Grade:  B+
Rated PG (but more like PG-13)

In 1987, when I interviewed David Zucker—one of the trio responsible for inflicting non-stop gags on movie audiences in such zany satires as Airplane! and The Naked Gun— Zucker, brother Jerry, and Jim Abrahams were basking in the success of Ruthless People. But they were also thinking a great deal about what made Airplane! a run(a)way success and wondering why Top Secret!and their short-lived Police Squad TV series weren’t as popular with audiences.

Cult favorite
“The problem with Top Secret! was that the story wasn’t strong enough, even though the jokes were probably funnier than Airplane! or Ruthless People, and many of the scenes were far more clever,” Zucker said.  “We were very much in tune with the jokes, but the characters weren’t very well-developed. We just used them to spout these jokes. The other thing is, it really wasn’t a readily identifiable concept.  The idea of a rock ‘n’ roll singer who goes to East Germany to fight what seem to be Nazis is kind of an esoteric concept. It was surrealism, and intended to be surrealistic”—which is why Top Secret!, though not a mainstream hit, has achieved a kind of cult status among comedy fans who relish the trio’s mind-boggling juxtapositions and the way the actors somehow manage to maintain deadpan faces as they deliver those deliciously funny lines. As Zucker explained, “With our style, the writers are the funny characters. When people watch our movies, they’re aware that somebody had to write this stuff.”

Val Kilmer, in his debut film, does a kingly job of spoofing Elvis as pop singer Nick Rivers, whom the American government sends to an East German cultural festival instead of the requested Leonard Bernstein. Elvis fans will revel in a scene where Nick sings at a banquet and suddenly has all the oldsters grooving and the kitchen help dancing in the doorway, waving their spatulas. It happens again at a teen pizza parlor hangout in a scene that calls to mind any number of Elvis films. In fact, there was probably enough Elvis material for the trio to stick with those gags and keep on parodying till we’re all spoofed up. But they added another whole layer of satire on war movies and the Cold War.

How silly can you get?
Even more surreal than having WWII-uniformed Nazis in East Germany, there’s the inexplicable presence of the French Resistance trying to thwart those goose-stepping evil-doers on the east side of the Berlin wall. Lucy Gutteridge, a ringer for a young Donna Reed, plays Hillary, the Elvis-flick damsel in distress whose professor-father is being held by the Germans and forced to work in their laboratory. Agents trying to find him fail, and one of them (Omar Sharif in a rare comedy appearance) suffers a fate worse than the Edsel. Nick gets involved and becomes a target of the (top) secret police and later hooks up with the Resistance, led by The Torch (Christopher Villiers)—who turns out to be an old flame of Hillary’s. He was her first love, in fact, recounted for us in a hilarious parody of The Blue Lagoon, during which the young lovers discover “strange feelings” and build suburban-style housing out of “seaweed and snot.” Bonanza is also briefly spoofed, as are lesbian tennis players, white basketball players, East German female Olympians, national anthems, and the Beach Boys’ surfin’ USA craze.

The melody of the hilarious East German anthem sung in this film was actually the hymn from Shorewood High School (near Milwaukee), the Zuckers’ alma mater. During his concert appearance, Nick sings “How Silly Can You Get,” which could serve as the movie’s anthem. Jokes range from clever movie allusions and witty one-liners to sophomoric sight gags where, for example, a giant statue of a pigeon in the park is visited by flying miniature humans who land on it, or a freedom fighter throws himself on a grenade and all of his comrades around him are blown up while he remains intact.

Still one of their best comedies
Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker were being entirely too hard on themselves. Moviegoers may not have been ready for a wild comedy concept film like this in 1984, but Top Secret! has since gotten high marks from Rottentomatoes critics and viewers (75 and 80 percent “fresh”) and earned a solid 7.2/10 at Fans of Airplane! and The Naked Gun should be glad to add this one to their collections because it’s the same style of expansive rapid-fire comedy and close to the same caliber as those two top-rated jokefests. It’s certainly funny enough for repeat play. The ballet scene alone is hysterical.

But be advised that there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments and addictively quotable lines. Your kids will probably start repeating some of the gags, as when Hillary says “I know a little German . . .” spoken in conversation about the language barrier, but then quickly adds, pointing to a short man wearing lederhosen, “. . . he’s sitting over there.”

Zucker said that they devised their rapid-fire brand of comedy when they created Kentucky Fried Theater as college students in Madison, Wis. Since it was a low-budget affair and they had to perform their own material, they didn’t want to stand onstage and NOT get laughs. They found it was easier to keep an audience laughing than to try to start them up again. Not all of the gags are successful, but when they come at you as fast as they do, you’re prone to laugh. That was the plan, and it seems to work.

If you watch it with younger viewers, you might start with a formula Elvis movie or two. 

Top Secret! releases on May 17, but Amazon is selling it for $14.99 as of today.

Entire family:  Not really (10 and older?)
Run time: 90 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 Widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Paramount
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital Code
Amazon link
Rated PG in 1984 but would be PG-13 today for some strong language, nudity, and sexual situations/innuendo

Language:  4/10—Fewer than two handsful of four-letter words, and no f-bombs

Sex:  7/10—Some frontal nudity, sexual situations, innuendo, and sex-talk, but no worse than Airplane! or The Naked Gun; a cow feeds off the udder of a man in the back end of a cow costume and he acts a bit orgasmic; the opening sequence laughs are based in part on a woman’s large breasts; an obviously naked (nothing critical is shown) man and woman are seen kissing and it’s implied they are having sex; a bizarre sex toy called the Anal Intruder turns up in one scene; male ballet dancers have rather large below-the-waist bulges; a woman sees a man in loincloth and measures him, off-camera; a topless woman is seen on a calendar

Violence:  2/10—There are fights and grenades and war scenes but everything is played for laughs and nothing much is shown

Adult situations:  2/10—Wine is served at a restaurant, there’s some smoking, a joke made about a “tampon factory,” and Nick sings a romantic/suggestive song to a very young teenage girl

Takeaway:  Top Secret! may be at the top of my Most Underrated Films of All Time list. It’s quite funny . . . still