FILM / It's not hot and there's no shots in it: Hot Shots: Part Deux] is the latest exercise in movie parody from Jim Abrahams. Kevin Jackson met him

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The Independent Culture
CLOSE-UP on Charlie Sheen, tense and sweaty in combat gear, musing about hell being the impossibility of reason. Cut to close-up on Martin Sheen, sweaty and tense in combat gear, musing about his ever-narrowing proximity to the demented Colonel Kurtz. Cut to wide shot of father and son leaping to the sides of their respective patrol boats and yelling in unison 'I loved you in Wall Street]' Surely you recognise the comic trademark? Correct: it's a scene from the latest offering of the Airplane / Naked Gun school - Hot Shots: Part Deux], directed by Jim Abrahams. . . and don't call him Shirley.

The Part Deux] subtitle is a low shot at the more po-faced critics who wheel out such adjectives as asinine, vulgar, sophomoric, cretinous or simply dumb whenever faced with reviewing these cheerfully shameless genre spoofs by Abrahams and / or his sometime collaborators the Zucker bothers, Jerry and David (as in The Naked Gun 2 1/2: Un film de David Zucker). There are certainly plenty of moments in Hot Shots: Part Deux] that merit sniffiness, not least the scene in which Lloyd Bridges, as a cerebrally challenged President of the United States, vomits copiously on his Japanese dinner companion. (What on earth could have prompted that gag?)

But if subtlety has never been a forte of the ZAZ team, it would be churlish to deny them their flashes of real inspiration. At the very least, they must be credited with devising the only end credits that audiences will sit through happily. Some of their characters are not just amusing but lovable: Leslie Nielson's Lt Frank Drebin is a sublime compound of oafishness and unassuming dignity. And even the most grudging critic of the quality of ZAZ humour couldn't fault its quantity - if one joke fails to tickle, there's always another half- dozen coming up in the next five seconds. Abrahams insists, however, that there is more to the style than blunderbuss bursts of coarse wit.

'We made that mistake once, and we had to learn from it - in 1984, when we made Top Secret]. The way we wrote that was to take 10 of our favourite jokes, put them up on a board and then try to contrive a plot that would get us from joke to joke. Well, everyone hated it. So the moral we took away from that was always to pay attention to the story, and ever since then we've always spent a lot of time, a disproportionate amount of time even, putting together a story that has first act, second act, third act. And it's only then that we start to concern ourselves with the jokes.'

The story of Hot Shots: Part Deux] will be familiar to anyone who has ever suffered through an MIA film, and particularly through Rambo III. After various rescue attempts have failed, the US military track down their top pilot (Charlie Sheen) in the Buddhist monastery where he has been hiding since the last movie. Soon, he is off to a certain middle- eastern dictatorship run by a rum customer with a droopy moustache and Sylvester Cat lisp . . .

Rambo III is one of countless movies parodied here, from Platoon to Lady and the Tramp. Indeed, the film has even spawned a kind of meta-parody, in the shape of the half-hour mockumentary Heart of Hot Shots Part Deux], in which Abraham's real-life daughter (aged 7) speculates on her father's descent into existential torment much as Eleanor Coppola mused about her husband Francis going bananas in the making-of-Apocalypse Now film Hearts of Darkness.

Part Deux] is the fourth movie Abrahams has directed since the ZAZ partnership diversified into solo projects. Apart from the first Hot Shots], he also made a more conventional comedy, Big Business, with Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, and the Winona Ryder vehicle Welcome Home, Roxy Charmichael; he also continues to be involved in the writing and production of the Naked Gun movies. Quite a decent track record for a man who spent his first few years after college working contentedly for an insurance company in his home town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his father ran a real estate company with a Mr Zucker, whose sons were just a little too young to be suitable playmates for Jim. It was not until Jim Abrahams was in his late twenties that the Zucker boys became his friends.

'One day I ran into David Zucker, who was working in construction, and he said 'We have this video equipment, do you want to come and play around with it?' This would be in about 1970, when video was a real novelty. So we started to videotape spoofs of TV commercials, and scenes from Love Story. It was really just for our own amusement, but eventually we showed it to some of our friends, and they laughed, so we decided to take it to the University of Wisconsin. People would pay a dollar to get in, and they laughed too, so we said to ourselves, let's go on to another city.'

The master plan was to go to Los Angeles, make enough of a splash to be noticed by talent scouts from Johnny Carson's Tonight show, and become famous overnight. It almost worked. With a couple of fellow performers in tow, they set off for the West Coast and actually built their own little venue (the Zuckers' years in construction were paying off). Before long, the Kentucky Fried Theatre was a hot ticket, and the invitation to the Tonight show was theirs.

'Even today, when I go back to Milwaukee, I still find myself apologising to people who stayed up late that night to watch us. It was a debacle. We couldn't have been any worse, no one laughed. . . What happened was that we'd never had the opportunity to rehearse our jokes with the cameras, so that all the funny stuff was happening off-screen, no one could see it. Well, uncomfortable as it was, it was a very valuable experience, because it taught us that if you're going to write comedy and perform comedy, you'd better have control of where the cameras are pointing.'

The application of that lesson became possible after John Landis came to see their show one night and enjoyed what he saw. At this time, Landis was something of a wunderkind - he had recently made a profitable first movie, Schlock (1973), for a tiny budget and was on a roll. Seeing the potential of their material, Landis not only agreed to direct a 10-minute taster on spec, but even lent them one of his own scripts so that the neophytes could see how to lay out dialogue. (The script was entitled An American Werewolf in London.) The partners gambled all of their profits to date - dollars 36,000 - and found a shrewd investor willing to back the remaining 80-odd minutes. Kentucky Fried Movie reached the screens in 1977, and ZAZ were in the movie business.

In the meantime, the partners had spent the best part of six years writing, rewriting and re-rewriting a script about a mid-air emergency - a subject which had almost literally fallen into their hands one day. 'Back in those days the way we'd get new material was to leave a video on all night long and tape stuff from the early hours, because that's when the dumbest commercials and movies are on. And one morning we woke up and played back what we had taped the night before. . . it was like we were fishermen pulling in a net, and in this net was this movie called Zero Hour, made in 1957 and starring Sterling Hayden and Dana Andrews.

'It was Airplane], it was the serious version of Airplane]. . . there's even a line in Zero Hour where the doctor on the plane says 'We have to find someone who can not only fly this plane but who didn't have fish for dinner. . .' Imagine, people who do parodies coming across a line like that] We were so thrilled that we went out straight away and bought the rights to it and rewrote it as a comedy. That was a turning point for us.'

After Airplane], a cop show from the 1950s starring Lee Marvin, M Squad, provided the inspiration for a television series, Police Squad, and thus for the Naked Gun series, the British cider advertisments (authorised by Paramount rather than ZAZ) and for the sucessful renaissance of a type of parody that first surfaced in Mad magazine four decades ago. Its popularity is evident; but isn't it a rather parasitic form of humour? 'No, because the aim of all these parodies is that they should work whether or not you recognise the reference. It should always be fun to see Charlie Sheen push a meatball across a plate with his nose, even if you've never seen Lady and the Tramp.' Freeze frame. Wobble props. Roll silly credits.

Hot Shots: Part Deux] opens on Friday 20 August.

(Photographs omitted)

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