The Series Project: Police Academy
Film essay by: Witney Seibold
Let us look back… There was, I posit, a subgenre-cum-trend in American film comedy, probably starting in the late 1970s, that involved stuffy, upper-class American institutions and settings being undone and/or playfully mocked by an irascible group of playfully disrespectful, irreverent funsters. The origin of this trend was probably “Animal House” (1978), with its open mockery of higher education in the hands of slobs and drunks who playfully exploited the system for their own (unclear) ends. This was followed by such films as “Caddyshack” (1981), and “Stripes” (1983), which mocked high-end golf and the military respetively. This era of filmmaking was also blessed by the slapstick absurdity of films like “The Kentucky Fried Movie” (1977) and “Airplane!” (1980), which infused American screen comedy with a bracing, Marx Bros.-like riff on reality itself, and allowed for a broader range of cartoon weirdness to be re-introduced to the public.
This may seem like a circuitous path leading to Paul Maslansky’s 1984’s seminal comedy classic “Police Academy,” but I think it is the correct one. In 1984, Pat Proft and Neal Israel wrote a comedy about a group of playful and perhaps untalented recruits signing up for the local police force, and, rather than learning anything about actual law enforcement, instead used the opportunity to make fun of the police system, and play pranks on their hard-nosed superiors. Each of the characters was some sort of broad archetype. Some of the actors hired were stand-up comedians, making for long asides where they may indulge in their shtick. And, thanks to the absurdity of “Airplane!,” the filmmakers felt no need to set their film in any real specific place or time, instead inventing an imaginary police academy that doesn’t seem to bar any resemblance to the way police officers actual complete their training.
“Police Academy” was a huge, huge hit, and spawned six sequels and two television series.
Since I am your humble and stalwart film critic and researcher, I have taken it upon myself, on your behalf, to sit through every single one of the “Police Academy” films made to date to give you an overview of the entire series. I even watched two episodes of the “Police Academy” animated series in preparation. Let’s see how this seven-film series stands up. Here’s the rundown:
At the outset of the first film, it is announced that the mayor The City has begun an open-admission policy to the local police force, attracting all manner of maniacs, imps, and rogues. The city is never named, although most of the films were shot in Toronto. The heads of the academy are either clueless old men, or angered, bigoted bullies who resent that they now have to accommodate women and minorities. The recruits are all laidback prankster types who goad one another into playing pranks on the higher-ups.
Each character has one single characteristic for the audience to focus on. I will introduce them as we go along.
There is no real story or story arc to the series. Each film is a long series of comic vignettes leading to a quick third-act setup-and-payoff in order to have some sort of moment of triumph, and perhaps a little bit of action. It wasn’t until, oddly, “Police Academy 6” that real crime and policework came into view.
The humble beginnings:
Police Academy (1984)
Directed by Hugh Wilson, and written by Proft and Israel, and produced by Maslansky.
The unseen mayor (a woman, gasp) has indeed lifted all previous physical requirements to police academy admission. “Naturally,” a pre-title crawl tells us, “the police freaked.” All manner of wackos who always wanted to be ploce officers begin applying, and we see an amusing sequence of each character preparing to go off to the police academy for the first time.
We see the clumsy nerd, Fackler (Bruce Mahler), driving to the academy with his nagging wife (Debralee Scott) on the hood of his car. We see the funny fat guy (Donovan Scott) arriving in a cloud of wheezes. We see the boilerplate tough guy, Moses Hightower (football player Bubba Smith) retiring from his florist job. We see the perhaps-mentally unstable gun nut Eugene Tackleberry (David Graf). We see the timid, small woman, Laverne Hooks (Marion Ramsay) learning to assert herself. We see the womanizing Latin lover George Martin (Andrew Rubin). We meet two yuppie jagoffs who are destined to become bullies (played by Brant Von Hoffman and Scott Thompson). And we see the spoiled rich girl (Kim Cattrall), defying her blueblood heritage. Many of these, we’ll be seeing in future sequels.
