Top Secret

Director: Paul Leaf   
Bill Cosby, Tracy Reed, Sheldon Leonard

If you remember your childhood, you can probably remember that a good part of it was absolutely fascinated with so many things of our world. Remember when you first stared learning about the oceans? You learned about all the exotic life that's known to exist below the surface. Yet there is much more we don't know about the oceans - they are so deep that only a tiny percentage of them have been explored. Even as an adult, you have to wonder just what new or secret things may be under the surface. Another thing that fascinated us kids were some of the ways adults made a living, jobs that seemed for the priviledged or the just plain lucky. An example of this is a job that seemingly every kid wants to be when they grow up - an astronaut. Bobbing around in zero gravity, going on spacewalks, or even landing and walking on the moon. But as an adult, I can see that a number of flashy jobs like that I dreamed about as an adult lost their luster as the years passed and I absorbed new infomation about those jobs. While there may be many cool things about being an astronaut, you would suffer from a loss of many things we take for granted back on earth. You would have no privacy, being stuck in very small quarters with the rest of your crew. Having to go to the bathroom in a plastic baggie right next to someone would be pretty embarrassing. And if your nose started to itch when you were out of your spacecraft and in your spacesuit, you would probably have to suffer the itch for a long time before you were able to return to your spacecraft so you could take off your helmet and scratch that itch.

Another job that I'm pretty sure most children dream about having when they are grown up is being some kind of secret agent. I had that dream myself as a child, but that dream took a little longer to form in my head than with other children. You see, I had to go to bed earlier than other children my age, so I was cut off from TV programming and movies that were about the secret agent profession. Finally, one night my parents let me stay up to watch the movie You Only Live Twice - my first James Bond movie. By the end of the movie I was tired (maybe my parents were right and I needed more sleep), but I was also hooked. I watched every James Bond movie that subsequently came on TV, and any other avenue that showcased secret agents, like other movies or books, I devoured. There was so much about the secret agent lifestyle that seemed cool. You would always be sent to exotic locations on your mission, inevitably to at least one place that was tropical. There were all those cool gadgets that your agency would give you, gadgets that you would always finding yourself using on a mission. Being a spy also meant that you would get into a lot of action, where you'd see stuff blown up good. There would be a lot more violence you could infllict on the bad guys with martial arts (every agent is an expert on martial arts) and guns. And let's not forget about the women you'd encounter on your travels, women that always seemed to be available when you met them, and you could easily dispose of them shortly after a mission was done.

But as time went by, little by little the supposed coloful life as a spy lost its enticement to me. I learned that the cool gadgets that spies supposedly had were limited, and were mainly to do with boring stuff like listening in on a conversation instead of killing those in a conversation. I Top Secretlearned that there isn't that much call for spying in tropical nations, except maybe for Cuba. (And with the Cold War over and Cuba not supported by Russia, Cuba isn't exactly a big a threat as it once might have been.) I learned that spying is mostly investigating, with long periods of nothing happening, and that explosions and gunfire are rare. And with new threats like nuclear terrorism, spying can no longer be seen as fun, but only as serious and necessary business. That's why, when I found a copy of Top Secret (not to be confused with the Val Kilmer movie of the same name), I had a little queasy feeling. The movie deals with the threat of nuclear terrorism, yet it also promised to be an amusing look at spying - which you might have guessed with Bill Cosby being in the cast. But I decided I would still give it a chance - it might work, at least as being the reflection of a more innocent time. Cosby plays Aaron Strickland, a New York art dealer who is actually an undercover agent for the U.S. government. When a large amount of plutonium is stolen from a warehouse in Italy, Strickland is assigned to track it and the thieves down. He's told he'll be paired up with an agent in Italy named McGee, and McGee happens to be (gasp!) a woman (actress Tracy Reed). Though both agents have their differences with each other right from the start, they reluctantly start working on their assignment. The plutonium theft seems to center around former New York crime boss Carl Vitale (Sheldon Leonard, who was also the movie's executive producer), but is he responsible?

