Steve Martin built a huge following as a stand-up in the ‘70s, before transferring via TV to film. He then spent much of the ‘80s making movies with an enviable hit-rate and what is now a catalogue of work that remain comedy classics to this day. Like a few of his contemporaries, the ‘90s were not so smooth. Despite a reasonable number of films that either made money or were received relatively well by critics, there was a perception that Martin’s films were just not as good. Maybe it was films like Father of the Bride that started a slow creep of heavy sentimentality, or just that the good roles had all been exhausted. Which leads us to Sgt. Bilko, Martin’s mid-decade attempt at riding the goodwill attached to a well-loved television property in the search for another hit.
Based on the classic television series The Phil Silvers Show, it followed the basic template of Master Sergeant Ernest Bilko (Martin), the officer in charge of Fort Baxter’s motor pool. Supported by his company, Bilko is a scammer, a grifter always on the hunt for the next hustle to make some extra cash. First new Private Wally Holbrook arrives as the audience surrogate and is shocked by the lack of discipline (unless it involves making money). Then Major Thorn (Phil Hartman), a man with a reason to hate Bilko, arrives at the base to inspect it and it seems like the party is over for the Sgt.
The reason for Sgt. Bilko tanking at the box office is clear. It’s neither very good nor very bad, it’s just unremarkably there. The movie has some problems that it struggles to surmount. Bilko is a rampantly selfish character that Silvers imbued with charm despite it all. Martin is a highly accomplished actor but here his Bilko either falls flat, feels like a pale Silvers imitation or is just plain irritating. The tone of the films flips between laboured attempts at manic japery, surreal gags and massively broad comedy to little effect. The movie hopes we’ll find Bilko and his cohorts charming and cool in their tiresome unprofessionalism but they more often come across as simply immature and tedious.
Still, it has a range of talented performers who do their best with the substandard material. Hartman was a gifted actor who always gave his all and his ‘villain’ is reliably good value. Ultimately there’s just little point to this endeavour, no real reason for this to exist. It’s nothing you’re going to hate, but unless you’re a Martin completist we can’t imagine why you would pick this up, especially considering the lack of extras of any kind.
SGT. BILKO (1996) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: JONATHAN LYNN / SCREENPLAY: ANDY BRECKMAN / STARRING: STEVE MARTIN, DAN AYKROYD, PHIL HARTMAN, GLENNE HEADLY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW