party and runs into Flammond's daughter Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge), whom the police are pursuing. Because the plot requires it, Rivers immediately falls for her and decides to impress her with an impromptu musical number. This embarrasses the High Command - who also happen to be in attendance - and lands Nick in hot water. But it endears him to Hillary, who eventually discloses her status within the French Resistance, who are fighting to overthrow the government - presumably so that East Berlin can once again be proud and French.
As Nick, Hillary and - later - her band of merry expatriates unravel the mystery of her father's disappearance, the Zucker/Abrahams triumvirate throws open their bag of tricks, assaulting you with gags as fast as Airplane did, but it never quite feels as free and fun. Top Secret simultaneously overindulges in itself and tries too hard to please, which makes it infuriatingly uneven. Some of the bits are inventive - one particularly superfluous scene is entirely filmed backward. And then there's Daisy the cow, which would have been the highpoint of the film were it not for the...um...insertion...of some painfully obsolete '80s homophobia.
I guess my point is that Top Secret feels every bit like it has three directors, four writers and at least two producers. It's trying to do so many things at once and launch itself in so many concurrent directions that it never actually goes anywhere. It's an undercooked kind of funny that works some of the time, but not often or intensely enough to make it worthwhile. Airplane had plenty of expendable content too but it was far less than this, and the story was coherent, engaging and easy to follow. The only parts of Top Secret that feel that way are the musical numbers, which are by far the most entertaining parts of the film.
Obviously the plot is intended to mock most of Elvis's movies, where he usually played a troubled, generous soul who saved lives or solved crimes by singing and playing his guitar. It's also making fun of World War II era spy thrillers in general, with a half hearted emphasis on Casablanca. And let's not forget the persistently lifeless riff on The Blue Lagoon that feels more obligatory than amusing. Airplane was also full of crass jokes and rapid fire sight gags - but it was also a coherent parody of airline disaster films whose humor was (mostly) linear and (mostly) well timed.
In other words, it was consistently funny. In contrast, Top Secret wants to make fun of everything and everyone everywhere all at once, even as it trips over itself every step of the way to do it. It would have benefited from fewer cow balls and Little Germans, and more focus on Nick and Hillary’s story. A farce without a clear target isn’t comedy any more, it’s just an annoying patchwork of unrelated inside jokes that please no one but the people who wrote them.
The last thing I should mention is Val Kilmer. While his voice isn’t quite as strong as it needs to be (for a better sampling check him out as Jim Morrison in The Doors) he CAN sing. And holy mother of Elvis, can that white boy cut a rug! And the same witty, bad boy charm that would blow Tom Cruise off the screen a few years later is the only thing keeping Top Secret afloat. With a lesser talent, the legions of aging Gen Xers and nouveaux hipsters who adore this movie would have nothing to do with it. Bottom line - if you want to see a great farce, watch Airplane. If you just want to see a great IDEA for one, go with Top Secret.