Top Secret! (1984)

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Released 26-Nov-2002

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Comedy Audio Commentary
Deleted Scenes-4
Storyboards-3
Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1984
Running Time 86:24
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (52:35) Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Programme
Region Coding 4 Directed By Jim Abrahams
David Zucker
Jerry Zucker
Studio
Distributor

Paramount Home Entertainment
Starring Val Kilmer
Lucy Gutteridge
Peter Cushing
Jeremy Kemp
Omar Sharif
Case ?
RPI $24.95 Music Maurice Jarre
Mike Moran


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
German Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
French Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Hungarian Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Czech Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
English for the Hearing Impaired
Slovenian
French
German
Swedish
Danish
Norwegian
Finnish
Dutch
Bulgarian
Icelandic
Portuguese
Hebrew
Greek
Croatian
Arabic
Turkish
Polish
Italian
Spanish
Romanian
Czech
Hungarian
English Audio Commentary
French Audio Commentary
German Audio Commentary
Italian Audio Commentary
Spanish Audio Commentary
French Titling
Italian Titling
Spanish Titling
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes, Val Kilmer singing over latter half of credits

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Does anyone know a little German?... Repeat after me: "There is sauerkraut in my lederhosen!"....... "Is your daughter 18?"...... "I want a schooner with my wiener schnitzel!"......

    Top Secret! is the quintessential silly comedy from writer/director/producer trio Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker. After developing their writing skills a bit on the fairly ordinary Kentucky Fried Movie in 1977, a film they did not direct nor produce, and then developing their own whole new brand of comedy in the famous spoof Airplane! (aka Flying High) in 1980, the trio were certainly a well-oiled machine by the time they got to Top Secret! four years later. (Note that many people fail to realise Abrahams/Zucker had nothing to do with Airplane II: The Sequel (or Flying High II), released in between this time in 1982.)

    If you are familiar with the comedy of Flying High - and let's face it, you would have had to have been on another planet during the 1980s not to be! - then the trademark Abrahams/Zucker style of comedy needs no real introduction; it is quite simply satire at its silliest. But whereas their first project, Airplane!, needed to introduce the trios' new style of comedy to the audience and was aimed fairly and squarely at satirising one specific genre of films, by the time the team got to Top Secret! four years later, the audience was well aware of what to expect and the writer/director trio had a lot more freedom to just have fun themselves.

    How to sum up the plot? Hmmm, well I think the whole thing is perhaps just best summed up by the theatrical trailer, which describes Top Secret! rather eloquently and exhaustively as "...a film"!  The directors readily admit themselves that there is very little plot to speak of in this movie. Rather, it's just a very loose storyline used as a vehicle to link together a whole series of gags that they wanted to do. The actual idea behind Top Secret! started out when one of the trio wanted to do a spoof of World War II German spy films and another was busy having fun writing a spoof of B-grade Elvis films. Finding both genres equally funny and not being able to choose between the two, they eventually decided "what the hell" and combined the stories to parody both genres together; not an easy task! On top of this, they've also managed to squeeze in satirical references to numerous other well-known film styles along the way. Nothing from The Great Escape to The Blue Lagoon to The Wizard of Oz is safe.

    The story basically revolves around Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer), a 1950s style American rock and roll singer who is invited by the East Germans to perform at a cultural festival as a last minute replacement for Leonard Bernstein, who is unable to attend. Once in Germany, the cocky young rock star meets up with Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge), the daughter of famous scientist Dr Flammond, who is held prisoner by the German High Command. Nick and Hillary employ the help of the French Resistance to help rescue Dr Flammond and this is where the fun really begins. If you think it's just the Germans that cop all the stereotyping and parodying in this film, then you'll just love the characters of the French Resistance. This band of rough-cut fighters include the likes of Du Quois, Chevalier, Montage, Detente, Avant Guard, Deja Vu, Croissant, Souffle, Escargot, Chocolate Mousse and the injury-prone Latrine!...

