The 1991 spoof Hot Shots! found itself to a small degree mirroring the front pages of the newspapers – and 20th Century Fox was worried.
Save for a few sporadic examples – the first Scary Movie, for instance, and more recently The Goes Wrong Show on the BBC – it feels like the era of the successful screen spoof came to a juddering halt in the 1990s. In 1993, we had the second of two Hot Shots! films, and in 1994 the Naked Gun trilogy came to an end. After those? It was slim pickings.
There were further attempts to breathe fresh life into the spoof – Spy Hard, Jane Austen’s Mafia!, Wrongfully Accused – but nothing that could live up to some of the movies we got in the 80s and early 90s.
In 1991 in particular, the spoof was a box office draw. This was the year when many big budget Hollywood productions came in well below box office expectations. Bruce Willis in Hudson Hawk, Disney’s blockbuster The Rocketeer, Harrison Ford Regarding Henry and even Steven Spielberg’s Hook fell short to varying degrees (no matter what you may think of the individual films there). Yet in ninth place at the US box office that year sat The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell Of Fear, and in 12th was the first Hot Shots! film. Both relatively economic to make, both popular with audiences.
Both films too involved the legendary Zucker Abrahams Zucker creative teams, just a little fractured. David Zucker was the standalone director once again for The Naked Gun sequel, whilst Jim Abrahams steered Hot Shots!. The trio still talked, but this was still a notable jump from when they directed Airplane!, the peerless Top Secret, and Ruthless People together.
Hot Shots! was the gamble here. Notwithstanding the fact that Abrahams’ previous film – Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael, starring Winona Ryder – had pretty much sunk without trace (at best, it got a token release at the UK box office), and that his new spoof was headlined by Charlie Sheen (himself coming off the back of a string of financial flops, including Navy Seals, Men At Work and The Rookie), there was a political backdrop too.
Hot Shots!, if you’ve not had the pleasure, is a spoof film about a military operation against in the Gulf, with pilots in the US Navy infiltrating Iraqi airspace and dropping a bomb on its-then leader, Saddam Hussein.
Even as the film was being written, by Abrahams and Pat Proft, tensions were building in the Persian Gulf area of the world. Then, things escalated dramatically in the summer of August 1990, when Iraqi forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait.
20th Century Fox had planned for Hot Shots! meanwhile, a film that on the surface was mining comedy from a situation that had suddenly become really rather real, to go into production in January 1991. That, as it would happen, would be the same month that a coalition of countries began military action against Iraq. The first Persian Gulf War was underway, two weeks after filming on Hot Shots! had begun,
Inevitably, this cause conversations at Fox. Was it right to be making a comedy about an attack on Iraq, when at the same time the movie was being shot, military personnel were risking their lives as a real-life conflict in the region played out?
Not that it was filming in the region. Denied, for fairly obvious reasons, the navy cooperation that a film such as Top Gun had received (although navy representatives did receive a copy of the script, and reportedly laughed at it, before conceding it wasn’t the kind of production they could support), the Hot Shots! team built an aircraft carrier in a former marine park in California. Even so, the creative team weren’t oblivious to what was happening. As Charlie Sheen would tell Entertainment Weekly magazine, “it’s a weird feeling coming to work wearing a piece of wardrobe that you’re seeing on the front page of the Los Angeles Times every day”.
Sheen, doing the interview circuit for the movie again when it was about to be released, admitted to Film Review magazine in its January 1992 issue that the film very nearly got the chop. The film’s future hung in the balance when the Gulf War began, and there was a very real possibility that 20th Century Fox might pull the plug. In fact, had the movie not begun filming, then it’s hard to think that it wouldn’t. As Sheen noted though, “the studio eventually decided to finish it – and to shelve it if the war was still going on by [the time the film was due to be released]”.
It turned out this really was the case. Fox had a mitigating plan to quietly put the movie into hibernation if the war escalated further. It was watching the headlines, with its fingers firmly crossed for more than one reason.
No small gamble, given that the movie itself was going to cost $26m to make. But still, by this time a good deal of that money had been allocated, and Fox would have taken pretty much the full financial hit for that if it yanked the project.
The war in the Gulf would come to an end on February 28th 1991 (although that’s simplifying things greatly, given what happened in the decades afterwards), with the movie wrapping filming in early April. Fox had been vindicated in its decision to hold its nerve, and Hot Shots! was able to hold its 26th July 1991 release date. It’d follow the second Naked Gun film into American cinemas by just a month, the last time two high profile spoof movies had earned summer release slots in America.
We wouldn’t actually get Hot Shots! until November in the UK (it even got a Royal Command Performance), by which time it’d already proven to be a hit at the US box office, and plans were afoot for the eventual follow-up, 1993’s Hot Shots! Part Deux. To the relief of Fox, it barely got any blowback from the movie either.
But as co-writer and director Abrahams always argued, it’s a comedy….
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