Wednesday, August 26, 2015

DUELING MOVIES: Hot Shots! vs. Meet the Spartans


                Some war movies lend themselves to parody and some beg to be satirized.  “Hot Shots!” and “Meet the Spartans” fall into the latter category.  That is because the movies they are making fun of are almost parodies in themselves.  And who can resist making fun of two movies that were huge successes in spite of the critics.  It would have been incredible if no one had taken on “Top Gun” and “300”.  All you can hope for as a war movie lover is they don’t blow the opportunity.

                “Hot Shots!” came out five years after “Top Gun”.  It was directed by Jim Abraham of “Airplane!” fame.  Abraham also did the underrated war movie spoof “Top Secret”.  "Hot Shots!" cost $26 million and made $181 million.  The movie stars Charlie Sheen, Cary Elwes, and Lloyd Bridges (who replaced George C. Scott).  Although a parody of “Top Gun”, the movie has its own plot involving the corruption of the military-industrial complex (I think that’s what they were targeting, right?) and Operation Slippery Weasel which involves a mission against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  The arc of Topper Harley’s (Sheen) daddy-issues therapy with comely Ramada (Valeria Golino) mimics the romance in “Top Gun” and is actually more realistic.  At least there is some chemistry here.  There is also the spoofing of the competition between the two hot shot pilots as Topper’s nemesis is Kent Gregory (Elwes). ( I don’t why he didn’t  get a funny name or nickname.)  Stumbling through the proceedings is Adm. Benson (Bridges).  One of the running jokes is his litany of war wounds which include his bladder on Guadalcanal, his head on Pork Chop Hill, ear canals on Corregidor, forehead in Normandy, and eye balls on Okinawa.  The movie takes on several air combat movie clichés including the love triangle, the fight in the bar, the doomed flyer (“Dead Meat”), and the ubiquitous motorcycle.  As per the subgenre, it parodies movies like “Dances With Wolves”, “Rocky”, “Gone With the Wind”, and “Superman” - all well-known classics.
Can you guess which movie is being spoofed?

                “Meet the Spartans” came out just one year after “300”.  It was directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.  They had made names for themselves in similar movies like “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie”.  The movie cost $30 million (try to figure out where the money went) and made $84 million.  Not a bad profit for so little effort.  It stars Sean Maguire, Carmen Electra (of course), and Kevin Sorbo.  The movie attempts to lampoon each of the iconic scenes in “300”.  These include the training of Leonidas' (Maguire) son, the “pit of death” scene, the visit to the prophetess (Ugly Betty), the first encounter (a dance contest),  the opening battle (a “yo mama” contest), and the battle involving the monster (Rocky Balboa).  Meanwhile, back in Sparta, Queen Margo (Electra) squares off with Traitoro (Diedrich Bader).  The main running gag is that the Spartans are gay, but don’t realize it.  Besides “300” the film targets more TV programs than movies.  It is mainly interested in trashing celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and making numerous snarky pop culture references.
The two dudes kissed!  Hilarious!

                This post came about because my coverage of the Battle of Thermopylae and references to “300” caused some of my students to prod me to watch “Meet the Spartans”.  They assured me it was hilarious.  I have to admit I should have done my war movie duty and have seen it before.  However, I trust critics and “Meet the Spartans” has a 2% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Sometimes critics are wrong and teenagers are right, but not this time.

                “Hot Shots!” is very much in the “Airplane!” model.  There are lots of silly jokes and sight gags.  It is large quantity and some quality.  Not as high a percentage as "Airplane!", but that would be asking too much.  Most of the jokes are more smilers than guffaws, but the movie is consistently funny.  If you are like me and think “Top Gun” was a terrible movie that needed to be made fun of, you won’t be disappointed.  But the movie is not mean-spirited and can be enjoyed by undiscerning movie-goers who like “Top Gun”.   The ribbing of clichés is a nice touch to go along with the movie parodies.  The attention to this starts with the title and includes the nicknames given to the stereotyped characters like “Wash Out”.  Special kudos to the parodying of “Top Gun” style music.

                “Meet the Spartans” starts off strong with the birth of Leonidas and then a montage of his brutal training of his son which includes chasing him with a chain saw.  I did laugh out loud a few times in the first twenty minutes, but not again after that.  I don’t necessarily sneer at silly (having grown up with Monty Python), but this is infantile silly.  The level of humor is evidenced early when Leonidas battles with a giant penguin (a dig at “Happy Feet”).  Watch the unrated edition if you want more lewd penguin humor.  Although “300” should have been easy to parody, “Meet the Spartans” is too lazy to do it right.  It is a botched attempt at a sitting duck.  For example, it is the height of laziness to include “yo mama” jokes, but you could go on the Internet to find many that are funnier than the ones used in the movie.
"Meet the Spartans" offers more than it delivers

                “Hot Shots!” wins this match hands down and it is partly due to who it is aimed at.  The target demographic was not limited to the 14 year old boys who were the main audience for “Meet the Spartans”.  This means the level of humor is slightly higher and it is slightly lower on the silly meter.  “Hot Shots!” has a huge advantage in acting and casting.  Compare the top five billed actors to see what I mean.  No offense to Sean Maguire, but he’s no Charlie Sheen.  You can argue who is hotter between Valeria Golino and Carmen Electra, but one of them can act and the other is Carmen Electra.  By the way, a point in Golino’s favor is the catching of the  olive from her navel was not trick photography.
No CGI was used in this scene

                Most importantly, if you were to choose to watch either one today, “Hot Shots!” is clearly the better choice.  It holds up much stronger due to the choice of targets.  Making fun of Lindsay Lohan and Kevin Federline may have been hilarious in 2008, but talk about old news now.  It is like watching an episode of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”.  Whereas everyone is familiar with the classic movies “Hot Shots!” parodies, the TV-centric targets of “Meet the Spartans” are too lightweight.  Speaking of old news, 2008 was not that long ago in years, but the gay jokes that populate "Meet the Spartans" are already squirm-inducing.  If you are going to build a movie around pop culture references, you can’t expect it to have long-term entertainment value.  The war movie clichés that “Hot Shots!” takes on will always be with us, but who the hell cares about Sanjaya Malakar.
Cast rating:  8+6+8+7 = 7.25 avg.  

Cast rating:  6+2+5 = 4.33



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