1980s, Action-Adventure, Comedy

Airplane! (1980) / Top Secret! (1984)

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Directors/Screenwriters: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Coscreenwriter on Top Secret!: Martyn Burke

By Roderick Heath

Known collectively as ZAZ, the writing and directing team of brothers David and Jerry Zucker and pal Jim Abrahams started their careers in that comedy Mecca, of Madison, Wisconsin, where they were key members of a satirical sketch troupe called the Kentucky Fried Theatre. The burgeoning American, Canadian, and British fringe comedy scenes of the 1970s became a proving ground for so many of the talents who would become stars in in the 1980s, but ZAZ were some of the relatively few from such scenes who found their place behind the camera. They graduated to the big screen in collaboration with John Landis on the 1978 film The Kentucky Fried Movie, and soon were given the chance to make their own movie. The trio decided, rather than simply offer a string of sketches as they had in their previous outing, they would present a mostly coherent lampoon of a specific type of movie and use it as a scarecrow to hang their jokes on. ZAZ, with their encyclopaedic sense of pop culture and authentic streak of movie buff fondness for the sorts of films they would nonetheless ransack for camp and kitsch, decided to take a whack at sending up the disaster movie genre that had been huge business throughout the 1970s for Hollywood. The resulting concoction, Airplane!, released in 1980, was a hugely profitable hit and quickly became enshrined amongst the most beloved comedy cult films.

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By comparison, ZAZ’s 1984 follow-up Top Secret!, a panoramic swipe at spy, war, and Elvis movies, gained a comparatively muted response and lingered more quietly on video store shelves and occasional TV showings, although it too eventually gained veneration. The trio also stumbled with their attempt to create a TV series, Police Squad! (1982), but gained their revenge when they adapted it as a movie, The Naked Gun (1987), and scored another popular hit that birthed two sequels. After tackling a script written by others on Ruthless People (1986) whilst still a team, the trio split to take on solo directing works: Abrahams tackled Big Business (1988), Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael (1990), and the more ZAZ-like Hot Shots! films (1991, 1993). Jerry Zucker proved the most willing to go off-brand with the supernatural romance Ghost (1990) and Arthurian tale First Knight (1995), before stalling with Rat Race (2001), a tribute to one of the ZAZ stylistic influences, Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). David directed the first two Naked Gun entries, worked with the creators of the very ZAZ-like TV series South Park on BASEketball (1998), and later took over the Scary Movie franchise from the Wayans brothers, before undoing himself somewhat with the right-wing patriotic screed An American Carol (2008).

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With Airplane!, ZAZ reinvented the movie parody genre, one that had only known sporadic stabs anyway over the years, and which was generally left to television, which could speedily assimilate and produce a send-up and move on. A good feature-length lampoon, by contrast, had to amass decades’ worth of clichés and points of reference to work. Bob Hope had made his name in movies poking their tongues out at other movies, with the likes of the horror movie burlesques The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), the Western-disassembling farce The Paleface (1950) and its Frank Tashlin-directed sequel (1952). Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors (1963) had made sport of the gothic horror revival of its day and the Carry On films had often revolved around making fun of familiar genres, from historical epics to spy movies. ZAZ spurned however the relatively traditional approach of many of these, for they also channelled the bristling linguistic and behavioural anarchism of the Marx Brothers, frenetic zaniness of H.C. Potter’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941), the free-for-all aesthetic of MAD Magazine, the protean, associative strangeness of Looney Tunes, and the provocative black comedy of Harvard’s National Lampoon, which was also trying to leverage a turn to the big screen around the same time as ZAZ.

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ZAZ’s immediate forerunners as Jewish wiseacres turned comedy auteurs had been Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, who had many of the same influences. Allen had leveraged his own movie career with genre-specific send-ups like What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966) and Take The Money And Run (1969), whilst Brooks, with the Western survey Blazing Saddles (1974), had kicked off his own popular imprimatur as a movie satirist with a willingness to distort cinematic reality through a jarring blend of retro mores and contemporary attitude, even with meta-movie twists in Blazing Saddles. Where ZAZ went one better than him was in adopting an ever faster pace of gag deployment, and in adding an extra zest of panoramic social satire. One reason for ZAZ’s success in this regard lay in their eager embrace of simultaneous styles of humour: Airplane! maintains its giddy rush of gags simply by trusting that one funny thing is as good as another. For lovers of older movies, the impact of the ZAZ style, like that of the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, can be a mixed blessing, as it can be hard to appreciate the particular pleasures of the sorts of movies they aimed at without feeling a little hectored. And yet, unlike the Monty Python team, who with their films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979), liked to deconstruct stories in time with assaults on social conventions, ZAZ maintained a less cynical affection for the movies they liked to pull apart, and honoured despite their sarcasm the basic story logic of such models.