    A fascinating aspect to this film is the fact that it is Val Kilmer's very first starring role in a Hollywood movie. Hard to think of him now as being the new boy, after he's gone on to have such a successful career since, but this is indeed the movie that launched that career. It is definitely worthwhile revisiting Top Secret! for this reason alone. Even in his very first role, you can see that all the trademark Val Kilmer acting traits are there. He manages to stay very cool and suave amongst all the craziness going on around him and he is clearly having fun as he treads the fine line between hamming it up and playing it deadpan. His style really does suit the character as the suave, brash, pin-up boy rock and roll star - great casting for an unknown. Plus, he really does have a great singing voice and you have to keep reminding yourself that it is really him singing all the songs in this movie so well. It's not hard to see why he was the perfect choice to go on and play Jim Morrison in The Doors seven years later - he is indeed a talented actor.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    The video transfer for this film is a bit variable, but overall, is a very decent transfer effort.

    Firstly, and thankfully, we have been delivered a decent aspect ratio, 1.78:1 and 16x9 enhanced. This is the first big sigh of relief. After having suffered through the abominable Pan and Scan videocassette version of this movie numerous times in the past, it is great to see the whole action on screen this time around, without resorting to arbitrary cropping of the shot or aggressive pans to try and fit the jokes on the screen. A great example of this is the scene when Nick Rivers is lined up in front of the firing squad at 38:00. This new widescreen transfer shows the full scope of the scene, including the firing squad and the old lady both on the left hand edge of the shot and the ringing telephone in the foreground on the right hand side. On the previously available Pan and Scan videotape version, both the old lady and the ringing telephone simply can't be accommodated in the same 1.33:1 frame, with the result that one side has to be cropped off and then eventually panned into shot when the old lady moves across the screen. Consequently, this joke is just completely destroyed in Pan and Scan. Full marks to Paramount for delivering us a proper widescreen aspect ratio with this DVD transfer.

    The resolution of the transfer itself is somewhat variable, but this appears to be more a source issue than any complaint about the mastering process itself. The film print is dated and, whilst it appears to have been maintained and restored fairly well, this was not a big budget film in the first place and it was not shot on high quality film stock. The quality of this source film stock is very much reflected in the transfer to DVD.

    Sharpness, shadow detail, foreground and background resolution are all accordingly a bit variable. The opening shot of the film is a night time shot of an approaching train and is very grainy, which does not bode well for the rest of the transfer. However, once past this opening sequence, things do improve notably. In fact, I found the resolution of the image continuing to improve as the film progressed. Note that close-ups of most faces do reveal a softness in resolution, but again this is due to the source material rather than the transfer. Overall, sharpness and foreground resolution in this transfer is in fact quite satisfactory throughout, marred only by a little low level noise in some of the lower-lit scenes. Shadow detail and background resolution is also for the most part quite acceptable, which is important in a movie where many side-gags are taking place behind the characters, in the background.

    Colours are quite well restored and rendered for a film of this age. For the most part, the colours are adequately saturated - if not exactly leaping out of the image with vibrancy - and skin tones are fine.

    There are no MPEG artefacts. Film-to-video artefacts are only minor and not distracting. Examples include a couple of very brief image flickers due to what appears to be a couple of isolated instances of very brief telecine slippage (blink and you'd probably miss the image flicker anyway) and some very trivial aliasing, like that along the edges of the stage underneath the ballet performers at 26:30, for example. Film artefacts are restricted to the odd little film flecks on the print here and there, which is as you may expect for a film of this age. Indeed, I was actually expecting a lot more little film flecks and marks, soit must be said that the producers of this DVD really have done a pretty decent job restoring an old print.

    Does this DVD have subtitles? You bet!  More than you can poke a stick at, in fact. With a total of 8 audio languages and 32 subtitle tracks to chose from, this disc boasts the maximum number of language and subtitle tracks that DVD is capable of. So unless you speak Swahili, I doubt you will be wanting for a  language track here!  I sampled the English subtitle track for about half the movie and found it to be fairly accurate, only missing out the odd word here and there, but getting the gist across perfectly. The subtitles are also fairly well timed.

