WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Visiting East Germany for a cultural festival, hip-swivelling singer Nick Rivers becomes embroiled in the affairs of a kidnapped scientist and his attractive daughter Hillary. While Nick is free to give his love away, Hillary has a long-lost love who becomes found amid the turmoil of the fight against the Fascistic powers that be; but hey, it’s only rock’n’roll!
Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) is a bona fide rock’n’roll sensation, singing and dancing his way into the hearts of teenage girls the world over. He’s invited with manager Martin (Billy J. Mitchell) to East Germany to take part in a festival; what he doesn’t know is that the gig is a sham, a diversion to allow General Streck’s (Jeremy Kemp) forces to ambush the whole fleet of NATO’s subs in the Mediterranean.
Nick’s freedom-lovin’, singin’-and-a-jivin’ ways rub the warmongering Germans up the wrong way and land him in prison, but his meeting with fellow prisoner Dr Paul Flammond (Michael Gough) proves useful when he runs into Hillary Flammond (Lucy Gutteridge), the Doctor’s perky-bosomed daughter who has taken on the mantle of Resistance spy since the demise of the unfortunate Cedric (Omar Sharif). Nick and Hillary find romance in each other’s arms and the Resistance in an old farmhouse, though Hillary’s in for a massive shock when she discovers that The Torch (Christopher Villiers), enigmatic leader of a ragbag group of French clichés, is someone she knows intimately from her past*.
Top Secret! provides a perfect example of why teenagers – me as a teenager, anyway – shouldn’t be allowed to review films, because a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old me would have given this movie top marks on the basis of the number of jokes alone. Speaking as a slightly (!) older and more experienced viewer, I can see that it’s not exactly the most cogent of films.
The plot is a complete mess, beginning with something about NATO subs, moving into an Elvis-does-James Bond-vs-the-Nazis spy story before pulling in The Blue Lagoon for a cheap laugh, then varying between the French Resistance (in East Germany!) and material from The Great Escape and Casablanca.
And while you’d think that plotting wouldn’t matter in a film which is all about the jokes, it does, because any sustained amount of comedy has to have a context to work in. Think about Airplane! or The Naked Gun!: both are movies which lark about endlessly, but do so against the strict structure of a straight-laced story – the ridiculousness of any gag is emphasised by the normality of what it’s playing against. The frequently-shifting scenery of Top Secret! (what decade are we in, for a start?) forces the viewer to constantly readjust, and this acts as an impediment to laughter.
Which isn’t to say that Top Secret! isn’t funny, because it very often is: the ballet scene, the Pac-man joke, the rather well-acted bovine action, the underwater fight, even the opening Skeet Surfing gag, are all memorable, as is the very clever if not particularly funny scene featuring Peter Cushing’s backwards bookseller. However, the hit rate is both slower and patchier than the ZAZ team’s best work.
On the plus side, Top Secret! is blessed with a winning central performance. Val Kilmer may not be the most natural comedian (though I really want to see Real Genius again) but here, in his film debut, he absolutely captures the attitude of the insouciant rock star; so while he doesn’t look much like Elvis, his dance moves and voice (yes, it’s Kilmer singing) are both pitch-perfect. It’s arguable that the most enjoyable parts of the movie are actually those where the action stops and Kilmer stops to belt out a tune, especially the tender and amusing Spend This Night With Me.
In other roles, Gutteridge is perfectly passable, though she’s evidently been chosen more for her fetching resemblance to Ingrid Bergman than her acting chops; and Villiers makes The Torch/Nigel a curiously kinky character. However, if the second half of the movie works at all, it’s due to the charm of the rest of the Resistance, the now-questionable jokes about Chocolate Mousse notwithstanding. It’s especially interesting to see Jim Carter as Déjà Vu, given his more recent fame on film and TV.
And that’s about the size of it. Not a film that demands extensive analysis or extreme reverence, Top Secret! is undoubtedly a minor work when compared with the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker classics I’ve already mentioned. On the other hand, it still knocks most 21st Century spoofs into a cocked hat, and if you’ve not seen it before, you should seek it out and give your inner teenager a treat.
NOTES: Can you believe that I didn’t call him an old flame? I must have been feeling very dozy or very pun-averse when I wrote this review.