Friday, October 12, 2012

Atten-Huh?: "Sgt. Bilko" (1996)

I'm torn. This is one of Steve Martin's worst films. Yet, Steve Martin is the best thing about this film.

Martin plays Sgt. Bilko, a goof-off who runs gambling rings and dog races out of his motor pool all under the nose of none too bright Colonel Hall (Dan Aykroyd). The small fort they are at has suffered another setback in their hovertank idea, and the military might close the post down. They send in hard as nails Major Thorn (Phil Hartman) to find out what is going on. Thorn and Bilko have a bad history, and Thorn immediately tries to take revenge on Bilko for getting him in trouble years before.

Thorn starts dating Rita (Glenne Headly), Bilko's consistently jilted fiancee. Thorn also plants evidence that Bilko has been taking money from the hovertank program, and Bilko and his squad must figure out a way to get back at Thorn and get the hovertank to work.

This ain't rocket science. The basic plot outline reads like it should star Pauly Shore or Tom Arnold. Instead, Martin is the lead, and he is hilarious. He tries anything to squeeze a laugh out of the weak material, and he does succeed more often than not. Lately, I have seen interviews where he tries to distance himself from this picture, but in fact he is the best thing about it. Too bad he is not onscreen for the entire running time.

Bilko's squad is a bunch of caricatures whose names I did not even bother with. We got the fat guy, the suave guy, the dumb guy, the by-the-book new recruit, the girl, and so on, and none of them make much of an impact. Aykroyd is too stiff as Hall, he seems to be wrestling with the spirit of Maclean Stevenson's Col. Blake. Phil Hartman, one of my all time favorite comedic actors, is also relegated to a nothing role. Headly isn't given any funny lines at all, nothing like her work with Martin in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."

Lynn's direction is terrible. All the scenes have a stagy quality to them. The camera is turned on, actors enter and exit, and nothing ever seems to happen except when Martin is on. I don't know how much Martin ad-libbed, if any, but the rest of the script sucks. The hovertank special effects are embarrassing, obvious computer animation that fails to convince.

If anyone else but Martin were in this, it would be an unprecedented disaster on par with a Pauly Shore or Tom Arnold military comedy. Martin tries to keep this one up, but eventually the movie collapses despite his efforts. "Sgt. Bilko" should be retired. (* *) out of five stars.