[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favorite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
Everyone has that one movie they watch repeatedly with their families. You cram every member of your extended family onto the couch, a couple of bowls of popcorn to be passed around, and prepare to share a couple of laughs and a heartwarming bonding experience. This certainly happened with my family around holidays with the typical feel-good movies of the season, but it didn’t have the same feel as a summer at my grandma’s house watching Top Secret! Nothing promotes familial solidarity quite like Val Kilmer trying to kill himself in front of hundreds of screaming teenagers.
No wonder we’re all so messed up.
Top Secret! focuses on totally-not-Elvis rock musician Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer). After Leonard Bernstein cancels, the American government sends Rivers to perform at the East German cultural festival, bringing live rock and roll to the country for the first time. Despite Rivers’ cultural insensitivity, things are going swimmingly- until, of course, he meets Hillary Flammond (Lucy Gutteridge), a member of the Resistance. His sense of chivalry ends up landing Rivers in the middle of a battle for independence.
That synopsis may sound dull, but this movie is about World War II spy movies in the same way its predecessor is about flight disasters. Top Secret! was made by the same people who created Airplane! four years earlier, as might be evidenced by their love of exclamation points in titles. The movies have a very similar feel to them, and they both hold up incredibly well due to their reliance on slapstick rather than cultural references. What Top Secret! lacks in Leslie Nielsen and memorable quotes, it makes up for with Val Kilmer and great visual and audio gags.
Everyone in the extended cast has at least one great moment, and even the characters that just show up for one gag don’t feel extraneous. That said, Val Kilmer is absolutely phenomenal and completely steals the show. Not only was Top Secret! his first feature film, but he also performs all the songs himself. His voice is awesome and he does a great Elvis impression, right down to the dance moves. And, let’s be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy look that good in skinny pants. Mmm.
I mentioned the visual gags, and they pop up all over the place, but the audio gags are really fantastic. Several jokes are completely off-screen, without the characters even acknowledging that they’re happening, which just makes them that much better. The sound effects both on- and off-screen are absolutely perfect. The movie uses music pretty well, too, even beyond the Elvis spoofing. The music swells dramatically during very undramatic moments and is wonderfully cheesy the rest of the time. Then again, everything about the movie is pretty cheesy.
For a movie set during World War II with the Germans as the bad guys, the humor isn’t terribly malicious. Yes, the government is portrayed as evil, but most of the jokes are centered on cultural references and are mostly just silly. There are a lot of pronunciation jokes, with Rivers’ fans holding up signs that say, “We love you, Neek!” A lot of the “German” is actually Yiddish, and what actual German is present is usually gibberish.
A problem I have with a lot of modern comedies is that they all seem to have a serious section somewhere in the middle where they focus on character development instead of laughs. Sure, character development is nice and all, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the rest of the film. The laughs in Top Secret! don’t stop for an instant. Every new shot has a new gag. It’s true that we don’t get to know the characters as well as we might, but it’s more fun to be shallow once in a while. All serious conversations are still full of jokes and portrayed in an absolutely ridiculous manner.
The best thing about Top Secret! is that it’s impossible to catch all the jokes on the first viewing. I was (too) young when I saw this for the first time, so about half of them went over my head, but I’m still finding new ones to this day despite owning the DVD and pushing the movie on all of my friends. While a lot of the jokes are on the nose, there are plenty of subtle ones, and things are happening in the background in almost every shot. In fact, I noticed two new background jokes in this viewing that I hadn’t seen before. When you check this out (because you have to or else I won’t be your friend anymore), see if you can spot the intriguing book, Lesbian Bars of North Carolina. It’s surprisingly long considering the subject matter.
Next month… Xander will return with Dougal and the Blue Cat.
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING AT THE CULT CLUB
February: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
March: Django (1966)
April: Alice in Wonderland XXX
May: Troll 2
August: Battle Royale (2000)