'Bilko' is a fun salute to original

March 29, 1996|By William Arnold | William Arnold,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

If you are a fan of the classic 1950s television series "You'll Never Get Rich," you're likely to have a good time in the long-threatened big-screen version, "Sgt. Bilko" (the name the series took in syndication, and under which it is better known).

More than "Maverick," "The Brady Bunch," "The Addams Family," or any of the many other movie versions of golden-age television series, this is the series: not so much a departure point as a tribute, painstakingly endeavoring to re-create the show's distinct style, every character of the cast, every beat of the premise.

It's not the year's best comedy, and it probably won't play nearly as well to those who aren't familiar with the old series, but it is consistently funny, and it's good enough to be a pleasant echo of one of television's better comedy series.

That series was, of course, not so much a comedy premise as it was a vehicle for the specific talents of a particular comedian: Phil Silvers, who had developed a disreputable con-man persona over a long vaudeville, nightclub, movie and radio career.

He played Ernie Bilko, peacetime Army master-sergeant and head of the Fort Baxter, Kan., motor pool: a brash, loud, eminently slippery and resourceful, endlessly conniving operator who shamelessly manipulated his incompetent commanding officer, exploited his men and ran the post's gambling and other illegal concessions.

Here, Bilko is Steve Martin, who forgoes Silvers' trademark bald head and horned-rim glasses, but otherwise suppresses his own distinct comic persona to do Silvers, perfectly mimicking his shtick in a dozen or so familiar scenes from the series.

The story line, which seems to have been lifted from several of the old scripts (many of which, incidentally, were written by playwright-to-be Neil Simon) has Fort Baxter in danger of closure at the hands of a vengeful Pentagon bean-counter (Phil Hartman) with a long-standing grudge against Bilko.

But there isn't really much of a plot, the script goes for a leisurely pace and episodic style -- it actually "feels" like a '50s sitcom -- and it mostly strives to be one of those rarest of rare birds in today's Hollywood: a true comedy of character.

As adapted by Andy Breckman and directed by Jonathan Lynn ("My Cousin Vinny"), it's never quite as good as its model: It doesn't completely click, Dan Aykroyd can't touch Paul Ford's turn as the long-suffering Col. Hall, and some of the updating (including replacing many of the barracks' characters with women and minorities) is a tad clumsy.

Still, Mr. Martin makes Bilko almost as endearing as Silvers did, the filmmakers have steadfastly refused to junk up the material to retain the sweet-spirited innocence of the old show and its era (it's rated a mere PG), and the result is a fun, '50s-style service comedy with a lot of nostalgic appeal.

'Sgt. Bilko'

Starring Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd

Directed by Jonathan Lynn

Rated PG (language)

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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