The other day, I introduced two of my younger brothers to the wacky world of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker. The champions of slapstick comedy, ZAZ are revered for works such as Airplane! (which for some reason was retitled in Australia as Flying High!), Ruthless People, and The Naked Gun trilogy. I chose the first instalment of The Naked Gun, and so we settled in with some pizzas and readied ourselves for a feast of saturated fats and hilarity.
Basically a remake/rehash of the little-seen ZAZ TV comedy Police Squad, the premise of the Naked Gun films is basically that they’re extreme parodies of 1960s police procedural cop shows but set in the 1980s. In the first instalment, the elite Police Squad division of the LAPD, and their famous Lieutenant Frank Drebin, is responsible for coordinating security for a visit to LA by Queen Elizabeth II. Parallel to this, Police Squad is also investigating the near murder of Detective Nordberg, who was shot whilst investigating a drug smuggling racket. Enter the mysterious Vincent Ludwig, who is seemingly a philanthropic millionaire shipping magnate, making him the perfect candidate to organise the Queen’s visit and also be a conniving villain. Can Drebin find an assassin, avenge Nordberg, and find love, all inside 85 minutes? You bet your ass he can.
Right from the off, you know this is going to be a very silly film. It opens in a seemingly dramatic manner, with a meeting of all the world’s most evil enemies of freedom, from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini (who chairs), to Libya’s Muamar Gaddafi, and even including Mikhail Gorbachev. Expressing outrage at being left out of the ambiguous ‘peace process’, the leaders argue with each other about how to get included. When suddenly, it is all derailed by the appearance of none other than “Lieutenant Frank Drebin, Police Squad!”
Played with a beautiful deadpan spin by the late Leslie Nielsen, Drebin proceeds to competently beat up the leaders of the non-fun parts of the world, and even cleans the famous Gorby birthmark from its owner’s forehead, exclaiming, “I knew it!” to the camera. The aforementioned Ayatollah turns out to be sporting an orange mohawk under his headgear, and the other leaders all turn out to have some stupid quirk that makes them look utterly stupid. All is going so well, and then, proclaiming, “And don’t ever let me catch you guys in America!” Drebin falls out the window.
What follows is an excellent opening titles sequence accompanied by one of the great big band movie themes ever composed – so excellent, in fact, that it has entered my regular rotation of Driving Music. The major key contributes to making it far more comedic than heroic, except for the middle break which modulates into a noirish minor which is much more policey. But still, when played over montage of a police car driving through various non-sequiturial locations including a womens’ locker room, well, no amount of minor modulation is going to turn it into a serious piece of music.
The appeal of the Naked Gun films comes from this sort of unabashed slapstick. There’s not a single subtle joke in the piece, really. Puns and running jokes abound, and even the background is absolutely loaded with gags for the slightly more eagle eyed observer – signs for “The Police, The Hospital, The Docks” spring to mind. Much of the humour springs from Drebin’s unawareness of his own incompetence, with Nielsen playing it more or less straight for much of the film. Ricardo Montalban as Vincent Ludwig shows a surprising amount of comedic talent as the only competent person in a world full of idiots, and the fact that he is thwarted at every turn by a bunch of idiots only makes it funnier. Priscilla Presley as love interest Jane Spencer is a glowing presence, and who could forget OJ Simpson as Nordberg, though to be honest, I always find it super awkward seeing him in movies.
The OJ awkwardness is one of two things which worry me about this film. The other thing is that the opening sequence, with its very then-contemporary relevance (all the vile dictators of the late 1980s are present, plus the slightly less vile Gorbachev) – the understandability of that part is likely to decline rapidly now that they’re all dead and no-one’s learning about them at school. But for those of us with Year 12 history under our belts, it’s all good!
When we watched this film, we laughed, and laughed hard. I can’t recommend The Naked Gun and its sequels enough, especially if all you’re looking for is a simple comedy with which to wind down. They’re a bit of lighthearted fun which won’t challenge your tired brain, and what more can you ask for than that?