The Spoof Movie Boom of 1993, 30 Years Later

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The Spoof Movie Boom of 1993, 30 Years Later

Poring through a list of 1993 box office hits, it’s easy enough to pick out the big-money trends: grown-up thrillers, like John Grisham adaptations (The Firm, The Pelican Brief) and old-man star vehicles (In the Line of Fire; Rising Sun); comedy sequels galore; and indirect echoes of recent-past hits ( The Three Musketeers, the poor man’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Further down the charts, however, are a gaggle of movies uniting all of those elements into a single unlikely trend: In 1993, the spoof movie was booming. Thanks to the twin spoof successes of The Naked Gun 2 ½ and Hot Shots! back in 1991, ’93 saw a full crop of comedies imitating the gag-a-minute stylings of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, the team behind Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. Starting with February’s National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1, continuing with summer titles Hot Shots! Part Deux and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and wrapping up in the fall with Fatal Instinct, 1993 was both the spoofiest year in modern film history, and a sign of how unsustainable the form would become.

If there’s any measure of just how big the spoof biz was at the time, it’s Loaded Weapon 1. Arguably the shakiest concept of the year’s quartet — an action comedy parodying another series of action comedies not exactly known for its self-seriousness — somehow attracted both the National Lampoon brand name (not exactly a feather in anyone’s cap, but also not far removed from the days of Christmas Vacation) and a litany of stars: Emilio Estevez and a pre-Tarantino Samuel L. Jackson star as the Mel Gibson/Danny Glover equivalents, and the movie’s supporting cast (Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Tim Curry, Denis Leary, William Shatner, Kathy Ireland) and cameo roster (Bruce Willis, Whoopi Goldberg, F. Murray Abraham, Charlie Sheen) are both fairly packed with major names, especially for the time. All of these people, many at or around peaks of their careers, agreed to do a movie directed by a guy who wrote a bunch of Police Academy sequels, as if mistakenly boarding a Naked Gun sequel train in a rush.

Though the movie occasionally takes a well-earned potshot at Mad Mel (“I’m just taking one of those unmotivated butt-in-the-moonbeam walks,” Estevez says during his oiled-up nude scene), most of its attempts to directly spoof Lethal Weapon fall predictably flat in ways that anticipate later, worse spoofs that followed in the wake of Scary Movie. The scar-comparison foreplay from Lethal Weapon 3 gets a scene that does the same thing, but crazier; the whole movie finishes off with a lazy Wayne’s World homage. At least when Hot Shots! Part Deux goes after a specific scene, it’s an inspired goof: a flashback shows Topper Harley (Charlie Sheen), the initially Cruise-ish and now Stallone-like hero of the series, and Ramada (Valeria Golino) nuzzling over spaghetti, meticulously imitating the most famous scene from Lady and the Tramp.

Part Deux and Men in Tights were the spoof veterans of the year, boasting ZAZ co-mastermind Jim Abrahams and old master Mel Brooks, respectively, awarded plum summer-season slots from 20th Century Fox and grossing a similar amount. They’re both also oddly specific, with the Hot Shots! sequel heavily imitating the plot of box office disappointment Rambo III and Robin Hood goofing on the Kevin Costner movie from two summers earlier (by contrast, Brooks was previously moved to do a feature-length parody of Star Wars). Both have occasional moments of grinning laceration, like Cary Elwes dunking on Costner’s lack of an English accent, or Part Deux underlining a scene where Topper goads a battle-scarred soldier into killing again (“War!” the man enthuses after getting back in the game. “It’s fantastic!”), interrupting an overall softness that aims for tweenage snickers rather than truly inspired silliness. Part Deux engages in a kind of “ironic” American jingoism; Brooks, by the time of Men in Tights, was heavily recycling from his old material.

Brooks’ lifelong pal Carl Reiner got back into the spoof game with Fatal Instinct, his penultimate film as a director. In hindsight, it’s the most timeless of this group, an amusingly clumsy amalgamation of Body Heat, Fatal Attraction, Double Indemnity, and Cape Fear; then-zeitgeisty smash Basic Instinct is more of a style reference point, and Sleeping with the Enemy gets a subplot riff. At the time, this mixture might have felt weighted toward recent stuff, old noirs secondary to the contemporary erotic thrillers. Viewed with an additional 30 years of blur, though, Fatal Instinct’s lowbrow spoofery feels kinda classy just by virtue of nodding at a few movies that came out before 1980. In the fullness of time, the connection between old noirs and their ’80s counterparts feels more pronounced; in 2023, they’re both bygone subgenres too infrequently revisited. Reiner also has some fun recreating the lurid, sweaty semi-erotica of the time and chasing it with some old-fashioned 1940s touches, like the hard-boiled narration (reminiscent of the more genre-agnostic Naked Gun). As is often the case with relatively unremarkable 1990s movies, the colors in Fatal Instinct pop more than any number of bigger-budget endeavors today, whether comedy or thriller.