The hero of our story is Carey Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), a troublemaking twentysomething who is an irascible flirt and always in trouble with the law. When he intentionally wrecks a car at his parking attendant job, he is arrested and given a choice: prison or the police academy. Mahoney feels he can go to the police academy, intentionally get kicked out, and be free again. While at the police station, he meets Larvell Jones (Michael Winslow), a vocal percussionist and mimic, who is in trouble for imitating machine guns and basically disturbing the peace. The go to the police academy together.
At the academy we meet the local chief of police Hurnst (George R. Robertson) who feels the latest batch of recruits is a no-good pile of horrors, and basically orders the commandant of the academy Mr. Lassard (George Gaynes) to force them all to quit. Lassard is a befuddled and kind old man, and doesn’t have much of a stomach for anything beyond his pet goldfish, so it falls to Capt. Harris (G.W. Bailey) to carry out Hurnst’s request. Luckily, Harris is a bulying drill-instructor type, and has no problem bullying and pushing people around until they quit. We also meet Sgt. Callahan (Leslie Easterbrook), a touch as nails PE instructor type with fists of iron and truck-crushing breasts.
Now that we have our players and setting in place, we can commence with the jokes. And, really, that’s all that happens in the movie. Mahoney tries to get kicked out by sending the fat guy into the commandant’s wife’s bathroom. He puts shoe-polish on Harris’ megaphone. He hides a hooker in a podium, and has her fellate Lassard unexpectedly while he gives a speech. He also throws parties (complete with booze, campfires, and some of the most gratuitous nudity of any ‘80s sex comedy), and tries really hard to pickup Kim Cattrall, at which he ultimately succeeds. George Martin sneaks off to the women’s dorm for nightly threesomes.
Harris belittles them all and calls them “dirtbags.” Harris does indeed recruit Hoffman and Thompson, newly shaved, to be his tattletales, so the prankstering extends to them as well; at one point they are lured into a gay leather bar called The Blue Oyster (which looks like a friendlier version of the clubs in “Cruising”), where they dance all night. I suppose it serves them right, as one of them un-ironically uses the word “jigaboo” at one point. Really? “Jigaboo” in 1984? It’ll make you wince.
Callahan beats up men in martial arts training, and the other men all volunteer to be next. Hooks is timid and squeaks a lot. There is a funny sequence where Hightower admits that he never learned to drive, and Mahoney takes him for a late-night lesson in a tiny car with the front seats missing. Tackleberry is only too pleased to use excessive force, and brings his own guns to training. Late in the film, he is seen shooting a cat down out of a tree. Don’t worry. I think the cat was fine.
The third act shows Fackler accidentally starting a riot, and all the recruits are called into action in riot gear. There is a miscommunication, however, and the recruits are sent to the center or the riot rather than the perimeter. In the ensuing chaos, Harris is kidnapped by a bad guy, and Mahoney and Jones manage to rescue him. This act, somehow, absolves all the previous conflicts in the film, and everyone graduates with flying colors. Huzzah.
Since I can’t really fault this film on its story (or lack thereof), I’ll look instead at the characters, starting with our hero. Steve Guttenberg has gotten a bum rap over the years because of his involvement in these “Police Academy” movies, but, watching it again, I can see that he’s a charming and funny comedian. When he pulls out the playful smirk, and the flirty looks, I can buy him as a funloving sprite. I do, however, have trouble seeing him as a troublemaker who is always on the wrong side of the law. Guttenberg has no edge, no toughness, no hint of violence. If our entryway to this multi-film series is the belief in Mahoney’s anarchic spirit, it’s a pretty flimsy entryway. Luckily, his charm makes up for a lot, and the scenes he has where he’s quietly talking to Smith and Rubin come across as genuinely sweet.
Winslow has a limited shtick, using his jejune vocal sound effects and ventriloquism to embarrass and amuse people, but many of the jokes are kinda funny.
