I re-watched both Hot Shots! films recently. Man, they play differently now.
Remember when killing Saddam Hussein was a wishful joke in two silly movies? Google sort of takes the air out of those jokes now, you know? Evil tyrant, mass murderer, horrible human being, yes — and now if you want, you can search Google Video and watch him die.
So should I laugh now when I see Topper Harley fly over and drop a bomb into Saddam’s lap in the movie? (I guess so, because somehow Saddam lives in the film.)
Or how about when they go to assassinate Saddam in the sequel, and he speaks with a lisp, morphs into liquid metal, and grows furry ears?
My siblings and I probably watched Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux a half dozen times when we were growing up, and a few more times on television. We grew up watching this kind of simple-minded parody full of sight gags and cultural commentary we didn’t understand yet.
The Hot Shots! films, released shortly after Gulf War I, are some pretty strong indicators of the lack of closure in western culture re: Saddam. They make Saddam out not so much as a brutal dictator as a bungling fool — stepping on rakes, tripping over dog beds, and running face-first into a bug zapper. We couldn’t get him then, so we settled for making him a joke. Humor is a great way to deal with pain.
For more than 10 years, that lack of closure festered, and we all know how that turned out.
Both Hot Shots! films are a strong indicator of the mood of this country in the period between the two Persian Gulf Wars. Throw in a parade of jokes that are simply racist and ignorant and you have possibly one of the lowest points in American cinema, right?
Except I don’t think it’s that simple.
Consider, instead, that these films were made precisely to lampoon the jingoistic bullshit of films like Top Gun and Rambo: First Blood Part II (and III). Richard Crenna even shows up here, spoofing his own (homoerotic) role in the Rambo movies.
At one point, an Iraqi torturer steps out of the shadows wearing a Holiday Inn towel on his head. You don’t get a whole lot more racist than that.
But is this more of a comment on what viewers think rather than what the filmmakers think?
The filmmakers uniformly substitute obscure words and mumbled names of famous people as foreign language. “Kareem of onion! Al Jarreau!” “Omar Sharif!” “Sufferin’ Succotash!”
If you’re sharp-eared, you can catch it. If you just hear foreign language as so much gibberish, you won’t even hear English. The filmmakers are testing you.
There’s just so much legitimately brilliant comedy here that I can’t get upset no matter how badly I want to decry this film as racist or ignorant, or wriggle uncomfortably in my chair at the Saddam death fantasies. I can’t get self-righteous about them, because they’re skewering…us.
Ryan Stiles, who plays a demolition expert (and seems like an early, much milder draft of the character Danny McBride plays in Tropic Thunder), really nails it:
“Know what I’m gonna do if we make it? I’m gonna go back to Eagle River and marry my gal, Edith Mae. Gonna get us a nice little place with a white picket fence. You know the kind. Two-car garage. Maybe a fishing boat. And in 15 years, when they’re all paid for… I’ll set my charges and blow the shit out of them.”
The more I ponder that quote, the more I feel that those words are a microcosm of what makes the Hot Shots! films brilliant parodies of American culture, not just Top Gun. (Read a certain way, Top Gun is a brilliant parody of American culture. Is the American Dream owning all that stuff, or having the freedom to blow up what we want when we grow bored with it all?
Also consider Miguel Ferrer’s line, “Thank you, Topper. I can kill again. You’ve given me a reason to live.” Later, he has another great moment, smiling and mugging for the camera before saying, “War: It’s fantastic!”
Both Hot Shots! films are a comment on the American dream and our insatiable thirst for violence, and not just in film. There’s even a video game counter at the bottom of the screen in Act III, tallying the death toll and declaring this the bloodiest film ever. Do we not keep a death toll during times of war?
Nothing is safe from parody here — especially the audience’s worldview. They even take a shot at Apocalypse Now, throwing in Martin Sheen for a cameo, and turning Iraq into Vietnam, just with Iraqis this time. For so many Americans, what’s the difference?
Re-watching the Hot Shots! films wasn’t revisiting a pair of comedies I enjoyed as a teenager so much as it was viewing a snapshot of the post-Gulf War zeitgeist. It’s a strange snapshot – like finding a picture of yourself that you don’t remember anyone taking. Sure, you owned that shirt, wore that hat, and hung out with those people, but you don’t remember anyone taking pictures. You barely remember that time now. Surely we weren’t there, were we?
But that’s you. You were there.
And you had a good time.
And you’re not sure if that’s okay now.