Is Paramount's New Blu of Top Secret Any Better Than the Australian Disc?

For whatever reason, Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker's next film wasn't such a hit.  In fact, it was a flop, and I even remember in 1984 when it came out thinking that Top Secret! was a serious let-down.  Most of my friends & family did, too; only one kid I went to school with seemed to really get it and revere it as the film everyone hoped it would be.  And this isn't just localized anecdotal evidence, because it was a surprising flop at the box office, that pushed the trio into more conventional comedy afterwards.  And it's really weird, because looking at today, Top Secret! absolutely holds up as one of the trio's best works.  I even re-watched it with my parents, and they were laughing with it this time just as hard as Airplane!  I don't know why we couldn't see it back then, but whatever the cause, that's probably why it's only available on blu-ray in Australia.

Update 8/9/20 - 5/23/22: Well, it's available in the US now!  It would be pretty egotistical, I suppose, to take credit for that just because of what I wrote here in 2020, but I think I will anyway.  😁  It's good news for those who never imported; but for those who did, is this new release any better?  It couldn't possibly be any worse, right?  In fact, you might think it would be almost exactly the same, but no...
A then-unknown Val Kilmer got his very first role as the lead, playing a old school pop singer who gets caught up in an international spy conspiracy.  He really hits it out of the park, nailing everything from the dry delivery of the absurd humor to the genuinely impressive musical numbers he has to perform.  As we've come to expect from Abrahams and the Zuckers, there's another strong supporting cast including Omar Sharif, Michael Gough and Peter Cushing; but this time the weight's really on one man's shoulders, and Kilmer carries it expertly.  The film is packed with as many great jokes as any of their best work; I really wonder what put so many people off back in its day.  Perhaps many of the "meta" jokes about the filmmaking itself were ahead of their time?  Or maybe general audiences' unfamiliarity with the Elvis-style star vehicles they were spoofing this time were less familiar, and therefor less resonant, to 80s audiences than the disaster, kung-fu and cop shows of their previous endeavors.  Whatever it was then, in 2020, Top Secret! really due for a rediscovery.
Top Secret! may be rare on blu, but the market's sure been flooded with DVDs.  Paramount first released it as a widescreen special edition in 2002, and they've repackaged it with alternate covers, double-features, triple features, banners along the top, no banners along the top, ugly "I Love the 80's" slipcovers, boxed sets... but it's always the same disc.  Not until 2020, in Australia, were we finally presented an HD option.  And yes, it's from Via Vision, once again rescuing catalog titles from Paramount's big box of neglect.  But lately, Paramount's been turning a kinder eye to their titles under-represented on home video, including a brand new blu-ray edition of Top Secret!  But it doesn't seem like they sprung for a brand new master.
1) 2002 Paramount DVD; 2) 2020 Via Vision BD; 3) 2022 Paramount BD.

Paramount continues to frame a 1.85 film for 16x9 televisions at 1.78:1.  The DVD is actually 1.77, with a slight vertical pinch that the BDs correct.  They also pull out ever so slightly to reveal slivers of additional picture along all four edges.  The Via Vision blu does leave something to be desired... it's sharper, but instead of revealing the film grain that the DVD failed to capture, we just see pixelated digital noise.  That DVD really is too soft, though, even by old DVD standards; so it looks like they tried to sharpen the same old master rather than scanning a new one.  Well, the end result is a clear improvement over the DVD, but compared to other BDs, it would score pretty poorly.

And it looks like someone at Paramount has done the best they can to correct all this... shy of actually springing for a new scan and the updated master this film really calls out for.  This is no fancy, high end edition.  But it's still better than the DVD and even corrects the old BD's most frustrating issues.  Starting small, the framing zooms in ever so slightly, about two pixels on each side, cropping some distortion along the very edges of the Via Vision frame.  You'd never spot it in motion, but it does make screen shots look more professional.  It also cleans up dirt and noise.  That big hair on the frame of the first set of shots has been mostly cleared up.  Everything showing against the smooth wall has been digitally altered, but the bit that's on her eye, which would take more time-consuming personal work to correct, is still there.
1) 2020 Via Vision BD; 2) 2022 Paramount BD.
Most critically, though, the disc doesn't have that over-sharpened digital effect, and a little more original picture information is retained.  It's more than just a better encode; or, if it is down to the encoding, it's a lot better.  Instead of pixelation and overly smoothed areas, we see soft grain.  Soft, because it's still the same old master, but more film-like and natural.  So, overall, it's progress, but would still score rather fair (as opposed to poorly) compared to other BDs.

Paramount kindly gave us both the original stereo mix plus a new 5.1 with optional English subtitles on their DVD.  Oh and a French dub, too.  And happily, though Via Vision drops the dub, they keep both English tracks, in lossless LPCM and DTS-HD, respectively, as well as the English subs.  And Paramount's new blu?  It may look even better at first... they've got the 5.1 in DTS-HD, plus French, German and two Spanish dubs.  They've still got standard English subtitles, plus English HoH, German, French, Japanese and two sets of Spanish subs.  That's a lot, but if you're paying attention, they've dropped the original stereo mix.
More good news: Paramount loaded up their special edition pretty dutifully.  First there's an audio commentary with Abrahams and the Zuckers, plus producers Jon Davison and Hunt Lowry.  It loses steam a few times, but they point out a lot of fun behind-the-scenes information and obscure jokes all with a healthy dose of self-deprecating laughs.  In fact, they're self-deprecating in all their commentaries, but here it's compounded with the fact that they're still clearly wincing from the sting of rejection this film received in 1984, so they're good sports for still supporting this film here.  We also get a look at four of the film's deleted scenes, which just add a little more fun to the pot.  Finally, there are three sets of storyboards and the theatrical trailer.

All of these have been carried over to Via Vision's blu, and it's mostly the same on Paramount's.  The new blu has everything except the storyboards.  But in their place, we get the famous backwards scene played in reverse, so we can see how it was originally performed.
So it's a bit of a side-grade in terms of extras, and a bit of a step backwards in terms of audio (unless you have a use for those new foreign language options).  But it's a step forward in terms of PQ.  It's still not great, but it's better.  Overall, I'd say that adds up to an upgrade, but not a major one.  Paramount's blu is now the one to own, but if you already got the Via Vision, this is going to be a pretty unexciting double-dip.  You'll probably want to replace it eventually, but I'd prioritize it pretty low.

No comments:

Post a Comment