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Undoubtedly, the greater part of Airplane!’s success lay in the way it offered a machine gun volley of jokes without rhyme and scarcely any reason, a velocity of laughs that made Brooks look positively lackadaisical. But the pace of humour disguised other, deftly organised principles. One smart move was in avoiding directly mocking any particular entry in the ‘70s disaster cycle, instead taking as its basis a lesser-known progenitor to give it a proper narrative backbone. Arthur Hailey, who had written the novel Airport that was filmed in 1970 and kicked off the disaster movie craze, had dabbled in the theme of aerial crisis years earlier, with the Canadian TV play Zero Hour, adapted into a film starring Dana Andrews in 1957. That film, with its story of a war-damaged flying veteran pressganged into landing a passenger plane after its aircrew go down with food poisoning, offered a perfect narrative structure, because it allowed the disaster situation to be at once static and open-ended. Airplane!’s power derives from the way, despite every impediment it throws in his path both plot-wise and comedic, it still credits protagonist Ted Striker (Robert Hays) with a traditional hero’s journey as he tries to overcome self-doubt and trauma and win back his stewardess girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) in the course of saving the day, an aspect enabled by Hays’ skill in both delivering deadpan humour and evoking everyman empathy. But perhaps the deepest source of Airplane!’s specific pep lay in its driving sense of ironic contrast, between the slick neatness of Hollywood narrative and the bizarre lilt of modern American life circa 1980.

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The Kentucky Fried Movie had already unveiled ZAZ as a team with a delight mixed with derision for the commercialised accoutrements of the ‘70s lifestyle obsession, spawned from the team’s old habit of leaving their VCR recording late-night TV and making sport of the esoterica they found that way—Zero Hour being such relic. Airplane! is obsessed with many of its characters as free-floating bodies of unhinged wont, from Capt. Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) as a discerning reader of Modern Sperm magazine and advanced-studies purveyor in paedophilic overtures, to his wife in bed with her equine lover, and the rank of people delighting in a chance to deal out some brute force to a hysterical woman. The famous early gag of two announcing voices on a Los Angeles airport PA system, whose disagreement over what the various zones are for soon shades into an argument over the woman getting an abortion, exemplifies this aspect: drab functionalism warps into a deeply personal spat over the fallout of sex and intimacy, inspired by aspects of Airport. ZAZ consciously set up two ways of experiencing movies in opposition. The old, square, WASP style was represented by the cadre of actors once regularly cast as stern and serious types, including Leslie Nielsen, Graves, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack. They collide with a more contemporary landscape, one infected with a polyglot of rich and perverse players. Stack’s adamantine action man Rex Kramer, once a battler of enemy nations during “The War,” is now reduced to calmly hacking his way through a score of pestering new age proselytisers.

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The Airport films had already displayed distinct aspects of knowing camp, which made sending them up, like the Roger Moore-era James Bond films, a difficult task as they were already in essence self-satires: nobody could take Helen Reddy as a singing nun entertaining a deathly ill Linda Blair seriously. Airplane!’s dichotomous strategy helped it pull off the trick. Many ‘70s disaster movies fed parasitically on a faded ideal of movie glamour and star power, casting former big-name performers and finding creative ways of killing them off. ZAZ by contrast dug up actors to get them to repurpose their images, ironically doing better by such actors and even transforming Nielsen and Bridges into late-career comedy stars. This approach rewarded viewers who also remembered and delighted in those old, cheesy movies, and even ones that weren’t that old – Nielsen’s presence was directly inspired by his contribution to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) – but worked just as well if you didn’t: I dare say that as a kid watching Airplane! (when I knew it by its Australian release title, Flying High!) was the first time I’d encountered many such performers and conventions, thus also making it a kind of miniature film school. It also contrasted the more traditionally comedic, hammy, neo-vaudevillian shtick Brooks was keeping alive. Not that Airplane! suppresses that shtick as an influence. The film’s most perpetually quoted exchange, “Surely you can’t be serious!” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” is so pure in channelling those roots you can easily imagine Groucho and Chico Marx uttering it, but it’s given a very specific quality here via Nielsen’s utter conviction in delivering the punchline. Only a highly professional actor with decades of experience in the soul-weathering art of making terrible dialogue sound vital could truly do it justice.

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Some of this explains why immediate precursors to Airplane! didn’t gain nearly so much traction. Neil Israel’s Americathon (1979) had a very similar pitch of exacerbating zeitgeist trends with a strong dose of randy, post-yippie smart-assery, but it had an inverse proportion of political and lifestyle satire to pop culture joking to Airplane!, and its shots at the latter aspect were too vaguely observed to offer the same frisson. James Frawley’s The Big Bus (1976) beat Airplane! to the punch in mocking the disaster movie craze with a very similar approach including casting self-satirising stars and mixing in a panoply of genre movie influences. Indeed, it took on some common touches with enough effect ZAZ didn’t have to bother with them, like the smarmy lounge singer act, but played a much cleaner game and lacked the later film’s all-encompassing licence. ZAZ’s twists tend not to just take a cliché and reproduce it for smirking recognition but build on it, like the notion of a couple of non-English-speakers in the midst of disaster causing contention for the crew here offered via the two black men (Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White) who speak only in incredibly dense jive argot. This is then given further layering by making the unlikely translator for their native language Barbara Billingsley, the mother from Leave It To Beaver, and then having them regaled by The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (1974) songstress Maureen McGovern in the guise of a singing nun whose version of “Respect” inspires profuse vomiting.

