WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: Ace pilot Topper Harley is persuaded back to the Navy to take part in Operation Sleepy Weasel, even though the mention of his father Buzz causes him to black out during training flights. Fellow top gun Kent Gregory blames Buzz for his own father’s death, so psychologist (and Kent’s ex-squeeze) Ramada has much to sort out, not least her own feelings towards Topper. And that’s all without the mission, threatened not only by the unhinged oversight of Admiral ‘Tug’ Benson but also by the interference of shady businessmen.
I’m not sure that you could ever talk about a ‘golden age’ of spoof movies, since really good ones have always been few and far between, the gems easily outnumbered by lazy cash-ins. However, the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker or Kentucky Fried Theatre team hit gold with The Naked Gun and followed it up in 1991 with a strong sequel, The Smell of Fear. The same year, Jim Abrahams and writer Pat Proft turned out Hot Shots!: but does it hit the mark, or have the writers, in their haste, shot themselves in the foot?
Charlie Sheen is Topper Harley, a US Navy pilot haunted by the fate of his father to the extent that he leaves, to pursue a life among Native Americans who know him as Fluffy Bunny Feet. The importance of Operation Sleepy Weasel brings Lt Commander James Block (Kevin Dunn) to his tepee begging for his return; and Topper does, to the general delight of the squadron which includes boss-eyed Washout (Jon Cryer) and ominously-named ‘Dead Meat’ (William O’Leary).
Less pleased is Kent Gregory (Cary Elwes), who blames the recklessness of Topper’s dad Buzz for causing his father’s death in a hunting accident. Their enmity is assured when Kent’s old flame, Navy psychologist Ramada (Valeria Golino), finds herself drawn to Topper, even though his paternal conflict issues threaten to overwhelm him and ruin any mission he flies on.
What he doesn’t know is that Block has brought Harley back relying on him to break down in action, since he stands to gain by a deal with devious aircraft maker Mr Wilson (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). He may get lucky in love, but one way or another Topper seems destined to become a cropper up in the skies.
It goes without saying that Hot Shots! is a spoof of Top Gun, although it’s less bothered with satirising the all-boys-together nature of Tony Scott’s film than it is with making a joke at any opportunity. As usual, the jokes are of variable quality, some great (the sequence in the Indian reservation is very funny and starts off a marvellous running gag involving a Chihuahua) and some less impressive – essentially, anything where the joke is a character falling over or hitting their heads (then falling over).
The plot is insubstantial but enough to hang the jokes on, and the cast do what they can to get the best out of the material: Sheen is dumb and handsome, Golina pleasantly full of Latin passion, Elwes assuredly arrogant and snobbish, Cryer agreeably goofy. But the pick of the bunch has to be Lloyd Bridges, nearly 80 at the time and showing all the punchiness that made his turn in Airplane! such fun. He’s the real star of the show, even if Benson is just a variation on Police Academy’s Commandant Lassard (another Proft creation), and his delivery is always spot-on (his admission to being clueless about Operation ‘Slippery Weevil’ is perfect).
Aside from Top Gun, Hot Shots! also riffs on Dances With Wolves, 9½ Weeks and The Fabulous Baker Boys and does it well; however, at about the two-thirds mark Topper bursts into Only You and the film curiously starts looking back on itself, even more curiously breaking into random parodies of Rocky, Gone with the Wind and Superman. Though not without value gag-wise, these jokes come from nowhere and don’t really mesh with the rest of the film.
The plot then shifts into its final set-piece with an attack on the Middle East and America‘s favourite (ex-) bogeyman Saddam Hussein, and there’s a definite sense that an hour of comedy was as much as Abrahams and Croft had in their lockers. In retrospect, we should be grateful that there’s a good hour of comedy here, since by the time Scary Movies 3 and 4 came along Abrahams and his cohorts’ jokes were little more than vaguely contemporary films/TV/music videos refashioned so that the characters hit their heads on something.
One thing Hot Shots! does have in its favour is production values. It would have been difficult to make a Top Gun rip-off without spending a bit of money, I suppose, but in terms of the extras used to fill out the base (carrying out drills to the Brady Bunch theme) and the technology on show, you can tell that no corners have been cut (how much does it cost to rent out an aircraft carrier, I wonder?). While this in itself doesn’t improve the quality of the jokes, it does at least mean that you’re not distracted by cheap-looking props or wonky model work as the gags roll by.
I’ve watched Hot Shots! a few times over the years and it’s chucklesome, with willing performances from an attractive cast and the filmmakers showing a real care for how the whole thing looks. It’s less good when it loses focus, and the fact that I can’t bring many verbal jokes to mind is telling; compared to Airplane!, for example, the script is fairly weak. Nonetheless, the gags are still packed in at a decent rate and I have no doubt I’ll be watching it again, if only for the joy of Lloyd Bridges and the lovely Chihuahua gag.