- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
n 1988, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker (aka ZAZ) were big names, but the commercial potential of their post-"Airplane!" spoof films was slightly in doubt. Clearly, the place to turn now was their most glaring commercial failure.
Hot off their airborne coup de spoof cinema, the Milwaukee-bred trio had crafted their first and only television show. "Police Squad!" was six episodes of cop show parody gold. Leslie Nielsen, a longtime second-string actor who had gotten a lot of attention for "Airplane!," returned as the seriously stupid Lt. Frank Drebin in a show highlighted by ingenious and often surreal physical gags. A personal favorite: a shootout in which two characters, shot in close-up crouching behind garbage cans, are revealed in a master shot to be shooting at each other from a distance of no more than two feet.
Ratings were poor enough that the network felt compelled to cancel the show almost instantly, airing only four episodes. ABC executive Tony Thomopoulos supposedly said that the series failed because, to enjoy it, viewers had to watch it. Fortunately, people don't fold clothes or wash dishes at theaters. The movie version of "Police Squad!" became a big success and the second most beloved ZAZ project.
Directed by David Zucker – brother Jerry had directed "Airplane!" – "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" graduates to the big screen with more action, less movie-geek jokes, and a more famous collection of over-the-hill actors. The plot has Nielsen/Lt. Drebin doing what movie cops often do: avenging the very nearly fatal shooting of his partner and best friend, Frank Nordberg (O.J. Simpson). With the help of his concerned boss, Captain Ed Hocken (uber-veteran George Kennedy), Drebin takes aim at Vincent Ludwig, a mysterious tycoon (the ever suave Ricardo Montalban).
Ludwig is clearly up to no good, but what of Jane Spencer, his beautiful underling played by "Dallas" actress and Elvis ex Priscilla Presley? Poor Drebin must decide for himself whether Jane is, underneath it all, a hardboiled femme fatale or simply a nice girl with an amazing beaver. By "beaver," of course, we refer to a taxidermied semi-aquatic rodent.
And that's largely the level of humor in "The Naked Gun," which stretches its PG-13 well past the current breaking point regarding sexual innuendo. A sequence in which Drebin grabs on for dear life to a gargoyle's erect cement penis and later wields the phallus in an untoward encounter with a half-dressed woman would now be a direct ticket to R-rating-ville. I can only imagine what today's sensibility might make of the bit where Drebin appears to molest a visiting Queen Elizabeth II (Jeannette Charles).
Yes, there is plenty of extremely broad visual comedy. Happily, the top-grade/low-grade verbal lunacy of ZAZ also comes fast and furious. Take this tender scene in which Drebin describes a lost love.
Frank: It's the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girl dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day.
Frank: No, the worst.
It's the super-straight delivery of dialogue like this that reveals what transformed Leslie Nielsen from a reliable has-been into a widely known comedy star. He plays the part as if he is still doing guest stints on shows like "Cannon" alongside second-rate exploitation movies. Still, there are moments in "The Naked Gun" where Nielsen mugs just a little. For many, it's when Nielsen became less hilarious as he begins to grow too aware of his comic prowess.
Indeed, though it's a consistently funny ride, "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad" may hold up somewhat less well than "Airplane!," the underrated "Top Secret!," and the original TV series it's based on, at least for some of us. It's perhaps less fun for film geeks as it's less involved with the material that its spoofing and more about putting Frank Drebin in ridiculous situations. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The final third, which takes place entirely at an Angels baseball game, ends brilliantly. As David Zucker says in the Blu-ray commentary, catapulting an injured O.J. Simpson out of a wheelchair and onto the stadium grounds is, for some reason, even funnier today than it was in 1988. It's a long time getting there, however. A baseball joke-heavy montage to Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." isn't as funny as it thinks it is; it also reminds us Californians that the Angels actually play in far-away Anaheim.
One doesn't watch ZAZ movies in a fussy mood and everyone is likely to have quibbles that are best cured by beer. Younger viewers who are not full-time pop culture mavens may not understand why it was funny in 1988 to feature pop-psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers along with a roomful of once-famous television sportscasters, but there you go. Nor may they understand the poignant gag behind the cameo by legendary producer-turned-actor John Houseman of "The Paper Chase" as a formidable driving instructor. Houseman died shortly after filming at age 86.
In fact, of the main cast members, three beloved performers – Nielsen, Ricardo Montalban and Nancy Marchand, the "Lou Grant" and "The Sopranos" actress who portrays the understandably skittish mayor of Los Angeles – have past on over the last decade. Another has given up acting in favor of golf and spending 16 years searching for his wife's real killers. Life is often sad and a little weird, but at least we have "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" to help us stay focused on the important things in life, like bad puns and penis-based humor.
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review:
No one is ever going to accuse David Zucker of being a cinema stylist, but it's still nice to revisit the brightly-lit adventures of Frank Drebin with high definition visuals. Moreover, Ira Newborn's brilliantly hackneyed cop-jazz score – which plays things as straight as any ZAZ performer – sounds surprisingly great in lossless HD stereo. As for special features, let's be positive and say that there's still plenty of room left for a special edition at some future date. For the time being, what we've got is a moderately entertaining but not all that terribly informative commentary track featuring director David Zucker, producer and ZAZ cohort Robert K. Weiss, and, for some reason, Los Angeles drive-time radio host Peter Tilden. Listening to the commentary, it sounds like there should be a trove of deleted scenes around somewhere. Let's hope.