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One further aspect of Airplane!‘s special brilliance lay in the way ZAZ revealed themselves as proper filmmakers, with ready ability to balance comedic performance with cinematic movement. They shift nimbly between set-ups to give each joke its necessary space in a way that strongly contrasts the tendency of today’s comedy filmmakers like Paul Feig to indulge rambling pseudo-improvisation and any-shot-will-do indolence to contain the humour. Some of Airplane!’s best gags, like an airline mechanic (Jimmy Walker) tending to the plane like a gas station hand in the background of a functional scene, or a mockery of beatifically smiling faces leaning into frame as they listen to a beautiful song including one man descending from overhead, depend on a poise of visual exposition beyond many comedy directors. Airplane!‘s willingness to go off-brand in sourcing its laughs, if one that from a certain standpoint refuses to obey any ground rules and so seeming a touch mercenary, nonetheless helped to free up its reflexes rather than merely offer a checklist of honoured cliches. As well as disaster movies Airplane! sidesteps to take swipes at old war movies and then-recent hits, most hilariously illustrated by Ted’s flashback recollection of meeting Elaine in a seedy nightspot, the Mogambo, “populated by every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta – it was worse than Detroit.” This sequence ticks off such familiar flourishes of the old movie dive bar as the sexy sauntering legs accompanied by saucy jazz (the owner of the legs here blowing a lick on a trombone) and two soldiers getting into a fight over a card game (except the uniformed battlers here are a pair of girl scouts).

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This skews unexpectedly into a mockery of John Travolta’s famous dance scene from Saturday Night Fever (1977) as genuinely ebullient as it is pitiless in excavating the postures of contemporary urban warrior fantasy encapsulated in the model, as well as its dodgy showmanship, knowing full well the Travolta vehicle sold the notion of the modern cowboy as a duellist on the range of slick moves and quick sex. Airplane! incidentally depicts once-suppressed subcultures becoming conversant with each-other, an idea made into literal jokes with the Jive dudes and the sight of a nun and a kid each reading a magazine on the other social subset’s lifestyle, but extended throughout the narrative more implicitly as ZAZ obey Terry Southern and Lenny Bruce’s project for American satirical comedy as an unveiling of the basic hungers of US society in a way unadorned by high-flown cant. Johnny (Stephen Stucker) is deployed later in the film to wield shafts of camp anarchy (“Fog’s getting thicker!” “And Leon’s getting laaarrrrgggeeer!”). In perhaps the film’s funniest and filthiest sustained gag, Elaine has to refill the plane’s inflatable Automatic Pilot (Otto) in a literal blow-job that leaves the intruding Rumack bewildered and concludes with both lady and dummy smoking in suggestive bliss. This scene works as a totally random excursion into sexy humour but incidentally offers a sharp capsule summary of the Airport series’ preoccupation with contemporary sexual mores: Elaine getting it on after a fashion with Otto is also an act of sensual liberation commensurate with Ted’s recovery of his manly mojo.

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Some jokes don’t fly so well now. Ted’s account of his and Elaine’s stint trying to school a remote African tribe takes a poke at white self-congratulation as Ted suggests his “advanced Western teaching techniques” help the tribe learn basketball when they clearly, instantly grasp and master the game, but also feels a bit graceless in taking on racist cliché. ZAZ’s tilts at ‘70s licentiousness also mediate the looming spectre of ‘80s Reaganism. The many pot-shots at the about-to-be-President, including a running joke based on his 1940 film Knute Rockne, All-American (“Go out there and win just one for the Zipper!”) bespeak ZAZ’s suspicion that the desire to vote for Reagan was also the desire of an America tiring of contemporary lunacy to live in an old movie. Indeed, David Zucker’s later conservative turn suggests he might have empathised with it even then. The mid-film pause for a sing-along as stewardess Randy (the splendid, astonishingly underemployed Lorna Patterson) comforts heart transplant patient Lisa (Jill Whelan) sees her belting out Peter Yarrow’s internationalist anthem “River of Jordan,” an affirmation of general idealism hilariously undercut by not noticing she’s knocked out Lisa’s IV tube. Here ZAZ identify with lacerating exactitude not just silliness of the model scenes in Airport 1975 (1974) but also the way the ‘60s version of poptimism became supplanted by Me Decade obliviousness.

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Similarly, Kramer’s rampage through the pestilential proliferation of airport badgerers depicts exhaustion with the whole panoply of consciousness-raising and social issue-mongering. Airplane! ends gleefully with Ted landing the plane safely and the pompous Kramer continuing to explore the nature of trauma over the radio (“Have you ever been kicked in the head with an iron boot?”) past the point of necessity, and the lifestyle aspect is given its last wink as Otto gains an inflatable mate and takes off to the wild blue yonder. Elmer Bernstein’s ingenious score gives the film a deal of cohesion as he imbues even absurd scenes with a dramatic tenor equal to that of the square-jawed old actors, and sends the film out with a grandiose march that underlines the carnivalesque sense of all-American good-humour. Top Secret!, when it arrived four years later, was already contending with a different social landscape. The old-fashioned values ZAZ had made fun of were regaining currency in mainstream movies; Ted Striker’s redemptive arc soon became that of John Rambo and John McClane and Martin Riggs. The kinds of old spy and war movies the story was based in had already been bundled together with extra lashings of action and spectacle as well as wry knowing in the Indiana Jones films.

