At the end of Sgt. Bilko, there's a gag title thanking the U.S. Army "for its total lack of cooperation" in the making of the film. Presumably, the Army felt it couldn't very well officially sanction a movie in which the hero was a gleeful, unrepentantly corrupt master sergeant who runs an illegal gambling operation out of the motor pool.
What's crushingly disappointing about Sgt. Bilko, however, is how entirely unfounded the Army's worries were. It's hard to imagine anything in this film pissing off the Army.
Indeed, such service comedies as Stripes, Private Benjamin and even poor Pauly Shore's In the Army Now all had more subversive humor than Bilko--but because they included de rigueur lessons about the Army's transformative power, they were all made with the Army's blessing (and perhaps the Army knew what it was doing--it's said that enlistment surged after the release of Stripes). Sgt. Bilko is no more hip or edgy than a Francis the Talking Mule picture, but because the title character is still a happy crook at the end, the Army couldn't afford to approve the film.
Sgt. Bilko is, of course, based on the '50s TV classic The Phil Silvers Show, originally known by the better title You'll Never Get Rich. Steve Martin takes over Silvers' role, while Dan Aykroyd plays the blustering, clueless Colonel Hall; both men perform so unenthusiastically, you'd think they'd been drafted. Phil Hartman adds some spice as an obsequious villain--a martinet trying to settle an old score with Bilko--and there are some appealing faces among the young actors playing the Sarge's men.
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The funniest person in the film, however, is Austin Pendleton as a pained, defeatist weapons specialist. Except for a brief sequence, possibly improvised, in which Martin calls a very funny marching cadence, Pendleton's hangdog scenes are the only ones to lampoon creatively the military go-getter attitude.
The director, Jonathan Lynn, has some talent for farce--he helmed My Cousin Vinny, which was excellent, and The Distinguished Gentleman, which wasn't bad. But he couldn't work up any interest in this project. The result is so lacking in larcenous spirit that it's a disgrace--not only to one's fond memories of The Phil Silvers Show, but also, with a cast that ranges from Aykroyd to Chris Rock, to three generations of another classic TV comedy, Saturday Night Live.
A friend of mine recently asked me whether I would rather see another movie remake of an old TV show, or never see another movie at all. Considering how readily I usually toddle off to see even films I expect to be bad, I took it as significant that the question gave me pause.--M. V. Moorhead
Directed by Jonathon Lynn;
With Steve Martin, Dan Akroyd, Phil Hartman, Daryl Mitchell,
Austin Pendleton, Chris Rock and Glenne Headly,