THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD! (1988)

  • Director: David Zucker
  • Writers: Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Pat Proft, based on the TV series Police Squad! created by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker
  • Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalbán, George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson, Nancy Marchand, Jeannette Charles, and Reggie Jackson
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Netflix, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

A recent confluence of events brought me to The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! I was in a bad mood. The British royal family was all up in the news. I recently spent a half hour of my life listening to the podcast hosts over on Effectively Wild break down a supposedly-comedic baseball scene in the recently-released Tom & Jerry within an inch of its life (and then several inches past that). And Netflix was trying to get us to watch it. So, we acquiesced. I found it just as funny, in the same silly way, as the previous movie we covered from the “ZAZ” team, Airplane! (they like their exclamation points). It includes both its two romantic leads wearing giant condoms and perhaps the greatest comedy baseball scene in the entire cinematic canon.

This movie spawned from the previous television show masterminded by the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams, Police Squad! Though airing for only six episodes before being canceled on ABC in 1982, this series has had a long afterlife, thanks in no small part to this movie. That series also starred Leslie Nielsen as LA cop Frank Drebin, and had a similar one-silly-joke-per-second feel to it. The Naked Gun was a surprise success, and spawned two sequels featuring much of the same cast and crew, The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear and The Naked Gun 33 ⅓: The Final Insult.

If you are unfamiliar where this movie might be pitched tonally, it opens with an “action sequence” (the quote marks are sarcastic) in which Drebin breaks up a secret conference between Ayatollah Khomeini, Mikhail Gorbachev, Muammar Qaddafi, Fidel Castro, and several others, which includes him beating the crap out of them and rubbing off Gorbachev’s forehead spot with a wet napkin. Perhaps jarringly from the perspective of a modern viewer, it then cuts to O.J. Simpson, who is playing Drebin’s partner, Norberg, and we are supposed to root for as one of the good guys. However, he is immediately shot several times (as well as burning himself, getting his foot caught in a random bear trap, and getting his face pushed into a wedding cake, among other indignities). Simpson was already established as an actor by the time of this movie, but he has no purpose in this movie other than to get the crap kicked out of him, repeatedly, as a running gag. So I was mostly OK with watching that, even if the beatings were fake. It somehow mitigates the psychological discord caused by his presence.

The main plot of the movie involves Drebin looking into his partner’s attempted murder, which leads, somehow, to a plot by a villain (Ricardo Montalbán) to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II (Jeannette Charles, whose entire acting career was based on her resemblance to the Queen) during a baseball game. Meanwhile, Drebin falls for the beautiful Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley), who is sort of working for the bad guy. The big climactic sequence, at a baseball game between the California Angels and Seattle Mariners, involves Drebin secretly replacing the umpire so he can frisk the players, causing mass chaos. It turns out that Reggie Jackson, an actual member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, if you are unfamiliar, is being mind controlled into killing the Queen, until Drebin accidentally drops a large woman onto him from the upper deck. Montalbán then gets dropped off the building, run over by a steamroller, and then stepped on by the USC Marching Band (“My father went the same way,” sadly comments Drebin’s captain (Oscar winner George Kennedy)), so all is well.

If you want to know what kind of comedy never fails to crack me up, this is it. It is sort of a mix of what we’d call “dad jokes” and very weird non-sequiturs. You can usually tell this sort of comedy because even many of the characters’ names are dumb jokes. One of the villain’s vaguely Russian henchmen is named “Pahpshmir.” In another scene, Drebin hijacks a driving instructor car, scared teenage girl and all, to pursue a fleeing suspect. Her instructor is played, in an uncredited cameo by another Oscar winner, John Houseman. After she almost runs into a truck, he calmly instructs her to “extend your arm out the window, now extend your middle finger upwards. Excellent job.” It is just one thing after another after another.

Comedy trends tend to come and go in Hollywood. At one time, there were a bunch of teen sex comedies hitting theaters. At another, there were a bunch of buddy cop movies with lots of quips but with a basic plot that we were supposed to take seriously. At another, there were a bunch of aggressively gross-out comedies. But this particularly strand of ultra-silly, fast paced comedy has endured, in one form or another, ever since the Marx Brothers. I would say that it certainly requires a higher level of writing or directing talent than those subgenres we just mentioned, and on a basic level, the more jokes there are, the more likely I am to laugh. So we come to this movie, based on a series that only had six episodes, going on to be listed by several different semi-authoritative sources as one of the funniest movies ever made. For me, The Naked Gun endures far better than many more recent, less silly comedies.

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