Rated PG, 94 min. Directed by Jonathan Lynn. Starring Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Phil Hartman, Glenne Headly, Daryl Mitchell, Austin Pendleton, Chris Rock.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 5, 1996
Austin Chronicle film editor Marge Baumgarten commented the other day that Phil Silvers' Sgt. Bilko was her first introduction to the fact that not all adults were kind and loving family types. Thinking back, I'd have to concur: Silvers' Bilko had the vaguely menacing air of an overzealous circus clown, an oddly disturbing cavalcade of nervous twitches and hidden agendas. This updated version from the director of My Cousin Vinny loses the (presumably unintended) kidhood malevolence of the TV series in favor of a much broader form of cinematic slapstick and tomfoolery. Like the original television program, this approach is pretty scattershot; real belly laughs come only when Martin, as Bilko, or Hartman, as his nemesis Major Thorn, are onscreen. The rest of the film is just a series of comic vignettes strung together to give the stars something zany to do. Theoretically, Bilko commands the Ft. Baxter motor pool. In reality, though, Sgt. Ernest Bilko uses the pool as a camouflage for his real genius, the making, placing, and winning of bets. A compulsive gambler with the proverbial heart of gold, Bilko tends his flock of army misfits with the zeal of a missionary. Well-versed in the art of the con, Bilko and company consistently scam, outwit, and otherwise fleece the army-at-large, including Ft. Baxter's commanding officer, Colonel Hall (Aykroyd in a woefully mediocre part). When Major Thorn shows up one day and learns that his old foe Bilko is still around, he orders an audit of the motor pool and begins wooing the sergeant's longtime fiancée Rita Robbins (Headly). It's a war of attrition whose only purpose is to unite the two onscreen. When Sgt. Bilko works, it works well. Both Martin and Hartman are masters of subtle physical comedics; a raised eyebrow here, a shrug there, and you're in the aisle. Unfortunately, even the genuine genius of those two can't save Lynn's film from its final fate. All things considered, Sgt. Bilko is little more than a lengthy episode of the original show. Only less creepy.