MOVIE REVIEW : 'Hot Shots!' Breaks the Laff Barrier

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Trying to decide whether "Hot Shots!" (countywide) is funnier than "The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear" may seem as fatuous an enterprise as trying to settle that old theological question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. After all, can there be more than a pinhead's worth of difference between two films so alike in style and intention? Funny you should ask. . . .

The similarities between the two certainly are formidable. Not only are both exemplars of the off-the-wall school of comedy, tossing throwaway gags at the audience like there was no tomorrow, but both are also children of that . . . uh . . . comedy, "Airplane!"

"Hot Shots!" director and co-writer Jim Abrahams was one of the three men responsible for that very original original, and his co-writer here, Pat Proft, worked with another of the trio, David Zucker, on "Naked Gun 2 1/2."

Yet, somehow, these two films are different. One of them makes you laugh, the other, to put it kindly, does not. In the interest of consumer sanity, should you find yourself in the position of trying to remember which is which, what follows is Five Reasons Why "Hot Shots!" Is the One to See If You're Seeing Only One:

* Reason No. 1: "Hot Shots!" parodies something specific. Though other flyboy movies get a nod, Abrahams and Proft clearly had the bombastic "Top Gun" in mind when they penned this story of disgraced flyer Topper Harley who gets a second chance to be the best of the best when he joins Operation Sleepy Weasel and meets up with such wild boys of the air as Jim (Wash Out) Pfaffenbach (Jon Cryer) and Pete (Dead Meat) Thompson (William O'Leary.)

* Reason No. 2: Charlie Sheen is back and "Hot Shots!" has him. Though Sheen has not exactly made a career out of comedy, those who remember his brief bit in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" know his abilities in that area. Now, after a recent stint co-starring with Clint Eastwood, Sheen has his deadpan delivery down to an exact science--and as the regretful renegade Topper he knows just how to use it. When a Navy man knocks at his tepee (yes, tepee) and asks if he indeed is the legendary Harley, Sheen's "Once, perhaps" is delivered with an uninflected blankness that would do credit to Dirty Harry himself.

* Reason No. 3: Amusing references to other films are frequent and funny. Not content with parodying "Top Gun," "Hot Shots!" (rated PG-13) takes on "Dances With Wolves," "Diner," "9 1/2 Weeks," "The Fabulous Baker Boys," even "Gone With the Wind." Again, even pratfall humor works better when there is a reason for the fall.

* Reason No. 4: Sheen and Valeria Golino are a most engaging couple. Though the Grey Panthers may picket about this one, there was definitely something ossified about the romance between Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley in "Naked Gun 2 1/2." Golino, best known as Tom Cruise's girlfriend in "Rain Man," brings some welcome radiance to her role as the base psychiatrist who can't decide between Topper and old flame Kent Gregory (Cary Elwes), who in turn blames the T-man for the death of his father in an airplane-hunting accident years before. Don't ask.

* Reason No. 5: "Hot Shots!" has an aircraft carrier and "Naked Gun 2 1/2" doesn't. No kidding, aircraft carriers can be the source of a great deal of visual fun, and this film fills one with everything from luggage carts to leaf blowers. No doubt the people from "Gun" are kicking themselves at this very moment at such a grievous oversight, but those are the breaks.

Funny as it is for a great deal of its length, "Hot Shots!" does, however, have its share of dull spots, and watching it inevitably makes one yearn for the good old days of "Airplane!" Though "Divide and earn more money for yourself" seems to be the fate of almost every comic Hollywood pairing from Martin & Lewis to the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker triumvirate, it's the audience that would have been richer if these guys could have managed to stick it out together.

'Hot Shots!'

Charlie Sheen: Topper Harley

Cary Elwes: Kent Gregory

Valeria Golino: Ramada Thompson

Lloyd Bridges: Adm. Benson

Kevin Dunn: Lt. Cmdr. Block

Jon Cryer: Jim (Wash Out) Pffafenbach

A PAP Inc. production released by 20th Century Fox. Director Jim Abrahams. Producer Bill Badalato. Executive producer Pat Proft. Screenplay Abrahams & Pat Proft. Cinematographer Bill Butler. Editors Jane Kurson, Eric Sears. Costumes Mary Malin. Music Sylvester Levay. Production design William A. Elliott. Set designers James R. Bayliss, John Dexter, Yvonne Garnier-Hackl. Running Time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13.

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