By Edwin Jahiel

SGT. BILKO (1996) *** 1/4 first half, ** second half

Directed by Jonathan Lynn. Written by Andy Breckman. Photography, Peter Sova. Editing, Tony Lombardo. Production design, Lawrence G. Paull. Music, Alan Silvestri. Producer, Brian Grazer. Cast: Steve Martin (Sgt. Bilko), Dan Aykroyd (Col. Hall), Phil Hartman (Major Thorn), Glenne Headly (Rita Robbins), Daryl Mitchell (Wally Holbrook), Eric Edwards (Doberman), Travis Tritt as himself, Austin Pendleton (Major Ebersole), Chris Rock (Lt. Oster). A Universal release. 92 min. Rated PG.

Confessions from the potato-couch.

Whenever a new movie is made from TV shows, I take stock of my pop fiction background and find that my familiarity with television oldies is most limited.

Coming rather late to TV ownership, I made up for this with a big appetite for movies and more movies, programs -- mostly British, mostly funny (from Monty Python to Blackadder to Mr. Bean, Yes, Minister, Keeping Up Appearances, Waiting for God), Poirot, Inspector Morse, and so on. Even higher on the list are documentaries and cultural programs, especially those dealing with history, politics, society--what could be called The Way We Were.

I marvel at the millions who remember shows with Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen. Or All in the Family, Route 66, the Twilight Zone, Charlie's Angels, Dragnet, Bewitched... the list is huge. I suppose that those viewers sacrificed movie-movies f or TV, and that more millions, younger folk with a vast knowledge of things well before their time, have a thing for reruns.

My knowledge of TV's Sergeant Bilko is zilch. With some sympathy, I remember Phil Silvers from films, even though these were rarely top drawer. So, I cannot argue with persons who call the Phil Silvers Show a classic--though "classic" seems to apply to most anything that was on TV years ago, just as "antique" is used for many objects just a couple of decades old.

The upshot of all this is that I came to the movie "Sgt. Bilko" without prejudices or the ability to compare. The only comparison I can make is of Steve Martin with himself, in other movies. The answer is that once again, Martin is a major talent and almo st never wears thin.

The movie's Bilko is a magna cum laude operator of tricks, scams, gambling, con-games, loaded dice set-ups, all issuing in and from the Ft. Baxter motor pool that the Sergeant runs. "Pool" takes on new meanings as men and women live it up in fun and games .

Martin, silver-haired and silver-tongued, thinks, improvises and acts on his feet so lightning fast that you just got to respect him. He lines with silver the pockets of his crew. They admire, love and follow him blindly, even as he lines his own pockets with gold. His bigger share is only fair, given his leadership, imagination and abilities.

Steve Martin is a great performer who here plays a great performer, a man of (metaphorically) a thousand faces. He issues brisk orders one moment, plays humble the next. When facing officers he has a visible factor of independence from authority, shows de fiance, superiority or familiarity. The brass are putty in his hands. Bilko can cajole, flatter, play dumb or smarter-than-thou, and always comes out on top.

A juicy contrast is established when an outsider, young, straight-arrow, honest Pfc.Wally Holbrook joins the pool. Without missing a beat, Bilko, talking a mile a minute, puts the stupefied kid in the picture. Then, pointing to one of his people he adds: "He'll take your bag. Don't worry. He's bonded." If that's not a four-star line, what is?

Likewise, when the horrified Holbrook tries to wake up the men and women spread out all over the floor after what must have been a no holds barred party. As he enters Bilko's room, reveille is sounding. "What's that music?" asks the groggy Sergeant.

The performances, all of them, from big to tiny roles, are excellent. Dan Aykroyd plays beautifully second banana as Bilko's bozoid, gullible yet complicitous Colonel. Phil Hartman as Major Thorn does slow burns, all the better since they are acted with m inimalism instead of the classic way made famous long ago by Edgar Kennedy.

Thorn, now on inspection, might have been Colonel or General by now, except for a mishap, years ago, unwittingly caused by the Sergeant. In a hilarious flashback we see how Bilko had bribed an Army boxer to take a dive. Mistakenly, his assistant gave the money to the opponent pugilist, so that both fighters threw the match.

Without my getting into developments or details, the gags cascade and are most comical. Not subtle, not witty, but broad as befits farce.

There's a wild switching of barracks signs and soldiers' identitities during a Thorn inspection. Then comes an investigation by military nerds who must break the codes of Bilko's computers.

There is also a subplot about Bilko and his girl (Glenne Headley, reunited with Martin after the excellent "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels") whom he stands up at their wedding time after time, but who, in an appealing (and feminist) way, has a mind and will of h er own. All this is wrapped up in fine production values and Alan Silvestri's clever, humorous score.

Now for the not-so-good news. As a great 19th Century actor lay on his deathbed, he turned to his sad-faced company: "Don't feel sorry for me. Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." Farce is even harder.

It's a rare movie that can sustain its brio past a certain point. At exactly the halfway mark "Sgt. Bilko" starts to slide and get rather tedious, at least in comparison to what came before.

I noticed that, in the public, loud peals of laughter subsided after the first part. Even so, the wonderfully imaginative, enjoyable, well timed initial 45 minutes are reason enough to see the film.

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