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2012/02/19

Top Secret!

By Jav Rivera

How do you express the amount of admiration for a film that has brought so much joy to your life for nearly your entire life?  If you know every detail and hidden gem, how do you know when you've completed expressing your feelings?  How do you justify a film so weird and random when discussing intellectual films with your movie buddies?  As I sat in front of my computer pondering the best method, I finally decided to just talk about the film and let the love shine through the words.


For years, whenever someone asked me what my favorite film was, I'd say, "I have two: The Shawshank Redemption and Top Secret!."  The former would often induce gasps of agreement.  The latter, however, would usually produce the same questions I've come to expect: "Top Secret?  I don't think I've seen it.  Which one is that?".

It had gotten to the point where I could predict the success of a relationship based on a person's reaction.  Anyone who's ever seen it, more than likely loves it and therefore "gets" me.  And it's not just a film pieced together with silly jokes; it's actually cinematic genius.  So much so, in fact, that when my classmates and I were asked to bring in an example of camera techniques for one of my film courses during college, I brought in Top Secret!.  And I'm proud to say that my choice, though scoffed at by most of the class, was eventually recognized as a proper example. (Note: I presented the underwater bar fight which is available for viewing further in this article).

Not many people would associate Val Kilmer with the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team (ZAZ as they are known to fans).  ZAZ includes Writers/Directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker.  Famous for producing spoofs such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun, ZAZ's best work is also their most secret.

Val Kilmer as "Nick Rivers"
Released in 1984, Top Secret! sees Kilmer playing it straight as Nick Rivers, a young rock star from America helping Lucy Gutteridge's character, Hillary Flammond, save her father from a German prison.  It all sounds like some kind of bad movie but surprisingly utilizes several incredible filmmaking techniques: camera perspective tricks, a parachute love scene, and an infamous underwater fight scene (with purple nurples!).


And of course there's the "Swedish" book store scene.  Kilmer and Gutteridge seek help from Peter Cushing's "Bookstore Proprietor" character.  At first, it's not entirely clear what's going on in this scene but it doesn't take long for the audience to realize that the scene is actually playing out backwards.  What's more impressive is that it's shot without any cuts.  It's choreographed beautifully, shot with expertise, and well played by all three actors...not to mention a dog.  It's scenes like this that showcase ZAZ as more than a trio of jokesters.  They know their craft and utilize every trick in the book to benefit the film.

Kilmer, Gutteridge, and Peter Cushing
And the beauty of the film is that it never takes itself too seriously nor too jokingly.  It's a healthy balance of laughs and heart.  And not only do they break the fourth wall during the film, but they also play with sound, visuals, and dialogue to trick the audience into believing something entirely different than reality.  The tricks keep the audience guessing, but more importantly, keeps them captivated.  This isn't one of those movies you can watch while texting or doing your homework; it takes all of your attention to get the most out of it.

Hillary and Nick admitting to a "bad movie"
It's no surprise ZAZ was able to get a solid cast, though sadly most of them aren't household names.  From Omar Sharif to Michael Gough to Christopher Villiers, the cast works because they're serious actors put into ridiculous situations.  It's the same strategy that ZAZ used with Leslie Nielsen in both Airplane! and The Naked Gun series: play your character straight and let the circumstance be the joke.

Omar Sharif as "Agent Cedric"
Michael Gough as "Dr. Flammond"
Christopher Villiers as "Nigel"
Another surprising element is Kilmer's contribution to the soundtrack.  As he did with his portrayal of Jim Morrison in The Doors, Kilmer lent his singing voice to Nick Rivers.  The soundtrack, though incredibly hard to find, was actually available for purchase at the time of the film's release.  (If anyone has this album, please chime in.  I'll pay top dollar for it...as long as "top dollar" means under $20.)


It's funny, it's weird, it's random, and it's absolutely impossible to write enough about Top Secret!.  Expressing my admiration for this film is truly a hard thing to put in words.  The best thing I could say is to watch it...and then watch it again...and again...and again.  And don't forget to watch the credits; as with all of the ZAZ productions, there are hidden jokes within the text.  And fortunately for us, in these credits we're also treated to an encore performance by Nick Rivers.

Chocolate Mousse (Eddie Tagoe), Déjà Vu (Jim Carter), and Nick Rivers (Kilmer) infiltrate a German prison camp
For more information about Top Secret! (and incredible trivia), visit their official IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0088286

TRIVIA: In the Swedish pizza-parlor, all the Caucasian characters have vanilla shakes, Hillary Flammond, the female character, has a strawberry shake, and Chocolate Mousse, the Black character, has a chocolate shake.

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