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The film’s Elvis stand-in, Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer, making his movie debut), has made his name performing trend-riding, sub-Beach Boys hits. The opening credits depict a music video for his hit song “Skeet Surfin’”, a ditty explaining the pleasures of blasting clay pigeons whilst hanging five, complete with random shots slicing off beach umbrellas and bringing down hang-gliders. Nick is invited to East Germany to participate in a cultural festival being held by the local Commie Nazis as a last-minute substitute for Leonard Bernstein. The festival is being staged as cover for a plot to unleash a device that can wreck NATO warships, a device invented by the imprisoned Dr Paul Flammond (Gough). Flammond’s daughter Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) is an agent in the underground although he thinks she’s in the Stasi’s hands. Nick becomes involved when he saves Hillary from an assassin during a ballet, arrested by the authorities and imprisoned, where he encounters Flammond and learns of the plot. He and Hillary make contact with a resistance cell led by an agent who proves to be Nigel (Christopher Villiers), the man Hillary grew up with whilst shipwrecked on a desert island but whom she presumed to be dead. Together they launch a mission to rescue Flammond from prison, but of course someone in the resistance ranks is a mole.

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The relatively substantial plot and carefully developed visual and verbal parodying clearly advances on Airplane!. But there remains a similar free-form mix of jokes, with gags based in such random epiphanies as revealing men’s ballet costumes, with a ballerina prancing upon a raft of bulging crotches. One of the most magnificently odd sight gags in movie history comes half-way through when Nick and Hillary sit in a park with a giant statue of a pigeon, upon which flying men land and defecate. Other jokes are based in more specific reference points: Omar Sharif’s spy character Cedric is trapped and crushed in a car a la Goldfinger (1964) only to turn up later stumbling along encased in the crumpled metal. The standard moment in Westerns where some horses are stampeded to forestall pursuit here sees Nick shooing off a herd of waiting pushbikes. Ian McNeice appears as Cedric’s underground contact who poses as a blind seller of novelties and party tricks, several of which he inflicts on the hapless spy in the name of covering their communication. Despite the German setting, Nigel’s underground cell is filled with French resistance warriors whose names are all Francophone clichés: “This is Chevalier…Montage…Detente…Avant Garde…and Déjà Vu.” “Haven’t we not met before, Monsieur?” The unfortunate member Latrine constantly turns up in a state of bloodied suffering.

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The horrors of repression and torture are often found to be less terrifying than some more prosaic forms of torment — after a terrible dream of being back in High School, Nick is blissfully relieved to awaken and see he’s only being whipped by Stasi thugs. Said thugs are a terrifying prospect: “Bruno is almost blind, has to operate wholly by touch. Klaus is a moron, who knows only what he reads in the New York Post.” Top Secret!’s relative failings in comparison to its predecessor take a little teasing out. Whilst it offers a similar survey of familiar actors mocking their stock personas, including Sharif, Jeremy Kemp, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough, most of their contributions aren’t as sustained or clever. Whilst Top Secret! still takes a time-out for a send-up of a recent popular hit, in this case The Blue Lagoon (1980), it’s a reference point that offers no similar opportunity for a discursion as dynamic as the Mogambo dance. Where the very end of Airplane! gives the film’s comedy and its relative straight aspects a perfectly entwined send-off, Top Secret! seems more to just stop. Whilst the film still contains some good riffs contending with sexual mores and perversities (the Anal Intruder) and satirical jolts, it lacks the cohesive comic substrata that aspect offered in the earlier film.

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That said, other aspects of Top Secret! improve on Airplane!. The running jokes are developed with more patience and sneaky wit, like the constant difficulties with language and translation in regards to both languages and spy codes. The choice of tethering a send-up of films based in geopolitics to the fantasy vision of Elvis Presley’s movie vehicles (particularly Harum Scarum, 1965), with their implicit promise of carefree deliverance through worshipping the beautiful idol of rock’n’roll, turns Top Secret! into a sustained interrogation of America’s place in the world at the height of renewed Cold War tensions. Top Secret! offers American leadership in the post-WWII era as a sustained act of show business. Nick repeatedly makes an impact upon the hidebound East German establishment by dint of his rocker showmanship, beating a Soviet tenor to the punch in performing for a ritzy audience, winning over everyone except the fuming military chiefs (even the elderly house band quickly adapts to a rock ethos) and rocking out a pizza parlour when the resistance fighters demand proof he’s not Mel Torme. Nick’s performance at the festival sees him cranking up James Brown’s theatrical desperation with gestures like trying to hang and gas himself. By contrast the East German anthem is a hymn of sinister caution (“Forget it, the guards will kill you, if the electrified fence doesn’t first”) set to the music from a Wisconsin high school’s song.

