Looking back at parody films through the years, I’ve come to realize that there isn’t much that can be said about any one film that sheds light on its entertainment value. Sure, you can rattle off funny one-liners from Airplane! (1980), or recount some of the ridiculous scenes in Scary Movie (2000), but it would never really capture the essence of these films. More often than not, they are not just parodies of one particular genre or movie, but a thousand different miniature parodies of different people or subjects, all crammed into a single movie. It’s what makes the viewing experience so enjoyable, because even when you’re watching a particularly bad one (which is most of them), you can at least find entertainment in the constant string of references and, if it’s your thing, slapstick humor. Top Secret! is no exception.
Directed by the same trio that brought us Airplane! (1980) and The Naked Gun series, Top Secret! is a film that has not gained the same notoriety that other similar films have enjoyed. This is partly due to the fact that it feels like a series of unrelated jokes strung together, rather than a coherent story. Though the plot doesn’t make much sense, it is essentially about an American rocker named Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer), who travels to East Germany for a concert only to become involved in an underground resistance movement against the ruling Nazi party. Historically speaking, the timeline is all over the place; the advent of rock and roll, the beach party scene, and some of the fashion seem to imply that the story takes place in the 1950’s or 1960’s, or perhaps even later, while the continued rule of the Nazi party in East Germany brings it to an earlier time, and forces viewers to abandon any hope of making sense of the film from a chronological standpoint.
Despite how jarring this can be at first, it actually serves as one of the funnier aspects of the film. It works because the filmmakers offer no explanation for any of it. Top Secret! is a nonsensical parody movie, so we are just meant to go with it, which makes the viewing experience much more fun. Additionally, the film sends up the Elvis Presley musicals, spy films, and even WWII films, though some of these spoofs work better than others. When Val Kilmer performs his musical numbers, there is very little that is funny about it. They briefly mock the “mania” around Elvis and his status as a sex symbol among young women, but otherwise these sequences are just musical numbers for the sake of having musical numbers.
Like most films of this kind, the comedy only works in fits and spurts. Some bits are hilarious, and others fall completely flat, but thankfully it is surprisingly funny more often than not. There are also a number of rather strange cameos, including Omar Sharif, Peter Cushing, and even a young Jim Carter (later to become famous as Carson on Downton Abbey). Though they don’t directly add too much comedy by virtue of being themselves in the way that Kareem Abdul Jabbar did in Airplane!, they make the whole thing that much more entertaining, but nonetheless perplexing.
It should be said that, by traditional cinematic and artistic standards, this is not a competently made film, or even a very good one. At times, it resembles an episode of Saturday Night Live: a series of disparate sketches, some good, some bad, but none of it resembling a coherent whole. The film meanders about, with Val Kilmer’s character bouncing from one ridiculous scene to the next. It stands to reason that the disjointed and nonsensical narrative led to this film having much less mainstream acclaim than others directed by the Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker trio. While Airplane! was completely over-the-top and had frequent gags that were only tangentially connected to the larger story, it did have a larger story to follow. The plot in Top Secret! is so far-fetched and unintelligible that the entire film, for better or worse, must rest on the merits of its sight gags.
Though one is inclined to be bemused and possibly even annoyed by the lack of sensible storytelling, Top Secret! asks viewers to suspend their disbelief more than most other parody films. While this does not always work, in the end, Top Secret! is a genuinely funny film that benefits from smart writing and an ability to completely subvert expectations.
Rating: ★★★ out of 5
Top Secret! is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.