Reiner sometimes gets a little lost trying to figure out the rhythms of the contemporary spoof; plenty of the movie’s gags amount to musty broad-comedy shtick imported into a thriller framework. That’s the case with plenty of Naked Gun material, too, but Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin is such an indelible boob that he can survive that series’ transition from satire into Clouseau-style farce. Armand Assante gamely throws himself into Fatal Instinct, but he’s there to imitate, not transcend. The memorable moments are the easy layups the movie sinks with a satisfying swish: The Body Heat moment with the chair breaking the window, switched so it’s the chair that shatters; or the scene where the characters keep switching up the musical score’s increasingly intense cues on their stereo while they exchange climactic torrents of exposition.

That’s a solid gag, specific to a particular type of movie. Other common ground shared by the ’93 spoofs tends to be aimless poking around at broader conventions of filmmaking in general. A Loaded Weapon character trips over subtitles; a Fatal Instinct character reads them off the screen. Weapon and Part Deux goof around with dimly lit sex scenes. Weapon, Part Deux and Fatal Instinct all include goofy animal-puppet mugging. (Frankly, I’m not sure what that’s about; are they nodding to Caddyshack, or just embracing the cartoon sensibility that became more prominent in spoofs over time?) Put together, these reality-bending moments have the antsiness of sweaty stand-up comic on stage going, “OK, movies, movies, what else…”

Another link between the quartet is how often they fixate on the remnants of 1980s hits: The lingering fascination with Fatal Attraction, the limping along of the Rambo series, the Lethal Weapon dynamic that was fresh in 1987 but long past coasting by 1993. Maybe that imaginary sweaty comedian had a point; maybe the movies themselves in 1993 were sorting through the remains of the 1980s, trying to figure out what would come next. The spoofs of this year seem especially eager to latch onto recent film moments iconic enough to parody: The flashing scene in Basic Instinct and the arrow POV shot from 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (a classic ’80s-sensibility-in-the-early-’90s movie if there ever was one) both get repeated play; just a couple of years earlier, Hot Shots! was blithely unconcerned about doing a beat-by-beat riff on the five-year-old Top Gun. One reason Fatal Instinct stands out from this crowd now is that there’s detectable affection for a certain genre and its history. Even if it’s not the kind of loving recreation that Mel Brooks was after in 1974, it feels a little more carefully considered than Brooks doing Prince of Thieves with a sprightly Errol Flynn color scheme.

Of course, to, say, a twelve-year-old in 1993, these movies were events, far moreso than most of what they were actually parodying. I complain now about the specificity of Fatal Instinct and the lack thereof during much of Hot Shots! Part Deux, but I saw both of those movies in theaters without having seen Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Top Gun, or any of the Rambo movies, excited by the sheer volume of jokes that spoof movies were able to offer, even if I can’t remember feeling overwhelmed by actual laughs. In any event, 1993 would be the last year I’d rush out to the theaters every time someone convinced a reputable actor to say something ridiculous in a deadpan while slapstick happened in the background. Catching up later with the likes of Spy Hard or Dracula: Dead and Loving It made it easy to pretend a drop-off in quality was to blame, but while those movies are bad, some younger cinephiles likely have less use for parodies when they start to discover the pleasures of the genuine article — a reversal of the recent process where some moviegoers seem to get everything they used to find in different genres (action, sci-fi, comedy) in one mega-superhero movie at a time.

The spoof movie did stage a 2000s-era comeback, with “two of the six writers of Scary Movie” Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer serving as would-be Jim Abrahams figures on projects like Date Movie and Epic Movie, entertaining a (presumably) similarly youthful crowd delighted, for at least a few years, to gather in a movie theater and spot the world’s dumbest, thirstiest pop-culture references. I was not among them. These movies are much, much worse than even the lesser 1993 spoofs — though in retrospect, they’re closer to a next step (or ten) in the form’s devolution than a whole new breed of terrible. Sly parodies become obvious references, which then become joylessly garish imitations, until they finally endgame in memes, eliminating the need for even a rickety movie-like framework. The spoofs of 1993 didn’t represent the last time these types of movies were funny (Walk Hard, from 2007, is an all-timer), nor did they rep the first time they took a turn for the hacky. Thirty years later, the most clearly evoke a time when — whether due to nostalgia or genuine largesse — studio filmmaking felt bountiful enough to keep taking it down a peg.

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