When it comes to parody films, nobody has quite matched the prowess of ZAZ, the name for Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker. The exception is perhaps Mel Brooks, but we can have a big debate over whether his body of work surpasses the trio who gave us Naked Gun, Airplane! and Hot Shots. And this film, both among the funniest slapsticks ever made and one of the genre’s biggest flops. Then again, that just goes to show: people in 1984 didn’t know anything.
Comedy is not easy to write and parodies are perhaps the most challenging of the lot. With other comedies you can get away with pretty one-tone gags: Wes Anderson films loves wry, cynical observations while Adam Sandler films like to poke our inner child. Jim Carrey cannot make money if he doesn’t contort his face and John Cleese won’t get paid if his doesn’t stay straight. But a good parody has to run the gauntlet, delivering everything from witty wordplay to outrageous physical gags. It’s the world where Leslie Nielsen can deadpan “Don’t call me Shirley” and then punch a nun. It’s hard, which is why so many (especially new) parody films just suck.
But the world isn’t fair. If it were, Scary Movie 5 would be set on fire and Top Secret! would have been a huge success. As it stands, this quirky take on spy films was a massive bomb and nearly sank ZAZ. Yet as far as parodies go, Top Secret! was as pure as it got – yes, even trumping Mel Brooks. When an American rock ‘n roll singer arrives in an East Germany run by an amalgamated cliche of Nazi and Russian overlords, he soon finds himself caught in a drama of super weapons, dangerous spies and women whose bosoms defy gravity. It sets up a rollercoaster where actors move smoothly from gags like the prop room (a room full of airplane props) to wordplay (“I know a little German – he’s sitting over there.”). Flying people pee on the statues of pigeons, surfers take up skeet shooting (at the same time), cowboys fight underwater, bookshops operate backwards and you will resist the temptation to call every big, bearded black man “Le Chocolate Mousse”.
As mentioned, Top Secret! failed badly, bringing in less than even the Airplane! or Hot Shots sequels. But that is an incredible shame, as this was arguably the most pitch-perfect parody film ever made. Even today Top Secret! is timeless, something that very few movies in the genre could ever hope to achieve. And at the very least, you’ll learn the worlds to the East German national anthem:
Hail, hail East Germany
Land of fruit and grape
Land where you’ll regret
If you try to escape
No matter if you tunnel under or take a running jump at the wall
Forget it, the guards will kill you, if the electrified fence doesn’t first.
Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.
Last Updated: November 25, 2013