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The cultural satire here echoes a lot of overt propaganda issued around this time about the west’s free and easy attitude compared to the browbeaten tenor of the eastern bloc, with the twist from ZAZ that acknowledges Nick’s espousal of freedom was considered quite a distance from what a lot of western leaders felt desirable too just a few years earlier. By implication ZAZ consider Hollywood moviemaking and pop music potent forms for creating a mythology for combating repressiveness whilst also perhaps blinding people to the west’s own failings in this regard. That’s a frontier of satire ZAZ mostly shy away from, except when Hillary, explaining her own father’s narrow brush with political collapse as an immigrant to the US: “He was one of the lucky ones, he managed to escape in a balloon during the Jimmy Carter presidency,” and decries how disengaged US youth is: Nick can only protest in counterpoint that his high school history class once spent a week in Philadelphia. The alarm over Reagan’s rise mooted in Airplane! is now solidified: Cold War politics are now plainly being administrated as if in an old movie in broad strokes of morality. Meanwhile the returned Nigel delights Hillary as she measures up various parts of his anatomy and aggravates the nonetheless understanding Nick, although Nigel seems to be harbouring pretty happy memories of being ravaged by the sailors who rescued him from the island. Of course, Nigel turns out to be the mole in the unit, obliging him and Nick to fight it out.

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By comparison with Airplane!’s targeting of films still fresh in the public memory, ZAZ felt Top Secret! might have stumbled in comparison by taking movies greatly receded in pop culture’s rear-view mirror. This aspect nonetheless reveals the second film as a work more deeply ensconced in a film buff’s sensibility, and casual gags hide riches for fellow travellers. Like Cushing’s Swedish book store owner, first glimpsed with a huge bulging eye glimpsed through a magnifying glass only to lower the glass and prove to actually have a huge bulging eye: this works as a casually surreal visual joke but also happens to recreate and mock an image from a couple of Cushing horror vehicles. A glimpse of a looming telephone Kemp’s army bigwig picks up turns out to actually be ridiculously large rather than a product of dramatic forced perspective. Whilst Airplane! showed ZAZ had abilities as visual jokesters, Top Secret! is a much freer, far more deftly staged work of physical comedy and moviemaking style, closer to the style of Richard Lester (to whom Top Secret! nods by tossing in a singing horse that warbles “A Hard Day’s Night”), with some touches even approaching the likes of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, with reaches of staged comedy Airplane! only briefly reached for in moments like the plane crashing through a terminal window.

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The film’s very start offers the sight of Cedric and a German soldier battling atop a train, with Cedric ducking to allow his foe to be swatted off by a bridge only for the bridge to crumble around the soldier. Nick’s introduction sees him trying to paint the rural landscape from his train window and proving to have skilfully recreated the motion blur. The Resistance’s battles with the Germans sees the hulking, cigar-eating Chocolate Mousse (Eddie Tagoe) knocking out squads of enemies with improbably good shooting. Later he causes a German armoured car to swerve off the road with his shooting, although it takes the car slightly tapping a parked Pinto to cause a devastating explosion. A stop at a train station as Nick and his manager Martin (Billy J. Mitchell) sees the platform itself start rolling away leaving the stationary train and a passenger chasing after it, in a poke at the set-bound action of a lot of classic Hollywood movies. Kilmer and Gutteridge perform a ridiculous traditional dance whilst arguing politics, a very Brooksian touch. The to-and-fro dashing of the Resistance fighters pauses to become a Broadway kick routine. A German soldier tossed off the prison battlements hits the ground only to shatter like a plaster statue. One of the best violations of the fourth wall in any movie comes when Nick rattles off all the improbable events that’s befallen him and Hillary, and she acknowledges, “Yes, it all sounds like the plot of some bad movie.” Whereupon she and Nick stand stiff and awkward with their gazes turning ever so nervously towards the audience.

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Kilmer’s physicality and authentic movie star lustre are invaluable to the movie’s energy, Kilmer performing Nick’s dance moves and dashing through the comedy action scenes with a gusto no other film’s ever asked of him, not even his sorry outings as Batman and The Saint. His performance of “Straighten Out The Rug” in the pizzeria sees Nick do a breakdance spin so well he saws a hole in the floor, whilst dancing guys swing rag doll partners around their heads. Kilmer is almost too much the real deal for a burlesque. The brilliantly strange climax sees Nick and Nigel fall off a truck as they fight it out and plunge into a river where they engage in an underwater fist fight in a sunken Western saloon, a sequence that must have taken some extraordinary effort to achieve. Nick knocks out his foe and strides out through the swinging doors to the Bonanza theme. The very end feels abrupt in a way that suggests problems with editing, and indeed ZAZ did leave a lot on the cutting room floor, but it does honour its models again as Hillary contemplates with sad wisdom, like many an old war movie heroine before her, whether to stay in the fight or wing away to a new life: “Things change. People change. Hairstyles change. Interest rates fluctuate.” The fight for freedom in a world where an actor or TV celebrity can be elected president goes on.

