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Paying the Rent

Sgt. Bilko
Ron Batzdorff

Military Intelligence: Clueless Dan Aykroyd prepares to be bilked yet again by Steve Martin in "Sgt. Bilko."

Steve Martin contains his disgust in 'Sgt. Bilko'

By Richard von Busack

In the part that Phil Silvers played in the eponymous The Phil Silvers Show from 1955 to 1959, Steve Martin strides through Sgt. Bilko like a distracted host, floating above it all in a manner not inconsistent with his usual comedy persona. Silvers and Martin have a certain amount in common--Bilko being a well-spoken, hyperbolic weasel--and Sgt. Bilko would serve as a good vehicle for Martin if there'd been anything funny for him to say or do, or some genuinely comic characters to rub up against.

What distinguishes Sgt. Bilko from the other high-concept movie cannibalizations of beloved old TV shows is the sense that nobody really wanted to make it besides producer Brian Grazer and the studio. Down the cast list, we have Daryl "Chill" Mitchell, a straight arrow who gets bent by Bilko's situational ethics; Chris Rock squandered as a computer dweeb; and really revolting patches of fat-boy humor by Eric Edwards, looking grim and insulted as Pvt. Doberman. Edwards is better known for having starred in L.A. little theater as the pathological actor's agent in Aaron Gillespie Will Make You a Star, just as Rock is better known for his stand-up comedy, just as Mitchell himself is better known for his rap group Groove B. Chill--and, in turn, just as Martin himself has been turning his energy lately toward playwriting and just as director Jonathan Lynn would like to be known for writing British TV's Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.

The only one on the talent side involved in a notable way with this movie who didn't have something better to do is scriptwriter Andy Breckman. Breckman's credits say it all: two years on Letterman (sounds like a jail sentence, doesn't it?) then three seasons on Saturday Night Live and then, with the inevitability of a Politburo promotion, screenplays for Arthur 2: On the Rocks, Moving, True Identity and a co-writing credit on I.Q. What Breckman did for Richard Pryor in his last movie, Moving, he does for Martin here. Martin's comic hauteur is becoming a sort of autism; the mannerisms are stiffer, the voice is louder (to overcome the rock music on the soundtrack) and the eyes are hardened. Martin's always been a sensational performer; consider the range of his work in the movies Pennies From Heaven and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Now his skills are used in not showing too much obvious disgust for bill-paying, pot-boiling consumables like Sgt. Bilko.

Sgt. Bilko (PG; 92 min.), directed by Jonathan Lynn, written by Andy Breckman, photographed by Peter Sova and starring Steve Martin and Phil Hartman.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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