It’s an inoffensive, predictable, R-rated comic mess, this first film, and perhaps exemplifies a certain kind of 1980s comedy that is often referred to in the abstract. A sequel was inevitable.
Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985)
Rated PG-13 now.
A mere year after the first film came this sequel, directed by Jerry Paris, which abandoned the idea of the “academy” altogether, and focused on our characters taking to the streets to stop a rogue gang.
Even though the setting has changed, and the antagonist is no longer a jerky teacher, the formula seems to be already in place: Introduce the characters, establish that they are unconventional and playful, then introduce the bad guy, have him do bad things to the heroes, and then spend two-thirds of the film doing cruel things in return. This is a dynamic taken from Bugs Bunny cartoons or Marx Bros. movies. Bugs/Harpo is given lisence to do whatever act of cruelty he can think of to his antagonist, as said foe has already abused him, the innocent, all but once.
So we see Mahoney on beach patrol, Jones still making sound effects, Tacklebrry being generally violent, Hightower being menacing, Fackler being clumsy, and Hooks being friendly.
Lassard’s brother Pete (Howard Hesseman) is in control of the most under-funded and understaffed (not to mention filthiest) precinct in the city. Crime is on the rise as a result of the police’s ill preparation, and a vicious punk gang led by the hysteria-driven Zed (Bob Goldthwait) has taken to ruling the streets. Say what you will about the incomprehensible screaming of Goldthwait’s comedy, he is actually a smart and savvy comedian, and he lends incredibly to this film. It’s no wonder that he was tapped for future installments. If you get a chance, I encourage you to find his stand-up. He may be high strung, but he’s not at all abrasive. Well, unless he’s being intentionally abrasive.
Anyway, Lassard, inexplicably, has fallen in love with the graduates from the first film, and assembles them to work for his brother. Since Harris is no longer around to be the butt of the joke, we are introduced to Lt. Mauser (Art Metrano), an insufferable brownnoser who, should the precinct fail, be allowed to lead it. He and his bumbling sidekick Proctor (Lance Kinsey, whom we will see in the future) try their hardest to make our heroes look dumb, but, naturally, end up looking dumb themselves in he process. Proctor is an interesting character, as he seems to be possessed of a child-like innocence and intelligence, and is more fascinated with kind, gentle things than actual policework. Why do villains in this type of entertainment always choose bumbling sidekicks? It is to show what poor judges of character they are? Is it to show that only dummies will follow a villain? Whatever the origin, it’s in place here.
Each of the classic characters is teamed up with an old-timer, and the comedy gets a-rolling. Mahoney works with a fat slob named Shtulman (Peter Van Norden) who eats cat poop and owns a filthy dog. Fackler is so clueless that he lends his matches to a gang who is starting to start a car fire. Mauser insults them and belittles them and tries to make them look bad in small ways, and in return, Mahoney glues his hands to his head, by swapping his shampoo with epoxy. Tackleberry is teamed with a hot ladycop named Kirkland (Colleen Camp) who is just as well-armed as he, and he falls in love. There’s an entire subplot devoted to this romance, and it’s actually kind of sweet, thanks to the comic chops of David Graf and Colleen Camp. The two characters end up getting married at the end of the film.
Oh, and, for a brief moment, Julie Brown is in this film. I love seeing her in anything. Tim Kazurinsky from “Saturday Night Live” appears as a nervous shop owner.
Third act story: Mahoney is eventually kicked off the force for his pranks and for botching a capture job at a city fair, but is, nonetheless, enlisted by Pete Lassard to go undercover as a gang member to find where Zed hides out. Mahoney puts on a fake moustache, leather vest and bandanna, and that’s enough to have him pass for a thug. He looks ridiculous, and the problem of buying Guttenberg as a tough guy is once again brought to light. Eventually he does find the bad guys’ hideout, and has a tête-à-tête with Zed. Even though Mauser wants credit for capturing the gang, it’s the good guys who are ultimately alerted, and rush to Mahoney’s rescue, since they like him so much. There is a shootout, Zed is arrested, Jones fakes everyone out with helicopter noises and all is well.
