The now-ubiquitous David Zucker-Jim Abrahams-Jerry Zucker team didn't know how right they would be when they chose the name "Top Secret!" as the title for the follow-up to their hugely successful 1980 comedy "Airplane!"
But for a variety of reasons, this equally broad but savvy satire went straight into the same comedy oblivion that consumed their short-lived "Police Squad" TV series. (The success of the "Naked Gun" movies prompted CBS recently to resuscitate its small-screen predecessor, now airing Wednesday nights at 8.)
Despite the filmmakers' extremely high profile this summer--both "Naked Gun 2 1/2" and "Hot Shots" are products of Abrahams and one or more of the Zucker brothers--"Top Secret!" remains surprisingly unknown.
One reason it flopped at the box office may be that the vapid "Airplane II: The Sequel" in 1982 turned fans away from anything else associated with the "Airplane!" name, even though Zucker and Abrahams had nothing to do with the sequel.
Another problem more specific to "Top Secret!" itself may have been the lack of any clear sense of period, something that may throw viewers who insist on comedic nonessentials like interior logic. It's basically a parody of World War II-French Resistance movies, but along the way it also skewers '50s rock 'n' roll films (Val Kilmer stars as Nick Rivers, a remarkably Elvis-like, hip-swinging singer), '60s "Beach Party" movies and "The Blue Lagoon," among other lampoon-worthy source material.
Like "Airplane!," but unlike some of its less-consistent descendants, "Top Secret!" makes the gags come so fast and furious that any duds are gone so quickly you barely have time to groan.
Visual gems abound: Kilmer and a mysteriously beautiful Eastern European woman are thrown together at a posh dinner-dance and get to know each other while participating in a genteel waltz that grows increasingly absurd. And without a word, the filmmakers had the final say on the flammability of the Ford Pinto, not to mention the uncanny reliability of German-made motor vehicles.
In the obligatory agent-unmasked-at-the-train-depot scene, German shepherds bark viciously at the package under the arm of furtive-looking man in a trench coat. After he is led off by Nazi-like guards, a rifle shot is heard off-camera. Cut back to the package, which is now on the ground and being pawed open by the canines to reveal . . . dog biscuits.
Later, Nick Rivers stumbles upon a beleaguered scientist who is being held captive by a paramilitary group that's bent on world conquest. The elderly genius describes his revolutionary desalination machine that "is capable of removing the salt from over 500 million gallons of seawater a day" and then asks the young singer, "Do you know what this could mean to the starving nations of the Earth?"
"Wow!" Rivers says, obviously impressed. "They'd have enough salt to last forever!"
And when he is approached in a restaurant by a gaggle of tittering teen-age girls who suspect he's their favorite rock 'n' roll star, he turns their gazes of lust to mush with a painful confession: "I'm . . . Mel Torme." In the numerous musical interludes, Rivers gets to deliver such forgotten rock classics as "Straighten the Rug" and "Skeet Shootin'."
The key to "Top Secret!" is to abandon any expectation of rationality and just revel in the jokes, whether it's the sight gag about the danger of ordering blind in a restaurant where you don't speak the language, the backup vocal group that pops up out of nowhere or the chill-inducing threat of having one's name added to the Montgomery Ward mailing list.
"Top Secret!" (1984), directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker. 90 minutes. Rated PG.