    This disc is RSDL formatted, with the layer change occurring at 52:35. Unfortunately this is mid scene, when Nick and Hillary are meeting the French Resistance, but nonetheless it is not overly distracting.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    As stated above, there is certainly no shortage of audio tracks on this disc, with eight of them to choose from. I listened to the default English Dolby Digital 5.1 track (448 Kb/s). It is a quite decent audio transfer effort, considering the audio recording's age and quality.

    Firstly and most importantly for this film, dialogue quality is perfectly clear and easy to understand at all times. There are no notable instances of excessive audio hiss (well, no more than would be expected inherent in the source), audio dropouts or other audio problems. Nor did I note any objectionable issues with the audio sync. The only issue I have in respect of the dialogue is the relativity of the dialogue volume compared with the music in this audio track (discussed below). Certainly a better effort could have been made with the mixing volumes for the final audio mix.

    The musical score for this film is by Maurice Jarre, and quite good it is too, although relatively sparse. More important though are the songs in this movie, adapted skilfully by Mike Moran. These are a riot, from the very opening Beach Boys parody song, "Skeet Surfing", to a straight but funny version of "Tuti Frutti", to such classics as "Are You Lonesome Tonight (the "Shop At Macey's" version!)" to the fun of "How Silly Can You Get" and "Straighten Out The Rug". This makes for a great movie soundtrack.

    As mentioned above, though, the songs in this DVD audio track appear to have been mixed in unnecessarily loud. I'm putting this down to the fact that the songs have been more obviously touched up and re-mixed using 5.1 for the DVD release, whereas the rest of the movie, being largely dialogue-driven, is fairly lacklustre in the surrounds. This means that if you have the volume set at a level such that the dialogue and audio effects volume is nice and clear, then when the songs jump in in full 5.1 they tend to blast you out of the lounge room! (See "Tutti Frutti" or "Straighten Out The Rug" for examples.)  It's a case of either leave the volume turned down a bit so the songs don't blast you away, in which case you run the risk of missing some of the more subtle references in the audio track, or keep adjusting the volume up and down for the songs, or just put up with it. This is a bit annoying.

    Being an early 1980s, low budget comedy film, you would not expect the original audio recording for this movie to be a fully immersive surround sound aural attack, and the surround activity on this DVD release is nothing to write home about accordingly. Billed as a "Dolby Digital 5.1 mix", I would more carefully categorise this DVD as having a "Dolby 2.0 Surround" audio soundtrack, with some additional re-mixing in of the music as Dolby Digital 5.1. Surround activity for the movie itself is largely limited to some ambient effects and the odd background embellishment. Whilst the sound stage is very front-weighted, that's not to imply it is a flat audio track at all, as there are definitely some nice left to right pans and directional effects across the front, with just enough use of the surrounds to give the soundstage a little depth. I am actually very pleased that the producers of this DVD opted for only a touch-up of the original source audio, and resisted any temptation to do a whole new 5.1 re-mix, as this would have only sounded out of place for this movie. Now if only they'd gone a bit lighter on the mixing in of the songs...

    Subwoofer use is moderate and is limited mainly to just filling out the low-end of the music for the front main speakers, commensurate with this being more a "Dolby 2.0 Surround" effort than with any substantial information having been encoded for a discrete subwoofer channel. I did notice many sound effects lacking a touch in impact (see the opening scene where the German Colonel crashes through the tunnel).

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    There are a number of extras on this disc which add to the appreciation of the movie.

Menus

    Like all the extras, all menus are thankfully presented in 1.78:1 and 16x9 enhanced, so there is no annoying flicking back and forth between widescreen and 1.33:1. None of the menus have animation or audio underscore. It takes quite a while (on my player) navigating between the menu screens, and I'm putting this down to the fact that this DVD has so many audio languages and subtitle tracks. With all these titles/chapters for the player to negotiate, you have to be very patient moving between screens.

Theatrical Trailer

    Presented in 1.78:1, 16x9 enhanced and 2-channel audio, the quality of the trailer is not great, with only an average effort put into restoring the original trailer. It's grainy and the colours fade in and out a bit, but it's very interesting to see the original theatrical trailer nonetheless, so it is a worthy inclusion as an extra.

Group Commentary - Directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker; Producers Jon Davidson and Hunt Lowry; and moderator Fred Rubin

    Quite a cast assembled for this group commentary!...

    This is clearly the pick of the extras and the one that most fans of this film will be looking forward to hearing. Unfortunately, I have to report to you that it's not the most insightful commentary I've ever heard in the history of DVD. It seems more like a trip down memory lane for the directors than anything else and they appear to be having a great time reminiscing amongst themselves about certain incidents and events that probably meant something to them, but in many cases don't make for interesting anecdotes for the viewer. These guys are all obviously funny guys, but getting together to do this commentary they appear to be more enjoying reliving the time of filming it than providing any great insight into the film-making process for the viewer. The first half of the commentary is therefore quite flat, with many quiet spots as they just watch and enjoy the jokes themselves.

    However, the inclusion of the moderator was a great idea for this group commentary, as he does his very best to draw them out on certain aspects of the film whenever they start to become quiet. He (eventually) manages to draw the directors out on such interesting aspects as what it is like making a film with three directors and how and why they all started working together. This is very interesting. Consequently, as they open up and start answering these questions, this commentary improves considerably over the second half. By the end of the film I found the commentary to have been redeemed as quite a worthwhile listen.

    Oh, and one other annoying omission is a subtitle stream for this commentary, indicating who is talking when. This should always be included in group commentaries such as this where a large number of the crew is assembled.

Alternate Scenes

    There are four very short alternate scenes here (and with no "play all" option on the menu, which is annoying given that the slowness in navigating between screens). The scenes are all presented in 1.78:1, 16x9 enhanced video and 2-channel audio, which is great. These scenes are all quite funny and interesting to see, but they are all too brief, ranging between 31 seconds and 47 seconds in duration. Given that they are really just adding a couple of extra gags that we haven't seen before, I couldn't help pondering what a lost opportunity this was not to have just added them back into the film itself and thus marketing this DVD as a "Directors' Cut" of the movie. That would have been more sensible.

Storyboards

    This extra doesn't really add any value at all here, in my opinion. It includes the storyboards for 3 scenes, but with no real-time playing of the storyboards to the completed scene, no accompanying audio commentary and no 'multi-angle' button interactivity, this is purely and simply a series of stills that the viewer can browse through using the cursor buttons. The trouble is though, with the extreme slowness in navigating between screens on this disc, I gave up half way through the first storyboard, as it just takes too long to go through all the screens.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    Apart from the usual PAL vs. NTSC issues, this disc is identical to the Region 1 version in respect of both audio and video transfer specs. The only possible difference is that it is unclear whether Region 1 gets the same exhaustive list of audio languages and subtitles tracks as we do. Region 4 is the version of choice.

Summary

    Top Secret! is, well, "a film"! After developing "an entirely new kind of comedy, altogether" with Flying High! four years earlier, this time around the Abrahams and Zucker trio have managed to successful spoof both World War II German spy movies and B-grade Elvis films - and just about everything else in between. A must-have for comedy fans, this DVD receives a very decent video and audio transfer by Paramount, plus we get the same great extras package that graced the Region 1 release.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Sean Abberton (read my bio)
Tuesday, November 19, 2002
Review Equipment
DVDToshiba 2109, using Component output
DisplayToshiba 117cm widescreen RPTV. Calibrated with AVIA Guide To Home Theatre. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderYamaha RXV-1000. Calibrated with AVIA Guide To Home Theatre.
AmplificationElektra Home Theatre surround power amp
SpeakersOrpheus Aurora III mains, Orpheus Centaurus 1.0 centre, Velodyne CT150 sub and B&W DM303 rears

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