Starring Steve Martin, Dan Ackroyd and Phil Hartman
Last night, while picking through the haystack this is B movies uploaded onto Netflix streaming, I cam across a gem from my youth. The classic 1996 comedy starring Steve Martin in what could be one of his best performances, as the good-time seeking Master Sergeant Ernest G Bilko and his band of misfits, at the fictional Fort Baxter Motor Pool.
The plot is straightforward and enjoyable: Bilko, a high ranking NCO, lives the good life as a huckster and gambler running a larcenous operation with the aid of his misfits and is constantly outwitting the loveable but buffoonish Colonel Hall, in an perfectly under acted performance by Dan Ackroyd.
During a routine inspection of the base by Pentagon representative Major Thorn (Hartman) Bilko,(who had unwittingly sabotaged Thorn’s career when he was a younger soldier) is singled out by Thorn in an attempt to get payback to Bilko for the aforementioned slight that derailed Thorn’s career.
Added to the mix is Bilko’s long suffering girlfriend, Rita, (in a perfectly cast Glenne Healy) who has been left at the alter numerous times by absent minded Bilko.
As Bilko and Thorn match wits, Rita becomes the ultimate prize for both men and a game of one upsmanship takes place, with a good background story that involves outrageous military spending projects that is outrageous enough to be reality.
Through it all is Darrel Mitchell, the young actor who was also well known for his work in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, and Veronica’s Closet, the annoying TV sitcom starring pre-weight gain/loss/gain/loss/gain Kirsti Alley. Mitchell gives a mild performance and seems to wander through early scenes and only get into his stride after the halfway mark.
Sgt. Bilko is a film I don’t believe could currently be made again, even if the cast were as good as this.
Let me explain:
With hundreds of thousands of American troops in de-facto combat zone’s all over South Asia, portraying the American military as a bunch of bureaucratic nincompoops is probably a public relations nightmare for a studio. Reasonable people can jest in soft spoken words about the state of the American military, but when the prevailing wind in public thought is that American soldiers need to be at all times respected and thanked, creating an image of anything less than that strikes too close for comfort to some audiences.
It is worth noting that at the end of Bilko the message reads as the screen goes black that the producers thank the United States Army for its complete lack of support.
Despite a feeling of some datedness, Bilko is a supremely well acted, well written comedy that provides so, well needed respite from the conventional narrative of serious soldiers and over the top nationalism.