Once again, how this arrest makes everything better remains unexplained. The good guys had a shootout, won, and all is well.
Oh, and there’s a scene where Winslow fights kung fu and moves his mouth as if he is being dubbed. This is an amusing moment, but it’s a shtick we’ll see many, many more times in upcoming films. Indeed, he’ll get a kung fu scene in each film. You’ll begin keeping a tally. There are also some racist Asian characters, but those of us who grew up in the 1980s will recognize that casual racism. It’s not as harsh as the “jigaboo” moment from the first film.
This film, like the first, is pretty dumb, but, I have to admit, has a few brief moments of actual camaraderie; we begin to sense why the script says everyone is friends. There are only a few moments of incident – like when people walk into a locker room, and they all briefly greet on another – but it feels like genuine friendship for a few flickering moments. The film does devolve into sloppy slapstick action, but director Paris handled these moments with aplomb.
The filmmakers also began to see that the audience for these films was skewing younger and younger, so they laid off the hard material. There is no nudity or sex play in this film, and the cursing is kept to a relative minimum. All the rest of the film in the series will be rated PG. The next film is probably the strongest in the series…
Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986)
Remembering that their series is called “Police Academy,” this third part, also directed by Jerry Paris, returns to a police academy, and is probably the funniest of the series, and its obvious peak. It still doesn’t have much of a story, but in terms of comic timing, comedy set pieces, funny characters, and well-timed moments, “Police Academy 3” is spot on. It falls closer to the comedies of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, and probably was the precedent for getting “The Naked Gun” greenlit. If you’re only going to see one “Police Academy” movie, you’ll likely find this one the most enjoyable. Not necessarily a classic comedy, but enjoyable nonetheless.
So returning to the idea of an “academy,” part three resembles part one in many ways. The opening scenes all follow the new recruits, this time involving a few characters we’ve seen before. Mrs. Fackler (still Debralee Scott), whom we last saw on the hood of a car in part one, now gets to drive to the academy with Fackler on the hood of her car. Zed, wanting to absolve himself from his life of crime, joins the academy. Mr. Sweetchuck (Kazurinsky) also decides to join. There’s also a Japanese cadet (Brian Tochi) who is there as part of an exchange program. His character is less racist than you might imagine, although he’s still a collection of Asian oddities more than a character (he sleeps on a bed of nails, f’rinstance). Oh, and Commandant Lassard is still there, is course.
Oh, and Tackleberry’s new brother-in-law (Andrew Paris, who was also in part 2) is also a cadet. His running gag is that he is constantly getting into fistfights with his father.
The setup is as follows: The-still-unnamed city is running out of money, and one of the city’s two police academies must be closed. A board of clipboard-wielding office wonks is there to size up the respective academies. One of the academies (The “Mid-Town” Academy) is, inexplicably, run by Mauser from the last film, and Procter is there in tow. Mauser has all the best computer equipment and uniforms, and runs his institution like the army. Lassard is more laidback, but seems to be slipping further and further into insanity. He recalls all the old character to train the new cadets, and, true to form, the bulk of the film is comic training montages.
Sweetchuck rooms with Zed, and they hate each other. Oh, and here’s something weird: Brandt Van Hoffman and Scott Thompson return as well, and play stoolies to Mauser, hoping to get Lassard’s academy closed. This is essentially the story of the first film all over again, but well worn, like a comfy pair of sneakers.
Mahoney also has a new love interest in this film (Kim Cattrall is long forgotten), and she’s played by Shawn Weatherly. Sadly, she leaves little to no impression.
