Synopsis: Those screw-loose Airplane! creators have done it again! Leslie Nielsen stars as Police Squad’s own granite-jawed, rock brained cop Frank Drebin, who bumbles across a mind control scheme to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. Priscilla Presley, O.J. Simpson, a stuffed beaver, two baseball teams and an odd assortment of other join the wacko goings-on and blow the laugh-o-meter to smithereens.
eyelights: Leslie Nielsen.
eyesores: Ricardo Montalban.
“It’s the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girls dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.”
I’ll always remember the year ‘The Naked Gun’ came out. I was a teenager then and I desperately tried to get my dad to take me to see it. He could not be swayed; he rarely ever could be drawn into a cinema, and this was of little appeal to him. I can still picture the movie poster, taunting me in the mall entrance whenever we would walk by it.
Meanwhile, I kept hearing from all my friends just how awesome it was. Godammit.
I eventually got to see it, of course, and was an immediate fan. I don’t know if I had seen ‘Police Squad!‘ by then (I suspect that I did!), but I was completely taken with the Zucker/Zucker/Abraham style of comedy, which I had first experienced while binging on ‘Airplane’ years prior. Not that I knew it was them, then, but their brand was still unique and it pushed all my buttons.
For years, this and the rest of the series has been some of my all-time favourite comedies. Sadly, what I’m discovering is that the spell has lost some of its potency. Perhaps this is due to having just watched the superior ‘Police Squad!’, or perhaps it’s from over-exposure (having watched it many many times), but ‘The Naked Gun’ underwhelmed me this time around.
It’s not to say that it wasn’t funny. Hardly. ‘The Naked Gun’ has some of the most hilarious moments ever captured on celluloid. I think that the key issue is that the laughs were more spread apart than in the television version; whereas the original formula consisted of constant barrage of one-liners, slapstick, sight gags and general nonsense, the film limits itself to one laugh at a time. With pauses in between.
The laughs are strong, though, but I suspect that this change in formula may be due to a change in direction, what with this one being helmed by David Zucker all his lonesome, instead of in collaboration with Jim Abrahams and his brother Jerry. They wrote it together, mind you, but having three comedy geniuses working together would likely have packed the movie more than one ever could.
It’s a letdown, for sure, but it’s not a major deterrent. In fact, it was probably better for most audiences, who would otherwise have no idea what to look for and would end up all laughing at different things. Personally, I don’t mind this notion one bit because it compels one to watch the movie multiple times. But it worked: the film was a gigantic box office success.
Ahem.. more than the show ever was – when it was broadcast, anyway.
The concept will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the show: it’s a spoof of police procedurals, taking their conventions and tossing them to the four winds like so many cream pies. There are no doubt references to specific shows or movies, but I only picked up the Dirty Harry reference in Frank Drebin and the Mayor’s exchange about Drebin’s shooting of a suspect:
Mayor: “Drebin, I don’t want anymore trouble like you had last year on the South Side. Understand? That’s my policy.”
Frank: “Yes. Well, when I see 5 weirdos dressed in togas stabbing a guy in the middle of the park in full view of 100 people, I shoot the bastards. That’s my policy.”
Mayor: “That was a Shakespeare-In-The-Park production of “Julius Caesar”, you moron! You killed 5 actors! Good ones.”
Leslie Nielsen returns as clueless Lieutenant Frank Drebin. Nielsen is the heart of the series, and it couldn’t have worked without him. His ability for playing a moronic straight man is sans pareil; there’s a reason why his minor part was a stand out in ‘Airplane!’ and why he got the gig for ‘Police Squad!’ in the first place. Sadly, here he plays the character a bit more goofy, more physical, no doubt in consideration for the medium – and also because, with fewer jokes, the film relied more on its hero.
George Kennedy plays his boss, Captain Ed Hocken, replacing Allan North. He also plays the character goofier in the film, all the while making him appear less dumb (but not necessarily smarter). For all his faults, I kind of preferred the vacant allure of North’s Captain Hocken; you could understand why he’d put up with Drebin’s antics. Still, having said that, the part was obviously tailored for the film, and I can’t fathom North saying some of the lines that Kennedy blurts out.
Priscilla Presley is the love interest of the movie and series. She deadpans the humour quite nicely, but I used to like her a lot more. Now she feels like one of the Austin Powers Fembots to me, kind of empty and artificial. (Which reminds me of the scene when Drebin urinates during a press conference with his mic on. Is it just me or has that been… um… “borrowed” for ‘Austin Powers‘, when he defreezes after 30 years of cryogenics?)
Also disappointing is that O.J. Simpson replaced Peter Lupus in the role of Detective Nordberg (in all fairness… it’s not really the same character: Lupus played Detective Norberg in the show). Gone is Lupus’ zeal and gosh-darnit quality, traded in for a waxy, flavourless disposition. It doesn’t matter much: Nordberg doesn’t have much to do in the film – which might explain why Lupus didn’t return. Whatever the case may be it’s too bad: Simpson is adequate, but Lupus was much better.
And, although Ted Olsen returns as the Police Squad scientist, his part is reduced in such a way that he’s hardly recognizable: gone is the lab room, gone are his weird interactions with school children, and even the exchanges with Frank are peculiarly watered down. It’s an unfortunate choice on the filmmakers’ part, quite frankly: he was a staple of the tv series for a reason and he was sorely missed by its -and his- fans. I’m not advocating a larger role. No, hardly. Just not a smaller one.
All this whining may all make it seem as though I don’t really like ‘The Naked Gun’. That’s not true: I do. I’m just disappointed. And I do enjoy it less. But it has plenty of notable moments, including Nordberg’s initial investigation, which goes completely awry, and Drebin’s Major League Ball game fiasco, in which he first replaces the opera singer due to sing the National Anthem and then one of the umpires – it’s overly long, but a good number of the gags are totally riotous. And there are many more (such as the beaver bit or the afore-mentioned news conference).
No, ‘The Naked Gun’ is still a comedy classic and a landmark in cinema: It was non-pc, delightfully crass stuff, mixed with slapstick and non sequiturs. It was quite ahead of its time and has influenced North American comedies like few others have – the whole Zucker/Zucker/Abraham oeuvre has, really. There isn’t a spoof movie today that doesn’t at least in part take root in the their work. And I know that tons of people still hold ‘The Naked Gun’ as a standard bearer. It’s a mightily popular film and series – and there’s good reason for it.
But, for me, it will always be a pale imitation of ‘Police Squad!’.
“It’s a topsy-turvy world, and maybe the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans. But this is our hill. And these are our beans!”
Date of viewing: March 26, 2013