Our review of Top Secret!, published February 6th, 2009, is also available.
Nick: Hillary. That's an unusual name.
Memory is a funny thing. Top Secret! was released in 1984 and my best friend was a projectionist at a local movie theater. This meant two things: lots of beer and lots of free movies, over and over again. Back in the day I thought Top Secret! was hysterical, as in bust-a-gut funny. Returning to it today, I think I laughed three or four times. I don't really know what about it or me has changed but it's a shame because the concept is still one filled with possibilities. The plot takes all those James Dean-influenced Elvis musicals and crosses them with the cold war action/espionage thrillers of the '60s, twisting them inside out. On top of that, Top Secret! was the latest of the laugh-a-minute type comedies from Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers, the minds behind Airplane!, Police Squad!, and The Kentucky Fried Movie. I'm sorry to say that looking at the movie today I found the jokes, sight gags, and puns all to be a little forced. There are a couple of good laughs to be sure and the movie rolls along with a silly grin on its face but it never reaches the lunatic highs of Airplane!
If Airplane! had the bland Robert Hayes in its lead roll, Top Secret! does one-up things by featuring an excellent singing and dancing turn from Val Kilmer (The Doors) as rock star Nick Rivers. Kilmer shows here why people got so excited by him in the '80s. Between this and Real Genius, it looked like the sky was the limit for him and his career. He gets the tone of the movie just right and if Top Secret! is at all successful it's because of him. Ingrid Bergman lookalike Lucy Gutteridge is less convincing as Hillary Flammond, but she certainly manages to hold her own. While not having the greatest range in the world, Gutteridge is able to get the joke while maintaining a sense of lightness with her role. She has good comedic timing while looking great. With that said, the success of Airplane! was never really found in its lead actors but rather in its deadpan supporting cast. It's there that the former film blows Top Secret! away. With Airplane!, we had Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Barbara Billingsley, and of course, Leslie Nielsen very much getting the gag and helping to push the film along. In Top Secret!, we get Omar Sharif (Bridge Deluxe with Omar Sharif), Jeremy Kemp (Dr. Terror's House of Horrors), Michael Gough (Batman and Robin), and Peter Cushing (Frankenstein Created Woman) instead. Sharif looks lost, Kemp looks bored, Gough looks like he waiting around for his paycheck, and Cushing appears to be the only one who got the joke. I don't know if things would have turned out better had actors more in tune with their surroundings had been cast, but as it stands, far too much of Top Secret! just falls flat. So much for that memory.
Moving on to the disc, in many ways it shapes up as a typical Paramount catalogue release but in a couple of key ways, it's very much different.
First up is the anamorphic transfer of Top Secret!, which retains the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio seen in the theaters. To say that the video is a letdown is a major understatement. It is pretty obvious that the source material was in poor shape because the picture is full of dirt, specks, and grain. Compound that with the overall softness of the image to begin with and those imperfections only make things look a lot worse. Add to that all the colors appear to be dull and washed out, while fleshtones don't look to be a whole lot better, and you are left with one of the weaker transfers I've seen in a major studio release in some time.
On the sound end, Paramount has taken the original mono soundtrack and mixed it to achieve a new 5.1 Dolby Surround track. Thankfully, the sound comes off better than the video. On the whole, I found the front soundscape to be nicely balanced with decent separation. Rear surround were not much of a factor but we are talking about a screen comedy and not some action opus. The mix held little in the way of background distortion but it did struggle a bit with the high end and the transitions from loud to soft was not carried off as well as they could have been. Still, it's not a bad sounding remix. For me though it does beg the question, why bother to fix something that wasn't really broken instead of doing the right thing and cleaning up the problems with the image? I happen to like a good mono mix. Criterion and Anchor Bay clean up mono mixes all the time and they sound warm and natural. I just don't see the need for a lot of these remixes and think that the funds would be better off spent elsewhere. Like fixing the damn video. Your mileage may vary.
With the below average video and the remixed sound we are talking about the standard, run-of-the-mill Paramount release. So imagine my surprise when I looked at the back cover art and found the treasure trove, at least for Paramount, of special content.
First up is an excellent audio commentary with Jim Abrahams, the Zucker Brothers, producers Jim Davison and Hunt Lowry, and moderated by Fred Rubin. If you have listened to an Abrahams/Zucker commentary before you know what to expect and they don't disappoint here. It is in fact one of the rare cases where it's worth owning the disc for the commentary track as opposed to the film itself. Where the movie falls flat, the alternate audio tracks pretty much crackles with humorous tidbits and funny jokes. I like to call it the "beer drinking" style of commentary, meaning these people sound like the kind of guys you would love to spend a night sitting with around a table swinging brews and talking about flicks. Next up are four deleted/alternate scenes presented in anamorphic widescreen. All of these scenes certainly fit in with the tone of the finished product. Their condition is pretty poor, but they are amusing like the rest of the film is amusing. Also included are three storyboard sequences that are fairly easy to use while the package is closed out by the movie's trailer.
So all in all, Top Secret! is a mixed bag from Paramount. Above average extras with below average tech for a movie that has lost a great deal of its luster equals a disc that you should certainly rent before buying.
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• Commentary with Directors Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker, Producers Jon Davison and Hunt Lowry and Moderated by Fred Rubin
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