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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Top Secret!
Top Secret!
Paramount // PG // July 16, 2002
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 24, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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In recent months, Paramount Home Video has shown somewhat of a tendency to release a barrage of similar catalog titles at once. April's theme seemed to be estrogen-fueled drama/revenge with Eye for an Eye, Indecent Proposal, Fatal Attraction, and The Temp all hitting store shelves on 4/16. May brought mob flicks (The Brotherhood, The Gambler, and Atlantic City; 5/14) and horror (Sorry, Wrong Number and two Stephen King adaptations, Graveyard Shift and Silver Bullet; 5/28). The pattern continued the following month with westerns Bad Company, Goin' South, and Five Card Stud on June 4th. Cult comedy seems to be on the menu for July, as the long awaited Better Off Dead, Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy, and Top Secret! all arrived on the same day. Their release is apparently due in no small part to vocal DVD enthusiasts on such bulletin boards as the Home Theater Forum and DVD Talk. Of those three movies, Top Secret! was the only one I hadn't seen in its entirety. The extraordinarily positive comments posted by dozens of users was more than enough for me to take the plunge sight-unseen, though my feelings about the movie apparently put me in the vast minority.

Top Secret! marks the feature film debut of Val Kilmer, following some stage work and the 1983 afterschool special One Too Many. Kilmer stars as Nick Rivers, the first American rock singer to be invited to perform in Communist East Germany. During his brief stay, Rivers finds himself embroiled in a conflict with the fate of the free world -- not to mention his newfound lady love Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) -- at stake. The plot, as expected, is really just an excuse to string together several hundred thousand jokes. Actually, it's nothing we haven't seen before. How many movies will Hollywood mindlessly churn out featuring a character that falls in love with a woman that he met at a restaurant who turned out to be the daughter of a kidnapped scientist only to lose her to her childhood lover whom she last saw on a deserted island who then turned out fifteen years later to be the leader of the French underground? Filmmakers should at the very least pretend to offer something approximating originality. Oh well.

Everyone loves Top Secret!. That's not hyperbole; literally, everyone who has had any sort of encounter with the film has fallen madly, passionately, deeply in love with it. I have a considerable amount of statistical analysis to back this up, culling from a sizeable population consisting of as many seven, perhaps even eight people. As is becoming the case with alarming frequency, I'm the odd man out. I'm the curmudgeon. I'm, uh, persona non grata. I used to think that was the stuff sprinkled on top of spaghetti, but now I know it's me.

I should probably clarify that I didn't dislike Top Secret!, though it did somehow find itself lumped under the nebulous "didn't do it for me" classification. It's not really that the jokes fell entirely flat or that I have some sort of distaste for this style of humor. I've watched Airplane, The Naked Gun, and Kentucky Fried Movie nearly to the point of memorization, after all. The gags, in true ZAZ fashion, come in an unrelentingly rapid-fire succession, so there's always something to grab the viewer's attention. This approach staves off any of the dead time that so often grinds the pacing of comedies to a screeching halt. The jokes themselves struck me as strictly middle of the road. None were so awful as to make me recoil with horror, but I somehow made it through the entire hour and a half without so much as a single chuckle or laugh. The effect of comedy is so greatly variable that if I'd watched it on a different day or with a more lively crowd, Top Secret! may have been a completely different experience. Still, I can't imagine any scenario...any realistic, legal scenario, at least...where I would come out thinking Top Secret! is among the funniest movies ever produced, a claim I've heard made all too often in the past couple of weeks. Sure, that might be attributed to my rather limited imagination, but instead of rattling on or quoting further from the 1992 Ambush Bug Nothing Special, I'll move onto the technical aspects of Paramount's DVD release.

Video: Top Secret! is just a couple years shy of its twentieth birthday, and its age is reflected in the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation on this DVD. Film grain runs rampant to greatly varying degrees, appearing somewhat natural in some shots and almost overbearing in a handful of others. Colors are similarly scattershot, often appearing drab and considerably dating the film's appearance. Also lackluster is the level of detail, perhaps low as the result of some digital cleaning. If that's the case, then such an attempt at spiffing up Top Secret!'s appearance must have been half-hearted, judging by the presence of a fair amount of dust and assorted specks. A couple of the exceedingly brief close-ups in the ballet sequence are almost unwatchable, literally so soft and noisy that it looks like someone repeatedly whacked the "Zoom" button on my remote. None of these flaws detract appreciably from the film, but Top Secret! doesn't come close to ranking among the best of Paramount's typically stellar output.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio doesn't fare much better than the visual presentation. For one, dialogue is awfully low in the mix. Attempts to compensate are met with excessively loud special effects and music, such as the transition from the murmurs in the East German conference room to the roaring of Nick's number one smash, "Skeet Surfin'". I noticed that the volume seemed to fluctuate slightly during Nick's performances of "Tutti Frutti" and "Straighten That Rug". I did an A/B comparison of "Tutti Fruitti" with the English 2.0 surround track that's also provided on this disc, and the stereo audio didn't exhibit that sort of fluttering. Surrounds get a bit of use throughout, and though they're not overflowing with activity, their presence is taken advantage of to a slightly greater extent than what is generally expected for a Comedy Mix™. The most noticeable instant is during a staged suicide attempt of Nick's around the 43:30 mark where he sticks his head in a gas oven. Dynamic range is limited, and despite some effort on the part of Paramount, Top Secret! just sounds old.

Subtitles are provided in both English and French, as are English Closed Captions and a French stereo dub.

Supplements: A bunch of folks contribute to the disc's feature-length commentary -- directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, producers Jon Davison and Hunt Lowry, and moderator Fred Rubin. Despite the number of participants, the commentary is riddled with lengthy gaps of silence, broken only by laughter at whatever's happening on-screen. A couple of cute stories are swapped, but I lost interest almost immediately and had a tough time making it past the half-hour mark.

Four brief alternate scenes are provided in anamorphic widescreen, and the quality of the presentation is roughly comparable to the film itself. The footage may look nice, but the material isn't all that great and was rightfully excised from the final cut. A set of storyboards offer a peek at three scenes: Skeet Surfing, the Night Club, and Nick In Prison. Rounding out the supplements is an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer.

Conclusion: My less than enthusiastic opinion of Top Secret! isn't widely held. For those who haven't seen the movie, I'd recommend giving it a rental or keeping an eye out for one of its many appearances on basic cable before plunking down twenty bucks. The quality of the audio and video aren't likely to inspire much giddiness for fans of the film, though the supplements are decent enough, especially for a release of a lesser-known catalog title from Paramount.
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