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2010s, Crime/Detective

American Hustle (2013)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: David O. Russell

By Roderick Heath

David O. Russell is a filmmaker for whom I’ve maintained a certain wary admiration since first encountering his work with Flirting with Disaster (1998). Amidst the directors who emerged from highly idiosyncratic independent filmmaking in the early to mid-1990s, as Russell did with Spanking the Monkey (1994), Russell’s specific interest was in observing natural oddballs in their native habitat. As such, he seemed to maintain links not just with the Robert Altman-derived strand of modern American cinema but also with a variety of frenetic comedy associated with the screwball works of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and the Marx Brothers, except that his character types are rooted securely in naturalistic environments. Yet Russell doesn’t have Altman’s covert grace or political and cultural wit, whilst his humour is far more forced and jumpy. He is a product of a snarkier, more fiercely hip age, with characters that thrash about trying to generate comedy and action rather than enacting the farces elegantly served up to them by masterminds. I have no great liking for Three Kings (1999), which gained a lot of cool-kid traction because of its shallow critique of the Gulf War while being only a flashy variation on certain, better ’60s war movies.
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When Russell came back from exile with The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), he was obviously playing by house rules, which made his films both more humdrum, but also, ironically, more enjoyable, injecting eccentric invention into standard narratives. American Hustle represents a compromise, mixing a populist brand of sarcastic frolic with his fascination for unruly dispositions. Whilst the Altman-esque element is still apparent in American Hustle, the style here is plainly a mild annexation-cum-parody of Martin Scorsese, borrowing devices and flourishes like his driving edits, alternately explanatory and dissenting voiceovers, signature inrushing camera dollies to punctuate scenes, and evocations of the simultaneous earthiness and brash flash of ’70s Americana. Whereas Scorsese usually situates his narrative perspectives deep within the often unpleasant headspaces of his characters, however, American Hustle remains determinedly exterior, watching its character types eddy in their fetid pools of temperament.
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The film is based loosely on the infamous “Abscam” stings run by the FBI that took down several on-the-take bigwigs in the wide-open post-Watergate era, already touched on cinematically in another sub-Scorsese hit, director Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997). Russell takes the tale and inverts its tabloid meaning, making grifters, corrupted leaders, and phonies the heroes and the driving investigator a self-interested, nutty villain, as if The Sting (1973) had been reset in the same era it was showing in theaters. Russell kicks off with an arch but fitting sequence. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) carefully hides his bald pate with a combination of comb-over and toupee, only to have it ruined by aggressive FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) as the two men argue about proceeding with their current sting operation and the woman between them, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), tries to maintain working equilibrium. Flashbacks reveal how this unlikely team came together. Irving, a glass salesman with a sideline in fake art and bogus loan agenting, met Sydney, a Midwestern blow-in with a penchant for putting on an English accent, at a party, where they bonded over their mutual love of the elevating pleasures of Duke Ellington. After they hooked up, they found a deeper accord in their love of covert role-playing and profitable deceit. They’re a match made in Hades, except for the complication that Irving is already married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a young single mother he wed essentially out of charity.
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The scenes recounting Irving and Sydney’s union are played with an interesting mix of dreamy wonder and raconteurism, as each narraties what they were thinking and feeling, stricken by recognition of a kinship that can, perversely but logically, find its best expression in criminal behaviour: Love, Underworld Style. Sydney’s adopted persona as a veddy British dollybird proves to facilitate Irving’s loan scams perfectly, as she pretends to have connections to a reputable London banking firm. They’re undone, however, when one potential client is Richie working undercover, and Irving semi-wittingly manages to leave Sydney holding the bag because she seemed to be flirting with Richie. Richie cuts a deal with the deceitful duo to use their talents to catch corrupt officials, promising they can walk away after three operations.
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Richie sets his sights on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the go-get-’em, regular-Joe mayor of Atlantic City who’s trying to rebuild the city as a tourist mecca. After much bickering and backbiting, Irving sells Richie on the idea of putting together a scam wherein they pretend to be connected to a zillionaire Saudi sheikh who wants nothing more than to invest in Polito’s vision of a reenergised boardwalk. Tensions simmer constantly between this potentially explosive mix of personalities: bullshit artiste Irving is forced into unfamiliar zones of emotional intensity, constantly seething with jealousy as Sydney punishes him for sticking with Rosalyn by holding him at arm’s length and half-faking a romance with Richie. Irving also begins to squirm in contemplating the damage the scam is going to do to Polito, with whom he becomes fast friends, and the potential of mob reprisal, as the boardwalk project demands they make deals with Meyer Lansky associate Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro).
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On a superficial level, American Hustle keeps bouncing along merrily, driven not by the mechanics of the Abscam plot, which is quite garbled at points and generally played as a farcical, even counter-productive proposition, nor in generating tension with the story beats. Russell only milks the most salient absurdity from the plot, when Richie has Latino FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Peña) to pose as the mythical “Sheikh Abdullah” rather than Irving’s first choice of an actual Arab pal (Saïd Taghmaoui). This choice sparks both humour at Hernandez’s inaptitude at the role and then suspense, in one of those by-rote post-Goodfellas “tension when talking to the gangster” scenes, as he’s presented to Tellagio, who reveals an unexpected gift for speaking Arabic. American Hustle is rather a wobbly highwire trick, trying to gain propulsion from volatile character interactions, putting Irving and Sydney in constant danger by placing them in the hands of various lunatics. Richie sees himself as a brilliant but stymied law enforcer, but he’s actually a sexually repressed, brattish self-promoter with a bizarre, ultra-Catholic mother. He’s faced with the disdain and disregard of immediate superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), and keeps trying to guess the moral to a long-winded anecdote Thorsen tries to tell him; eventually Richie physically assaults Thorsen in frustration. Nonetheless, Richie gets his way and fends off repercussions by appealing to state’s attorney Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola, done up to look like Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II), who’s as greedy for high-profile arrests as Richie. Richie’s an interesting study in pathology and an ironic depiction of law enforcer as a case in arrested development, evoking FBI kingpin J. Edgar Hoover. Like Irving and Sydney, he’s on the make and doesn’t care who it hurts so long as he realises his vision of triumph, but unlike them, he is convinced of his own rectitude.
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American Hustle is clearly a movie moulded to fit a fading ideal of popular cinema—actor-based but kinetic, taken from true life but rendered much larger than life. And yet’s it’s a peculiar, frustrating failure that manages to stay in a state of flux, emotionally and artistically, for over two hours. The acting is exciting and hammy in roughly equal measure. Cooper’s excessively mannered, and finally downright irritating performance stretches out the manic phases of his character from Silver Linings Playbook to fill an entire movie like being stuck in a phone booth with a well-groomed chimpanzee, and fails the film because it renders Richie too discursive an antagonist. Similarly, Bale pulls off one of his impressive ACTOR! transformations by becoming a paunchy, drawling, oh-so-Noo Yawk operator, but Irving isn’t deeply compelling as a protagonist even when facing a problem of conscience. Where a charismatic actor closer to the required physical type like Paul Giamatti might have made Irving interesting, with Bale he remains a dead spot. The emotional crux of the film is supposed to be Sydney and Irving’s combative reaction to the pain of loving each other counterbalanced by the quiescent, often cross-purpose desire of both to achieve authenticity and realise their private fantasies. But the film’s too skittish to let this underlying earnestness stand, too vague about those fantasies, and not sure which way is up when it comes to authenticity. For instance, Russell can’t resist playing the film’s real climax—when Irving admits all to Polito and tries to warn him what’s coming—as farce. He cuts into the scene halfway through the conversation, so there’s no sense of tension about the building emotion and unease, and then provides laugh-line-like jump cuts to shots of Polito’s kids all crying as word gets around. Not surprisingly, Polito throws Irving out, and Irving suffers a brief spell of shamed hyperventilation before getting on with saving his own ass, but the reckoning is stated rather than felt. This is a notable example, but far from the only one that shows Russell closing off avenues to real substance.
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Rosalyn becomes the narrative joker in the deck: because Sydney’s been cast in another “role” in their comedy, Irving needs Rosalyn to be his wife in the scams without quite letting her in on what’s going on. Rosalyn, in spite of her kookiness, is smart enough to know something’s up, and harbours her own suddenly nascent intent to emerge as a social butterfly. Thus, with madcap bravado, she overcomes her professed anxiety and outpaces the scammers and the feds in making friends not just with Poliltos, but also the mafia hoods insulating Tellegio. Lawrence helps to crystallise the film’s most interesting themes, including the notion that elaborate plots and constructs are found in all walks of life, but that the borderlines of the scam are smudged by the very human aspirations of the players. She charms the Politos and helps sell both her own, Irving’s, and Carmine’s fantasy worlds by being herself, warts and all, going on a memorable rant about nail polish that ends in her tumbling tipsily from a restaurant booth. Russell gets far too cute with her character, however, as her loose-cannon approach gets more dangerous, tipping off one of Tellagio’s lieutenants (Jack Huston) that Irving’s running a con, and then fudging as to whether Rosalyn is actually some kind of idiot savant of plotting, putting her husband on the spot to come up with an exit strategy, or just a flake who happily claims flukes as her genius. This comes after she’s had a flagrantly weird and bracing sing-and-dance-along to Paul McCartney’s theme song for Live and Let Die, gyrating with malicious glee as if she’s gotten beautiful revenge on Irving. There’s such compulsive kineticism and unrestrained loopiness here that it almost wills itself into making sense. And yet, the feeling that Rosalyn stands in for an artist-director creating in the same improvisational way comes to the fore.
