VHS Revival Revisits one of cinemas most unique comedy creations
Airplane will always be the original Zucker/Abrahams absurdity, and there were a few other notable efforts in-between, but for me The Naked Gun is the pinnacle of their deadpan genius, and there is nothing you can suggest that will ever change my mind.
There are perhaps a number of reasons for my particular bias, but the most telling is the fact that I saw The Naked Gun long before I did its puerile predecessor, and by the time I got around to finally seeing Airplane – of which I had acquired lofty expectations – the comedy seemed just a little watered down by comparison.
This is Frank Drebin, Police Squad. Throw down your guns, and come on out with your hands up. Or come on out, then throw down your guns, whichever way you wanna do it. Just remember the two key elements here: one, guns to be thrown down; two, come on out!
As sharp and as influential as the original Zucker/Abrahams creation may have been, The Naked Gun seemed to take it to the next level. Airplane was consistently amusing, but its successor was relentlessly hilarious, and more than worthy of the two sequels it would inevitably spawn. I’m sure there are many purists out there who are scoffing at the very notion of what I am suggesting, but I genuinely believe The Naked Gun to be the superior movie. Whether that is a result of bias alone is a point that is impossible to determine. The most I can do is express to you how I feel about the subject and why.
I was eight years old when I first discovered the original Naked Gun movie, and I found it as side-splitting then as I do now. There is something about its absurd brand of comedy that is so universal, something so fundamental that it can be enjoyed by all ages and cultures. How can one not laugh at the sight of a straight-faced detective borrowing a criminal 20 bucks so he can bribe [him] for answers in return, or that same detective shooting at his own car and asking citizens for a make on the registration plate as it careens towards a path of wanton destruction. If you played that scene to a member of the world’s most disconnected tribe, I guarantee you it would at least raise a smile, regardless of how remote their understanding of our culture may be.
The Zucker/Abrahams formula is so irresistibly simple it is amazing nobody thought of it before they unleashed the likes of Frank Drebin onto the cinematic landscape. Before his transformation into the comedy icon he is now so fondly remembered for, Leslie Nielsen was a serious actor who had never been near a funny role, but the transition was hardly one of intensive labour. All he had to do was exactly what he had been doing his entire acting career: play it straight. The hardest part of his job was trying not to burst into laughter as gangs of decorators tumbled from background scaffold or prisoners pole-vaulted their way to freedom over the prison yard walls. That’s not to say Nieslen wasn’t a genius – there isn’t a man in the world who could carry those movies the way he and his facial expressions did – but underwhelming roles in tepid imitations such as Spy Hard and Dracula: Dead and Loving It proved that there was much more to The Naked Gun franchise than our leading man’s prodigious star turn.
The obvious hallmark of the series is its wonderful juxtapose of straight-faced seriousness and inane stupidity. So effective are the reams of absurd dialogue and comic set-pieces that the plots of all three movies – which are as blatantly farcical as you could ever strain to imagine – almost pale by comparison. There is something about serious people stuck in silly situations that really connects with modern day humanity, particularly when those people are seemingly unaware of what is going on around them. In spite of his almost total disconnection from reality, Frank Drebin proves to be one of cinema’s most relatable characters, a man so mired in his own inadequacies that accidental heroism is the only foreseeable outcome. Avoiding failure with a nonchalance that he is never quite aware of, he is somehow able to shrug off the perils of fate, accepting his legacy as the precinct’s most dedicated cop as a dog accepts his place at the foot of a bed. Whether he succeeds is not the question. It is the absurdity of his success that we pay to see.
Lt. Frank Drebin: [narrating] The attempt on Nordberg’s life left me shaken and disturbed, and all the questions kept coming up over and over again, like bubbles in a case of club soda. Who was this character in the hospital? And why was he trying to kill Nordberg? And for whom? Did Ludwig lie to me? I didn’t have any proof, but somehow, I didn’t entirely trust him either. Why was the ‘I Luv You’ not listed in Ludwig’s records? And if it was, did he know about it? And if he didn’t, who did? And where the hell was I?
In spite of the movie’s juvenile idiocy, it is rich with effective variation – all of it borrowed, but never cheapened. We have that brand of ludicrous physical comedy reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, a screenplay of spellbinding absurdity, and a cast so attuned to the movie’s slapstick vision that you come to love them like family, regardless of how flimsy their characterisation. Drebin narrates his story like a two-bit lead in a classic Noir flick, albeit one who performs a little hopscotch while sombrely musing. If by some incredible stroke of misfortune you are still unfamiliar with the series, imagine Humphrey Bogart, as moody and as debonair as you remember him, delivering voice-over similes such as “It’s like eating a spoonful of Drano; sure, it’ll clean you out, but it’ll leave you hollow inside”.
We also have the buddy cop dynamic of Drebin, Ed and Nordberg, who spend their days drinking urine samples or parking between two other cop cars and becoming trapped inside. We have what has become the industry standard ‘Q from James Bond gadget send-up’, and so many site gags and ludicrous movie references that you are unable to blink for fear of missing one of an infinitesimal patchwork of comedic glory.
If all of that wasn’t enough, there is the on-and-off love story of Frank and Jane, which journey’s from Casablanca to Thelma and Louise, with some Escape From Alcatraz thrown in for good measure, all of this punctuated by a musclebound Ghost parody, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, and a sexual montage of pumping pistons, star-spangled slam dunks and wretchedly symbolic hot dogs. I mean, name me one other silver screen couple who can take part in a fully blown domestic dispute while performing the tango, flips and all, to an audience of breathless spectators. ‘Jane, Jane; that name will always remind me of her!’
Lt. Frank Drebin: 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.
Shameless lampooning aside, it is fair to say that The Naked Gun also exhibits something of a social conscience. It is perhaps too ridiculous to be labelled a social satire, but for all its facetiousness it still manages to squeeze in moments of relevant commentary, and is infinitely smarter than its infantile embellishments would have you believe. Not only do we have warnings about pollution and the environment, we have giant safe sex condoms, humorous protests against racial stereotyping, inner-city high school violence, and even police corruption. ‘Just think,’ Drebin muses, as he faces retirement during a scene in 33 and 1/3′ The Final Insult, ‘the next time I shoot someone, I could be arrested.’
The reality is, you would have to be inhuman to ‘rise above’ The Naked Gun’s unrelenting farce for more than five minutes, no matter how seriously you tend to take yourself. There are movies that are so immature, some of us refuse to stoop to their shameful level, and then there is The Naked Gun. I have watched the series with some pretty humourless people, and by the end of Drebin and co’s juvenile escapades, those in question have gone on to experience something of a renaissance, a kind of uncontrollable regression into the throes of childhood, and that is essentially what the series is about, rekindling the lost child in all of us, stripping away the debilitating deadwood of adult responsibility and once again making laughter and enjoyment our one and only concern.
In those terms, The Naked Gun is perhaps the funniest and most liberating of all movies. In the near thirty years since it was released, for unabashed joy and belly-aching laughter, nothing has even come close to it, and it’s hard to imagine that anything ever will.