Abrahams & the Zuckers Week, Day 4: Top Secret!

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.
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 this year, 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.  I'm really starting to like these guys.
2002 US Paramount DVD top; 2020 AUS Via Vision BD bottom.
Paramount once again decides 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 BD corrects.  It also pulls out ever so slightly to reveal slivers of additional picture along all four edges.  This 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 low.

Paramount kindly gave us both the original stereo mix plus a new 5.1 with optional English subtitles.  Oh and a French dub, too.  And happily, Via Vision drops the dub, but keeps both English tracks, in lossless LPCM and DTS-HD, respectively, as well as the English subs.  Good deal.
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, so go ahead and throw away those DVDs.  It's got better (if still considerably short of ideal) picture quality, audio quality, and all the previously released features.  Considering Paramount's never even bothered with a regular blu-ray release in the US, I wouldn't hold out for a restored Paramount Presents edition (although I'm always ready to be pleasantly surprised).  My guess is this is it for a long time, so import away.

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