America's military lore is full of famed phrases. "I have not yet begun to fight," intoned navy man John Paul Jones. "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away," said Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Then there's Sgt. Ernie Bilko (Steve Martin), whose motto could be, "Don't you smell it? It's money." As the supposed boss of the Ft. Baxter motor pool but more accurately described as the world's smoothest monetary maximizer, Bilko oversees an Army operation more involved with pari-mutuel betting than with Humvee repair as he leads a ragtag team of con artists on their merrily remunerative ways under the none-too-observant nose of camp commander Col. Hall (Dan Aykroyd
). Throwing a wrench into their works is the arrival of lockjawed Major Thorn (Phil Hartman), whose career plans some years before had been detoured into the frozen wastes of Greenland thanks to a losing run-in with Bilko. Determined to wreak vengeance, Thorn breaks into Bilko's encrypted computer and enters a fake file to frame the sergeant for misuse of moneys on a secret project (a flying tank, whose special-effects rendition needed more work by SFX house Digital Domain). Thorn also goes after Bilko's frequent fiancee, Rita ("Mr. Holland's Opus'" Glenne Headly, underused at first but eventually the same good foil to Martin as she was in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels").
Based on the 1955-59 Phil Silvers' TV show (daughter Catherine Silvers has a small role here), "Sgt. Bilko" isn't a fusillade of funniness, but it peppers its 93-minute running time with round after round of chuckles thanks to a script by Andy Breckman. ("What's that noise?" asks an eyemasked Bilko, waking to reveille for the first time ever.) But Breckman, who co-scripted "I.Q.," here doesn't aim to score high marks in intelligence. Dominated by former "Saturday Night Live" players, the cast works together smoothly. The fact that all, especially Martin, play their parts broadly suggests a decision by director Jonathan Lynn ("My Cousin Vinny") to enlist less demanding audiences, assigning this Brian Grazer-produced effort more among the ranks of "Spies Like Us" and less of "Parenthood" in his Imagine oeuvre.
Starring Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Phil Hartman and Glenne Headly. Directed by Jonathan Lynn. Written by Andy Breckman. Produced by Brian Grazer. A Universal release. Comedy. Rated PG for mild thematic elements and some language. Running time: 93 min