Blog-a-thons are fun events. They offer you the opportunity to do one of two things. Either you can take a beloved film and champion it, or you can use it as a chance to discover something new and exciting. For the Forgotten Films 1984 Blog-a-Thon, I opted for the latter. There are gobs of amazing films from 1984, a year that’s near and dear to my inner-8 year old’s movie-watching heart. But somehow, one classic comedy had escaped me all this time- Top Secret!.
While I knew that it was a bit of a comedy classic, I was not aware (until the film started, anyway) that it was a Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker film. And seeing their affiliation made Top Secret! something of a later life requiem for me on their career. Other than Mel Brooks and the classic silent clowns, nobody ever thinks about comedy directors and auteur theory, but there’s a clear style- and lots of success- in the ZAZ catalogue. I got my first introduction to that trio as a kid living in Madison, Wisconsin. They were local, and the Wisconsin State Journal took pride in their ‘Sconnie roots when Naked Gun came out. That was also the first ZAZ film that I saw, followed soon thereafter by Airplane!, Naked Gun: The Smell of Fear, and Kentucky Fried Movie. Eventually, I got around to their short-lived but amazing TV series, Police Squad!. Having finally seen it, I can now add Top Secret! to their pile of screwball comedy successes. (I’m not going to touch their more recent work for obvious reasons)
The aspect that I love most about the ZAZ classics is ever present in Top Secret!. Namely, you can’t blink because you’ll miss a gag. It’s a barrage of humor. Sure, some of it is plainly obvious- the litany of clichéd French names, the Skeet Surfin’ song to open the film- but there’s also a flurry of tiny jokes throughout that you’ll miss if you’re not watching with a keen eye. I’m sure if I watched it again, I’d find tens more than I saw. They also show off a mastery of the sight gag, which hearkens back to the silent clowns. And even going a bit further, at its best moments, Top Secret! comes off as an Americanized version of Monty Python. The one minor dig I’d make at the film is that some of the gags are clearly dated. Pac-Man, Ripple wine, and Blue Lagoon may not play with today’s generation. That’s no fault of their own, as those bits surely killed in 1984 and even work for people like me- old enough to remember those things. But those jokes aren’t likely to resonate beyond that generation.
There’s an extra dimension of fun with the cast. First and foremost is Val Kilmer as just a pup in his acting career. It’s his first credited acting role and it launched him on a career that reached its apex in the mid-90s. He’s barely recognizable, but perfect in his role as the American musical icon Nick Rivers. Somehow, legendary actor Omar Sharif ended up playing a major role. I would love to have heard the conversation between the Zuckers and the stately Sharif as they explained to him that he would be stuffed into a crushed car, wherein an antenna would be used as a metaphor for his sexual arousal. Even Peter Cushing gets into the action with a Lynchian backwards-speaking scene, presented hilariously as Swedish. It was late in Cushing’s career and it was only a bit part, but his presence improved the quality of every movie in his filmography.
Odd as this may sound, Top Secret! clearly played a major influence on another future popular comedy film. It was impossible not to notice the parallels between the ZAZ classic and South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Not surprisingly, and unbeknownst to me until I started to write this review, David Zucker worked with the South Park boys on BASEketball.
As with most of the ZAZ films, at least prior to 1990, Top Secret! is a must-see work if you’re a fan of screwball comedy. And it’s a perfectly worthy entry into the wave of quality that came out in 1984.