Nutshell: A troubled pilot, Lt. Sean “Topper” Harley (Charlie Sheen) has been coaxed back into duty with the U.S. Navy by Lt. Cmdr James Block (Kevin Dunn), who hopes to utilize the flying ace in his well-meaning, but deceitful dealings with an airplane manufacturer. Returning to a place of great sorrow, Topper is confronted by tragic memories, looking to distract himself by romancing therapist Ramada (Valeria Golino) and engaging rival Lt. Kent Gregory (Cary Elwes). When a critical mission to Iraq is ordered, the team is sent into battle, forcing Topper to conquer his demons, get the girl, and return to his Native American dwelling in one piece.
1991: It was unusual to have “Hot Shots!” open six weeks after “The Naked Gun 2 1/2.” Not that the marketplace couldn’t handled the challenge (both films did big business), but the culture of comedy typically requires some breathing room between releases. Two parodies in the same season provoked some discomfort, with both pictures subjected to endless comparison.
Sharing DNA, “Hot Shots!” and “The Naked Gun” were pretty much the same movie after all. Breaking up the ZAZ (Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker) squad that founded the whole subgenre with pictures like “Airplane!” and “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” Abrahams decided to strike out on his own with this extended “Top Gun” riff, bringing in Pat Proft to help mastermind the script.
I wasn’t above slapping the two pictures together for inspection, preferring “Hot Shots!” at the time, relishing its joke-per-minute tempo and more contemporary objects of ridicule. It was a fresh reworking of known elements, taking a slightly hungrier direction. Again, both movies were loads of fun, big laughs all around. However, there was just something about the mix of Charlie Sheen and “Top Gun” that connected more successfully in 1991.
2011: After watching “The Naked Gun 2 1/2” a few weeks back and sensing a faint feeling of fatigue about the whole effort, “Hot Shots!” is like pounding a barrel of Jolt Cola by comparison. It’s a wild picture, a lot more animated than I remember, suggesting Abrahams was eager to accelerate the jokes as a way of keeping the properties separate. My youthful self embraced the anarchy and finger-snap timing. My adult self wanted the professionals to take a seat and honestly reflect on the jokes about to be committed to film.
“Hot Shots!” is a humorous picture with a few bellylaughs, but a 2011 viewing reveals a definite comedic schizophrenia about the direction. Trying to remain fully engorged as a slapstick comedy, the picture often goes berserk with physical gags, dialing down the satiric possibilities to pratfall away like a maniac. Silly is good, but “Hot Shots!” is pushy at times, staging head bonks and electrocutions with a Tex Avery fervor, looking to make noise when perhaps something more subtle was in order. There’s even a helium balloon-inhaling gag. Yikes. The film is too eager to please.
While bodies are hurled all over the frame, the finer moments of the movie are reserved for the parody sequences, taking on the likes of “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” “9 1/2 Weeks,” and “Marathon Man,” virtually ensuring prolonged parent/child Q&A sessions on the car ride home. “Dances with Wolves” (the new toy in Hollywood at the time) also takes a few hits, with Minnesota native Proft using town names as the native language of Sheen’s tribe. Cute. The movie pantsings are clever, filled with sly winks and body blows, riding that fine line between dopey and studied, holding the film together with some, gasp, structure.
Also amusing in the cast, with, gasp deux, Charlie Sheen making a fine impression in the starring role. Though Golino ultimately steals every scene she appears in (quite a mamma-mia deadpan on this one), Sheen’s the anchor and he’s a solid presence, playing everything with the proper straight-faced commitment, though he’s prone to some mugging. Sheen “gets” the Cruise shui, performing the Tony Scott-lathered bravado with a knowing kick, taking some impressive laughs with him. It’s a shame he’s elected to become one of the most annoying, unpleasant, and irresponsible men in Hollywood today. There was once such promise.
I’m not fully knocking “Hot Shots!” here, just admitting that its sugar content is a little coarse after two decades of absence. A good parody will make a forceful play for laughs, but this movie practically holds the viewer down in a tickle chair, drilling for any reaction. I admire the determination but the effect has worn off some. Maybe it’s Sheen. Maybe it’s my adulthood tarnishing the fun.
Actually, it’s the helium joke. Is this a motion picture or clown time at McDonalds? Sheesh.