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Striving for 'Sgt.' Stripes

Movie review: Steve Martin has his moments as Bilko, but the film pales in comparison to the classic Phil Silvers TV show.

March 29, 1996|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Sgt. Bilko" is one of those joyless comedies that have lately become so prevalent, a halfheartedly amusing film that avoids originality while relying on old and tired material. Places where laughter is expected are always clearly indicated, but more often than not there is no reason to actually laugh.

While the filmmakers like to say they were inspired by the 1950s TV series starring Phil Silvers as the king of noncommissioned connivers, inspiration of any kind is what is lacking here. Instead, screenwriter Andy Breckman and director Jonathan Lynn make do with feeble intimations of humor: Men falling down are always funny, and men falling down after they've been hit by golf balls are funnier still. You get the idea.

And though key characters like the dim Col. Hall (Dan Aykroyd) and the blubbery Duane Doberman (Eric Edwards) are holdovers from the series, the less you remember about the original show, one of the most brilliant of early TV comedies, the more palatable what Lynn and company have done becomes.

Steve Martin stars this time around as the man so adept at swindling he marvels, "No wonder they call me a master sergeant." Wisely, Martin, a real pro, makes no attempt to duplicate Silvers' indelible mannerisms. Though Martin knows how to entertain, the material he has to work with is so lacking that this standard-issue star vehicle is the inevitable result.

Audiences are introduced to the good sergeant and his Ft. Baxter platoon through the eyes of a new member: Pfc. Wally Holbrook (Daryl Mitchell), the first competent mechanic ever assigned to Bilko's larcenous motor pool.

A straight arrow focused on "protecting the American way of life," Holbrook has a hard time adjusting to a gambling-loving sergeant who can literally smell money on potential victims and whose idea of military maneuvers is selling tickets to a "Meet Stormin' Norman" barbecue, complete with a Schwarzkopf look-alike.

Any potential conflict between these two soon fades in the face of Bilko's unstoppable charm and a pair of genuine crises. No. 1 is that military downsizing has placed Ft. Baxter's future as a center for research and development in danger, especially given its record of zero successes in nine years of trying.

And coming down to inspect the fort's latest contraption, the top-secret Hovertank, is Maj. Colin Thorn (Phil Hartman), an old nemesis of Bilko's. When he hears that the sergeant is on the post, he decides "it's payback time" and proceeds to make things as miserable for the motor pool gang as he can.

*

Given that it lasted only half an hour, the original "Bilko" was strictly skit humor, and while this version is only a brief 92 minutes, one of the ways it goes wrong is attempting to stretch that kind of material thinner than it can stand.

In order to help use up those minutes, the film has given Bilko a long-suffering girlfriend named Rita Robbins (Glenne Headly), whom the forgetful sergeant has left waiting at the altar a handful of times. Talk about funny.

None of this mild material is painful to watch, but neither is it comic enough to be worth all the time and effort presumably lavished on it. Martin definitely has his moments, but past that, writer Breckman--whose credits include "Arthur 2," "True Identity" and "I.Q."--has provided little to look forward to.

As for director Lynn, whose major credit was "My Cousin Vinny," he has made a career out of fashioning reasonable facsimiles of the kinds of movies that used to be funny. No one in Hollywood seems to have noticed that that's no longer the case.

* MPAA rating: PG. Times guidelines: calculatedly inoffensive.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Sgt. Bilko'

Steve Martin: Sgt. Bilko

Dan Aykroyd: Col. Hall

Phil Hartman: Maj. Thorn

Glenne Headly: Rita Robbins

Daryl Mitchell: Wally Holbrook

An Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Brian Grazer production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Jonathan Lynn. Producer Brian Grazer. Screenplay by Andy Breckman. Cinematographer Peter Sova. Editor Tony Lombardo. Costumes Susan Becker. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design Lawrence G. Paull. Art director Bruce Crone. Set designers Lauren Polizzi, Dawn Snyder, Masako Masuda, Yvonne Garnier-Hackl. Set decorator Rick Simpson. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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