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Film review: Sgt. Bilko

Published: Tuesday, April 2 1996 12:00 a.m. MST

In "Sgt. Bilko," Steve Martin takes on the role of television con artist Master Sgt. Ernie Bilko, a character forever identified with the late Phil Silvers, at least for an older generation that remembers the early sitcom.

But Martin gives it a contemporary kick, aided by an inventive script by Andy Breckman ("I.Q."), emphasis on sight-gags by director Jonathan Lynn ("My Cousin Vin-ney") and a first-rate ensemble supporting cast.

Bilko is more con-man than military man, and he takes advantage of his dimwitted commanding officer, Col. Hall (Dan Aykroyd), at every opportunity.

With Bilko in charge of the motor pool, it's more often a casino than a haven for jeep repairs, and most of the sergeant's time is spent coming up with elaborate gambling opportunities, from in-barracks hockey games to dog races to lotteries. And a couple of particularly notable set-pieces are an amusing poker game and a hilarious boxing match.

The filmmakers cleverly introduce Bilko and his troops as seen through the eyes of a new, by-the-book PFC (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell), who is quite shocked at all the antics that surround him, though he eventually finds himself compromising to fit in.

Another subplot has Bilko standing up his fiancee (Glenne Headly) at the alter for the umpteenth time, which leads to an ultimatum - marriage within 30 days, or bye-bye baby.

But the film's main impetus is provided by the arrival of a hard-nosed major (Phil Hartman), who has a grudge against Bilko and tries to get revenge. Anyone who has ever seen one of the TV show's half-hour episodes, however, knows that no one gets the better of Bilko, no matter how elaborate the scheme.

Aykroyd, Hartman, Headly and Mitchell are all terrific, but Martin is a riot, obviously having the time of his life with this flamboyant character, especially in the cross-talk sequences that have him trying to cover his various cons.

Also on hand are veteran Austin Pendleton, former "Saturday Night Live" comic Chris Rock (in an uncharacteristic nerd role) and Pamela Segall, who also made an impression in "Bed of Roses" earlier this year.

As with most farcical films these days, "Sgt. Bilko" is rather hit and miss, and it does sag a bit in the middle. But most of the way, there's plenty here for anyone who's looking for a laugh-provoking time-waster.

And thankfully, it is much less crass than most modern comedies.

"Sgt. Bilko" is rated PG for a few profanities, scattered vulgarities and comic violence.

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