Hot Shots!, a very funny parody of Top Gun, might have seemed even juicier had it come out a few years ago, when the ’80s aesthetic of synth-pop militarism was in full swing. Still, it’s juicy enough. Directed by Jim Abrahams (of the Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker team), the movie uses Airplane!-style silly-surreal jokes to blast holes in the Reagan era’s most shameless fly-boy fantasy.
In some ways, the movie seems as affectionate as it is biting. Top Gun, with its gleaming flights of fancy and its triumph-of-the-will kitsch story line, is now about as obvious a target for jokes as disaster movies were in the late ’70s; you’d have to be pretty far off to miss hitting this barn door. And so Hot Shots! plays as a piece of satirical nostalgia. It offers us a chance to look back, with an almost campy fondness, and say, ”Yep, this is what we swallowed, all right.” Some may claim that the Persian Gulf war renders the movie unusually timely. But except for one quick jab at Saddam Hussein, Hot Shots! never gets into the riskier business of satirizing the way films like Top Gun helped influence the tenor of public patriotism during Desert Storm. Instead, Abrahams keeps his sights set squarely on Tom Cruise’s need-for-speed blockbuster.
Poker-faced Charlie Sheen plays the reckless hero, Topper Harley, a Navy pilot still haunted by the humiliating circumstances surrounding his father’s death. The other characters are a crew of nutball clichés. There’s Topper’s arch rival, Kent (Cary Elwes, from The Princess Bride), who’s so blond and square-jawed he looks like Dudley Do-Right, but who’s also a persnickety yuppie who can discourse happily on the proper way to use a Crockpot. Before long, the two turn into self-righteous kids trading school-yard insults — the essence of pushy ’80s bravado. There’s ”Dead Meat” Thompson (William O’Leary), whose Tragic and Untimely Death is continually being foreshadowed, and ”Wash Out” Pfaffenbach (Jon Cryer), whose corneas are so bent out of shape he sees life through a wide-angle lens. And, in a performance of demented genius, there’s Lloyd Bridges as Admiral Benson, a babbling military relic with an attention span of one nanosecond. His conversation is brain-dead stream of consciousness, much of it fixated on his various synthetic body parts.
Then, of course, there’s the Girl. Her name is Ramada (Valeria Golino), and she’s the Navy base psychiatrist, as well as a horseback rider, gymnast, sculptor, nightclub singer, and virgin. When she and Topper finally get down to business, Abrahams stages his masterpiece, a parody of the 9 1/2 Weeks food-sex scene. Like all the best Airplane!-Naked Gun gags, this one depends on wicked levels of exaggeration. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that where a number of comic filmmakers might have come up with the egg joke, only one of the ZAZ boys would have added bacon.
Hot Shots! faithfully duplicates Top Gun’s gung ho plot and employs plenty of snazzy flight footage. In spirit, it’s so much closer to a real movie than, say, The Naked Gun 2 1/2 that a lot of people will say it’s a better comedy. I don’t agree. Top Gun may seem a richer subject for parody than lousy TV cop shows, but David Zucker, in the Naked Gun films, isn’t simply lampooning a particular genre. He’s goofing on the whole artifice of Hollywood storytelling — on the unstated clichés out of which narratives are built. As a director, Abrahams lacks Zucker’s cinematic ingenuity, not to mention his rat-a-tat-tat aggressiveness. And so the weaker scenes — such as the opening Dances With Wolves send-up, which misses more often than it hits — just end up hanging in the air.
Still, who’s complaining? Half of today’s films are comedies, but satire — that is, making fun of things that truly deserve to be made fun of — is virtually a vanished art. Hot Shots! offers a satisfying kick in the pants to a movie (and an era) that has more than earned it. B+