The call went out. The recruits came in. No longer would police cadets have to meet standards of height, weight and other requirements. Brains were optional too. Can’t spell IQ? Don’t know the number 911? No matter. Police Academy grads are ready to uphold law and disorder.
Building on a nightsticks-and-slapstick tradition going back to the Keystone Cops, Police Academy spawned 6 sequels plus 2 TV series (one animated, one live-action). Join Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), Thompson (Kim Cattrall), Harris (G.W. Bailey), Hightower (Bubba Smith), Jones (Michael Winslow), Lassard (George Gaynes) and more. They’re not the Five-O. They’re the Five Uh-Oh. They make the world a funnier place.
Police Academy 7.5
eyelights: the ensemble cast. its mixture of various styles of humour. its rapid-fire delivery.
eyesores: its low-brow, telegraphed humour.
“You make me sick.” “Thank you, sir. I make everybody sick.”
When I was a kid, we didn’t have a VCR. Heck, we were lucky to have a TV, and there wasn’t cable; I got the half-dozen local channels and that was it. So when I did get a chance to rent movies, I binged. That’s how I watched ‘Airplane!‘ and ‘The Pirate Movie’ seven times each in the span of 48 hours.
The same goes for ‘Police Academy’.
I think that, by the time I’d heard of the series, the second one was already out. Some of my friends were avid movie renters and they kept recounting the stories that I would never get to see myself (have I seen ‘Remo Williams’ yet? No!). But the ‘Police Academy’ movies sounded hysterical.
So I got the first one.
Naturally, I completely freaked! I was probably 12 at the time and the humour was a blend of juvenile and sophomoric, slapstick and silly, which just perfect for me. So I kept watching it over again. By the fourth or fifth time, some of my friends just gave up – even they couldn’t handle any more of it.
I, on the other hand, just couldn’t get enough of the misadventures of these misfits training to become police officers.
I wasn’t the only addict: Upon its 1984 release, ‘Police Academy’ was one of the biggest-grossing comedies of all time – and certainly the biggest R-rated one ever, with a whopping 80 million dollars on a budget of 4.5 million. Internationally, it netted well over 60 million dollars more.
It was an enormous success!
It’s easy to dismiss the picture however, if only because of the low-brow nature of the humour. Even I do this: I frequently dismiss my appreciation of it by reminding myself (and anyone else) that I fell in love with it during my formative years; surely I wouldn’t enjoy it nearly as much today.
Despite it all, watching it now I was surprised by just how craftily it’s put together, with the gags zipping by fast and furious (the fact that it’s co-written by Pat Proft, who also had a hand in the delirious ‘Bachelor Party‘, ‘Police Squad!‘, ‘Naked Gun‘ and ‘Hot Shots!‘ series of films, explains it).
Much of the humour is telegraphed; you can mostly see where it’s going, but it’s satisfying to see the outcome anyway. Part of the reason for this is the winning ensemble cast, whom are not all good performers but who collectively create the perfect dynamic – and for whom the material was tailored.
We are first introduced to our characters (or, rather, to our band of misfits), individually, as they get into trouble in their then-current jobs or on their way to the Police Academy. The standout is the wife going to extremes to keep her distracted spouse from joining; the acrobatics involved really pushed the gag.
But it’s clear from the onset that Mahoney is our lead, even if it’s an ensemble cast: He’s the first misfit that we meet (in an also unforgettable introduction). He’s given a deal by the police chief (who is friends with his father) to join the Academy or go to jail. One condition: He can get tossed out but he can’t quit.
The stage is set for some mischief, and he certainly tries his best to annoy his superiors enough to get booted out – to hilarious effect. That is, until he discovers that Captain Reid demanded that Commandant Lessard refuse to ever throw him out: he’s trapped there (but aren’t they all?).
Say what you will about Mahoney but, although he’s a total jack @$$, he’s a very loyal friend, and that redeems him in our eyes. He’ll always help any of his friends when they’re in need; he’s patient, devoted and he’ll even take a bullet for them (figuratively-speaking, but he will take the blame).
Steve Guttenberg is charming in the part but he’s such a terrible actor (à la Owen Wilson, all smirky and teenagery). To think that Bruce Willis, Michael Keaton, Judge Reinhold and Tom Hanks were considered for the part (Frankly, based on ‘Bachelor Party’, I think that Tom Hanks would have been perfect).
The next most important one is Larvell Jones, playing by Michael Winslow, if only because of the impression he made. I remember how impressed we all were with Jones’ vocal skills back then. Now it’s just droll. No one else could do this and it’s an unwritable part; his gags all depend on his inimitable skill.
Then there’s Tackleberry, of course, whom we all loved. He’s an overzealous gun nut and my friends and I were gun crazy at that age (thank goodness Canada has tight gun laws!). Tackleberry is basically an overgrown Boy Scout, all childlike and googly-eyed. No wonder we related to him.
Then there’s Lt. Harris and his two henchmen, cadets Blankes and Copeland. As the villains of the piece they stand out because are constantly causing Mahoney and co. grief, trying to make them fail. And when their efforts blow up in their faces, or Mahoney plays pranks on them, it’s delicious.
The rest of the cast is less significant, and exist strictly for diversity’s sake, to ensure that every viewer has a relatable counterpart and that every type of gag has its vehicle. The most notable of these players is Commandant Lassard, who is as gentle as he is clueless (maybe even borderline senile).
Kim Cattrall also deserves a mention, actually, even if her character is relatively flavourless. Amazingly, she hasn’t changed much: she’s ever-so-lovely – except brunette, which is better. She doesn’t have much of a role to play aside for the love interest, but she’s really sexy shooting a rifle during practice. Rowr.
Speaking of which, there’s also Leslie Easterbrook as Sgt. Callahan, who trains the cadets. She’s a tough nut, but she is so sexy! This is pre-‘Terminator 2‘s Sara Connor, so this was my friends and I’s first exposure to such a woman. It didn’t impress me as much then, but over the years… well, wow!
‘Police Academy’ is really just a series of gags strung together into the shape of a motion picture; there’s very little plot, just a series of minor hurdles and resulting high jinks. But some of them are unforgettable, such as the gun training (“Come with me!”) or the hooker in the podium (Lessard’s reaction and the payoff).
What surprised me was that the Blue Oyster Club scene is still funny today. Given that the ’80s were rife with homophobic slurs (this film has its share), I expected the scene to be offensive. Instead, it relies on the element of surprise to start and then on an unexpected dénouement for its laughs.
Frankly, it was a pleasant rediscovery.
Naturally, no picture can carry on successfully on just a string of gags, and so ‘Police Academy’ attempts to create conflict at the tail end. Sadly, the riot they served up is contrived and less fun. Sure, it gives the gang a chance to all prove themselves, but it all felt forced and their heroic acts are kind of lame.
Still, all told, ‘Police Academy’ is an enjoyable 90 minutes of dumb fun. Backed by a zippy blend of low-brow (and some dry) humour, a winsome cast, and just the right amount of gratuitous naughtiness, it’s hardly surprising that it was a hit at the time -heck, I think it would still play well today.
What’s surprising is the extent of its success: it was followed by SIX sequels, a cartoon series and a television series. I know for a fact that I’m incapable of tackling all of this, due to their diminishing return and my remote interest, but I can promise that we’ll be seeing more of Mahoney and company here.
“Now, I thought it would be nice if we were to close out our first afternoon together with a nice little stroll around the campus. Move out, maggots!”
Date of viewing: February 13, 2016