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Hot Shots!

Top Gun is, let's be frank, a movie that verges on self-parody. I know the film has sits fans, and that can be quite fanatical indeed, but there's so much silliness in that movie. It rides that wave of self-serious high cheesy to a high degree, but people love it. It's almost like you can't make fun of a film that already knows what it is and still commits to doing it all with a straight face.

And yet, in 1991 (fives years after Tom Cruise's fighter plan epic hit the big screens), we did indeed get a film making fun of Top Gun. Hot Shots! as masterminded by the "A" in "ZAZ", Jim Abrahams of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. They were the team that created Airplane!, generally regarded as one of the best parody films ever made. You can feel some of that Airplane! DNA in Hot Shots!, a film that lovingly takes the general plot outline of Top Gun and spins a parody around the story. It's not shot for shot or beat for beat, but if you know Top Gun, you'll see it's story, through and through, in Hot Shots!.

The film follows Lt. Sean "Topper" Harley (Charlie Sheen), a pilot who was once considered to have the potential to be the best there ever was. Sadly, his family history is a sore spot for Topper, seeing as his father (who was also an ace pilot) was forced to eject from his plan, leaving his co-pilot to die alone. That tarred his father's reputation, and the same weight falls on Topper as well. He left the Navy to go live with Native Americans, finding peace among their people and never thinking about going back to fly jets again.

When Lt. Cmdr. James "Eyewitness" Block (Kevin Dunn) seeks Topper out, though, he brings the pilot back into the fold to help with an exceedingly difficult mission. They need to bomb a military arms depot before it becomes fully operational, and they only have so long to train and perform the mission. Topper is teamed up with other ace pilots -- Cary Elwes as Lt. Kent "Pirate" Gregory, Jon Cryer as Lt. Jim "Wash Out" Pfaffenbach, William O'Leary as Lt. J.G. Pete "Dead Meat" Thompson, Kristy Swanson as Lt. J.G. Janet "Bio" Kowalski -- to get ready for the mission. But maybe Topper being there isn't to help the mission... but sink it. Cmdr. Block may have brought him in so that he can fail, leading the Navy to have to contract planes from a weapons manufacturer. Can Topper save the day and strike one for the good old U.S. of A. against those corporate jerks?

As noted, the core of the film is basically Top Gun with just enough changed that the production couldn't get sued. Where Hot Shots! was produced by 20th Century Fox, Top Gun was produced by Paramount, and unlike in the case of Airplane!, no deal was struck here to use the original Top Gun! story for the sake of parody. It skirts by on the edges, but it does have to change a lot to stay just above the law.

It's the changes, in many cases, that actually make the main story weaker, honestly. Top Gun's story is threadbare, to be sure, but it works well enough. Fighter ace with issues has to rebuild himself to fly the mission and save the day. Topper goes through the same story, but tying the plot to his dad, and his dad's actions, and not to anything Topper did directly, deflates the drama of it. Sure, this is a comedy through and through, but every time someone says, "it's your dad's fault and you should be better," I felt like there was no weight to it. Topper is supposed to have this big issue but it never resonated well enough to actually carry the story.

Story is important, even in a parody. Just loosely tying scenes together with jokes can make for amusing moments -- Kentucky Fried Movie is nothing but sketches loosely tied together, and it works -- but even n small sketches have to have a story that carries you from beginning to end. In a long form movie you absolutely have to have a story that works, that has some resonance to it (silly as it may be) because otherwise there's no narrative thrust. I never bought into Topper's story, his issues, what he was doing out there, and that weakened Hot Shots!

If you compare Topper to Striker from Airplane!, the latter character had reasons he couldn't fly and shouldn't be in a plane, but he fought his way through it. Again, it's all silly but you did feel actual character growth which made you care. Then, as the jokes were strung on, along, and around the character arc, they played better. Without that working central character, Topper becomes just another empty vessel to facilitate jokes, and that means the film absolutely has to live by it's jokes. Hot Shots! only works maybe half the time on that front.

There are some amusing moments, sure. A love scene between Topper and his therapist, Valeria Golino's Ramada Thompson, is amusing with how it goes more and more over the top. Some weird, subtle jokes, like having a woman in the crew that no one notices is a woman, also work decently well. But often times the film takes a scatter shot approach to the jokes, flinging everything at the screen no matter how silly or hoary it may be. A similar approach was taken in Airplane! and it worked there but it does feel less functional here. Something, certainly, is missing from the mix.

But then, maybe some of that is, for Hot Shots!, it feels like everyone in the cast is in on the joke. While there isn't necessarily mugging per se, the cast generally doesn't play the bit as straight as they could. When you compare the performances from Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, and Leslie Nielsen against that of Sheen, Golino, Lloyd Bridges (who all effectively perform similar functions), the difference is night and day. The Airplane! actors played their roles straight, no matter how silly it got. In Hot Shots! there's always a silly edge, like the characters know they're in a parody and can't help just a little bit of sarcastic glint in their eyes. That little shift in performance is enough to flatten the parody.

Frankly, the one performance that really nails the tone is Cary Elwes. He nails some of the funniest bits in the film as Lt. Kent "Pirate" Gregory that no one else can even compare. His deliver, as a jilted lover who has come back for his chafing dish, is comedy gold ,and it's a bit that builds. This is the kind of joke paired with solid performance that Hot Shots! needed more of. Solid, straight faced actors delivering absolutely stupid lines perfectly. I loved this and I wanted more.

That's not to say that Hot Shots! is a bad film, not all the time. It does have good bits and amusing moments. But it has also aged noticeably. Maybe of its parody targets aren't anywhere near as popular now as they once were, from 9 1/2 Weeks, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and Dances with Wolves. Certainly none of those films had the same staying power as Top Gun, and it's hard to see the joke for many of those bits anymore. Some skits are funny, others fail for all kinds of reasons, and it amounts to a film that wasn't anywhere near as funny now as my old, 10 years old self thought years ago.

In the end, I think the film has simply passed its prime. It was amusing in the moment, and was even successful enough to warrant a sequel. But now, all these years later, the self-parody of Top Gun is actually funnier than the parody of Hot Shots!