I am sure that many people who have the opportunity to watch Top Secret will be watching it in order to see if Cosby tries to shake his family-friendly image, imagining that if he tries doing it there will be a lot of unintended laughs. They'll smile thinking of Cosby shooting guns, using high tech gadgets like jet packs, and getting into fisticuffs and kung fu battles with the bad guys, just like James Bond does. (Though I am fairly certain that these same viewers will not want to see Cosby involved in bedroom sequences with various ladies.) But sadly, I have to report that Cosby's character is not involved in that much James Bond-like activity. There are no high-tech gadgets anywhere in the movie, for one thing, and I don't recall him ever firing a gun at any moment (though he is seen carrying guns a few times.) He does use his fists a few times, but these fight sequences are only a few seconds long. There is one scene where he is battling someone carrying a knife, and his frantic jumping around to avoid the knife is somewhat amusing, but that's it for unintentionally funny superspy action. Cosby simply does not get much of a chance to act like what most of us would consider to be a super spy. Perhaps that was a good thing, since much of the movie strives to be pretty serious, and seeing someone like Cosby as some kind of superman in this surrounding would have seemed very out of place - especially since this is Cosby we're talking about. But Cosby does seem to be out of place here all the same. He tries to put up a serious front, but he can't resist every so often from displaying his trademark mugging into the camera, as well as speaking in a way that sounds like he is on stage doing his stand-up comedy routine.

I know that Cosby mixed spying with humor successfully before, in the I Spy TV series. But here it simply doesn't work. Part of the reason may be because there's not much that's funny about nuclear terrorism nowadays. Had the plot concerned something lighter, like an art theft, Cosby's silliness may have been more acceptable. Maybe also the screenwriter would have turned out a better script, because he doesn't seem to know that much about spying or other subjects like the handling of nuclear materials. The plutonium in this movie is stolen from a flimsy warehouse with incredibly bad security, and its manufacturer so badly packaged the material up that it gives anyone who's near it radiation poisoning. As for the spying, even those viewers who have never been to spy school will recognize that the protagonists make a number of goofs. Early in the movie, Cosby identifies a terrorist at a party because of the terrorist's radiation poisoning signs, Cosby does not stay silent and follow the terrorist once the party is over. Instead, he immediately provokes the terrorist, which leads to the terrorist fleeing the scene and a subsequent car/foot chase that results in the terrorist getting away - not surprising, since capturing and questioning the terrorist at this point of the movie would have resulted in a twenty minute movie. As Cosby's partner, Reed's character is also pretty unprofessional, expressing anger being saddled with him right at their first meeting despite knowing next to nothing about him at that point. You might think that with a serious assignment like they have, she'd want all the help she could get, but she is simply mad so that the movie can add some artifical chemistry between the two characters.

You might think that some genuine chemistry might form between the two characters as the movie progresses, but you would be wrong. For some reason, Cosby's character is (happily) married back in New York, so there is no romance between Cosby and Reed. So Cosby and Reed just end up kind of admiring each other. That's not the only questionable use of characters in the movie. The terrorists are a bland bunch - I think we just learn the name of one of them during the entire movie, and we never find out just what cause they are fighting for and need the plutonium for. And as for the former crime boss, who (unsurprisingly) is indeed involved with the plutonium theft, guess what happens to him at the end of the movie? Surprisingly, nothing. After the heroes catch the terrorists and get back the plutonium not long after escaping the clutches of the crime boss, they don't even try to capture the crime boss. He is simply forgotten about. Not only is the script lacking substance, what we get to see in front of us isn't that thrilling at all. Knowing that the movie was actually shot on location in Italy might lead you to think that we would at least get some pleasant eye candy. But most of the Italian locations are poorly chosen. Instead of looking exotic, they look worn out and downright filthy to boot, often shot under overcast skies and with patches of mud all over the ground. And as for any display of action, you pretty much better forget about it. Most of the movie is devoted to Cosby and Reed talking and sleuthing - pretty boring stuff. Though if you remember what I said about real-life spying in the third paragraph of this review, maybe Top Secret did get at least one thing right after all.

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See also: For Your Height Only, 99 And 44/100% Dead, Up To His Ears