Monday, August 24, 2009

“We gotta mark the spot, though. Put Rabinowitz in a life raft. Have him row in circles until we return.”

Whew, glad those classy movies are behind us. Now we can get back to the lowest common denominator where we belong. 1991 gave us a screwball parody of Top Gun directed (and co-written) by Jim Abrahams, a guy involved in writing the scripts for Airplane! and The Naked Gun movies. That kind of record should be a good thing, right?

The Navy re-instates a hotshot pilot with a disregard for the rules and a dark family history because they need his skills for a risky mission. Returning to base, he bonds with his squadron, falls in love with a beautiful Navy psychologist, and competes with a rival, but all is not well on base, as a conspiracy is afoot that puts the entire mission at risk. The plot is completely and unabashedly stock for any bad/generic military movie, which is the point.

Lt. Topper Harley: Charlie Sheen is the square-jawed, stone faced ace pilot who got drummed out of the Navy for insubordination. His dad was a pilot and apparently got his wingman/co-pilot killed in a freak accident, and the guilt weighs on Topper. Topper’s an incredibly cardboard hero type, piling up all kinds of clichés and Sheen gets the job done. Sheen doesn’t really do much aside from look intently at things, but the character is so incredibly generic that I can’t fault him for it.

Ramada Thompson: Valeria Golino is the obligatory love interest. A shrink with the Navy, Topper falls for her at first sight, but she evaluates him as unfit for combat, which threatens to ground him. Another incredibly generic character.

Lt. Kent Gregory: Cary Elwes hams it up as the rival ace pilot, a cocky jerk who used to be an item with Ramada and has a reason to hate Topper aside from that. His father was the pilot who died in the incident that Topper’s dad supposedly caused. Elwes is probably my pick for badass of the film, not because he gets shit done, but because he chews scenery with a deadpan that almost but never quite turns into a wink at the audience.

Jim “Washout” Pfaffenbach: Jon Cryer plays a squadron mate with an appropriate callsign. A bad pilot with terrible vision, he’s a detriment to the squad and obviously gets drummed out of the squadron. He gets a few jokes and slapstick bits that work and a few that don’t.

Pete “Dead Meat” Thompson: William O’Leary (who was Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor’s brother on Home Improvement) is the friendly, likable, and doomed wingman. Easily the best character because he throws himself head-first into making Dead Meat so gosh darn, gee whiz non-ironic. The joke works because they broadcast his impending death from the very first scene he’s in.

Wilson: Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is the Bad Guy, a crooked military contractor who wants to sabotage the mission so as to get the Navy to buy his own fighter jets. That’s about it for him, but the actor’s done tons of voice work, including Batman’s butler Alfred.

Lt. Cmdr. James Block: Kevin Dunn (Sam Witwiky’s dad from the 2 Transformers movies) is the squadron leader, a by the book pilot who’s the one who brings Topper back into the Navy, but also starts needling him about his family history during flight maneuvers.

Admiral Thomas “Tug” Benson: Lloyd Bridges plays a scatterbrained admiral with more war wounds & body part replacements than American’s had wars. He’s an odd character because in a movie filled with intentionally generic characters, he’s still the zany, insane one who gets up to all kinds of antics. Honestly, in the first half of the film, he’s annoying because most of what he’s doing is a rehash of Airplane! but by the time he starts shooting up a funeral service for Dead Meat (like it’s a spoiler) the character’s finally fun to watch and he just really hams it up successfully for the rest of the film.

There are a couple other characters, but nobody of real note aside from Drew Carey Show and Who’s Line Is It Anyway? veteran Ryan Stiles, who plays Mailman, the pilot killed in the accident.

Jim Abrahams frames the shots competently enough, no complaints there, and the movie edits in a lot of stock footage of military things for the “serious stuff.”

There is a disproportionate amount of cheesy sight gags in this movie, most of which are just dumb as opposed to absurd. For example, the gag of an aircraft carrier with valet parking sounds like it should be a funny idea, but to me it just falls completely flat and feels like a pretentious “hey aren’t we clever? You never expected THAT on a carrier!” kind of gag.

Jim Abrahams & Pat Proft both worked on the Airplane! and Naked Gun movies, and the influence is very clearly present. Straight-faced delivery of absurd dialog, wordplay and puns, deliberate use of (and pointing out of) obvious tropes. The movie’s at its best when its poking fun at the formulaic and obvious characters of the genre, but the overall effect of the writing isn’t nearly as strong as the other movies mentioned. It feels like an Airplane! spinoff that just can’t find its footing until halfway through.

Sylvester Levay turns in a serviceable score that obviously nods to Top Gun’s soundtrack. The licensed music is also pretty standard of most of the stuff you’d expect to hear in a movie like Top Gun too.

There are certainly worse ways to spend 84 minutes of your time, but then again, there are better ways too. Hot Shots is an okay farce that, when its simply trying to make fun of the given genre’s conventions, succeeds. When it tries doing more than that, it starts straying into a territory that would become populated by the dreaded [Insert Genre Here] Movies that we’re plagued with nowadays.

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