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The part depends greatly on the audience’s lingering affection for Lawrence, as Rosalyn is presented as scary-exciting, but Rosalyn is really an awful creature in many ways—capricious, disturbed, and destructive, only partly elevated by her own desire to become a self-actuating person. If Russell had cast not the delicious Lawrence but someone closer to Irving’s nominal age, Rosalyn would look much more like a sitcom caricature. Lawrence shocks it into life with that gift she has, badly frustrated in her headlining films but keenly understood by Russell, for playing brittle personalities: her Rosalyn has the authentic flavour of many half-wonderful, half-disturbing people out there in the world. More often, she’s depicted as Irving’s ball and chain, tethering him to an unbearable state of reality to which his flights into fancy with Sydney are only temporary reprieves. Then, arbitrarily, after a long sequence fuelled by this dynamic, with Irving raving on in thin-wedge frustration like a reject from a Neil Simon play, Rosalyn, suddenly lets him off the hook, as if Russell couldn’t think of a believable way to get Irving loose of her and end his movie. The stage is then set for Irving to pull off a clever last-act twist that nets him and Sydney a sweet paycheque and Richie a seemingly well-deserved humiliation.
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As a whole, American Hustle made me curious in all the wrong ways. Part of this curiosity lay in trying to work out what it is. Is it a satire? A screwball farce? A caper flick that riffs jauntily on a true-life episode of venality? A tragicomic study in absurd people searching for legitimacy? Yet another piece of cinematic reference that looks back nostalgically to ’70s fashions in film and clothing? A collection of acting exercises cut together with great skill? Well, it’s all these things, and none of them; at least, not any one of them to a satisfying or complete degree, except perhaps the last two. Russell reveals a strong level of wry affection for a bygone era of American life where regular guys got together and sang along to Tom Jones with a good stiff drink in the hand, and ladies piled their hair in absurd concoctions, wore fur, and mocked the workings of a microwave.
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The film’s best scene, which really does hit a remarkable, almost transcendent note, sees Russell cutting between Irving and Carmine engaged in such a singalong, roaring with impudent, drunken life and hope for a reborn American dream, whilst Richie and Sydney enact another version of the same thing, dancing in a disco to Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s mighty “I Feel Love,” whereupon they retreat into a toilet and make not love but a pact of ardour. Richie’s thrilled that he might be about to escape the strictures of his life, and Sydney releases a tile-cracking whoop of joy, a moment that feels utterly random and yet a logical endpoint for the thrill of being alive, and for Sydney not so much for love of Richie, as she’s really playing him, but of excitement at the feeling of being master of her destiny again. Otherwise, however, Russell remains at arm’s-length from both considered feeling and lacks sociological depth. Irving’s line of crap about a fake Rembrandt that’s become real from effort echoes too many others films of last year, notably Trance and Blue Is the Warmest Colour, that try to fool you into thinking they’ve got something profound to say about their own self-awareness when they’re just tritely spelling out the theme for you.
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Whereas a close antecedent like Boogie Nights (1997) wrestles with an entire zeitgeist, for Russell it’s mostly window dressing, reducing character arcs to a series of well-described impulses of a misfiring nervous system. He has great capacity to get his cast fired up and his visuals flowing in propulsive manner, but little gift for the kinds of pivots in tone and aesthetic that regulate intake and make for a deeper kind of film experience that can infuse even a pop bauble. American Hustle is certainly blatantly sceptical of the presumption of mutual exclusivity in the motives of con men and police in an America where everyone’s on the make in some way, an idea that’s endlessly reiterated in dialogue. People in government are occasionally self-serving and career-minded? Wow, that’s profound. Phonies might desire to be, like, real? Blow my mind why don’t you. More interestingly, it touches on the notion that sometimes corruption in government may be a mere adjunct to other, better motives and actions: the film makes the point that all the Abscam operation succeeded in doing was bringing down some lawmakers, many of whom were enticed into illegal acts and like Polito, were trying to do some good. But this idea isn’t particularly well-served in a film that lets Irving and Sydney smarmily off the hook because Richie’s a prick, and politically it’s a damp squib. It’s also—and this might be its chief crime—not really that funny.
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The unstable mixture and uncertain aim of the film confirms that when Russell isn’t being corralled into commercial moulds, his own are too shallow to contain all of what he creates. Some people love that sense of filmmaking without a net, but Russell isn’t actually uncontrolled or ebullient enough to truly cut loose, nor is he ever discomforting in his irony like Altman often was. Whereas Scorsese, even when presenting the gaudiest, most stylised visuals, presents them with illustrative framing and punctilious cuts, and Altman held back to give the impression of random discovery, Russell pushes in more tightly and cross-cuts, feeding off and repurposing the energy of his actors. That’s why many scenes feel as if they’re about to burst at the scenes—because in cinematic terms they are.
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Renner and Adams give the film’s most measured performances. Adams is particularly good as Sydney, with her habitual lapses in her British accent, a mixture of operator ruthlessness and hopeful pathos inflecting her scenes. Renner is low-key as Polito, at once charming and persuasive as a populist leader, but also vulnerable in his streak of blue-collar sentimentality. The idea that Carmine, as a tragic hero, was a potentially more interesting protagonist than the ones foregrounded, who are essentially supporting grotesques placed centre-stage, occurred to me, especially as the central proposition of the film, the troubled but supposedly magnetic attraction of Irving and Sydney, never feels particularly vital, certainly never as vital as anything that occurs between Irving and Rosalyn, who remains, as Irving says in voiceover at the end, always interesting. And so, too, ultimately is American Hustle. It’s neither a mere polyester shindig nor a covert artwork, but something intriguingly misbegotten, far less than the sum of its parts but more than a lark in the meadow. It’s something, but I’m not sure what.

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