At this point in the series, it began to occur to me that Lassard’s academy characters were not just the protagonists out of necessity any longer, but were our heroes because the filmmakers assumed we have genuine affection for them. We want to see them succeed over adversity less because they are anarchic-ly relatable ne’er-do-wells, but because we’ve gotten to know them so well over the course of the last two films. We’re familiar with their jokes and their sense of humor, and now want to return to a comfortable place.
This, sadly, was kind of a miscalculation, as the characters were never strong, and the stories never involve any real adversity. Sure we may love Guttenberg’s charms, Winslow’s wacky jokes, Graf’s delightful overacting, and Easterbrook’s game ballbusting, but I’m not so sure I’d go so far as to call these characters my filmic family. I’ll still root for them if the film is funny enough, but I think the filmmakers were taking our sympathy for granted.
Anyway, what else? Proctor gets seduced by the hooker from the first film, and is sent out nude into the streets of Toronto. He winds up in the Blue Oyster bar. Oh, The Blue Oyster was in the last film as well. Gotta love them wacky homosexuals. I admire Lance Kinsey, as he’s willing to make an ass of himself for a laugh. That’s a dedication a lot of comedians and actors don’t have. There’s also a scene in which Mauser has his eyebrows ripped off.
Third act action begins: A group of criminals dressed as busboys tries to take over some sort of luncheon with the police chief and Lassard and all the clipboard wonks attending. Mahoney and crew get on jetskis and save the day. The jetski sequence can seem more like an ad for jetskis and less like an actual action scene, but it’s actually kind of fun, in a groggy-late-night-cable sort of way. The clipboard wonks vote for Lassard’s academy, and all is well.
Like I said, perhaps not a great comedy film, but the height of the “Police Academy” series. After this, this kind of taken a downward turn.
Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (1987)
I began to wonder about this chapter what the police did to deserve such mockery. In the “Police Academy” film, the police force is seen as a bumbling, idiotic, ambitious group of backstabbing hacks, and indifferent pranksters. There may be an action scene at the end of each film, but where is the actual policework? Where is the thought of fighting crime, of serving and protecting? Where is the deep-seated desire to be a cop out of nobility and altruism and an innate desire to do good for the community? Heck, where are the corrupt cops, who joined to commit violence and take dirty money like in “Harsh Times” or something? Nope. None of those characters here. No real-life version of policework. This is a cartoon alternate universe where the actual policework is handled offscreen. It’s like in ‘80s college comedies where we never see the characters in class or talking about what they’re studying.
I guess it around 1987 when NWA was forming and writing “Fuck Tha Police,” so it seems the lid was about to be blown off anyway.
Anyway, onto “Police Academy 4.”
This film has the best pedigree of any of the “Police Academy” films. It was directed by one Jim Drake, who has a long resume in television, most notably having directed 63 episodes of “Night Court.” I encourage you to look him up on the Internet Movie Database, and marvel over his experience. Sharon Stone was in this film as Mahoney’s love interest, and while she’s also not give too much to do, brings a very slight flavor of class to the proceedings. Colleen Camp returns for one scene, and, although she doesn’t do much, it’s a delight to see her back. Some will be started to see a teenage David Spade in this film as a skateboard punk, and most will be astonished to see a young skate legend Tony Hawk in the skate sequences. The skate scenes were directed by Stacy Peralta, a legend in his own right, and the director of “Dog Town and Z-Boys.”
Despite this pedigree, the film seems to run out of steam about halfway through, and there’s a clear turn from excited comedy to tired hackdom occurring right in front of you. Like any people were just going through the motions, having run out of ways to repeat the same gags again and make them seem funny.
So in this film, Lassard, now certifiably insane, has gathered his favorite class back (Guttenberg, Smith, Winslow, Ramsay, Easterbrook, Graf, Kazurinsky, Goldthwait) to announce a new recruitment program. It’s never stated explicitly in the films, but I’m guessing police recruitment has always been a problem in Insert City Name Here. His new program is called Citizen on Patrol, or COP for short, and will train ordinary citizens to essentially lurk the streets spying on people, altering the cops, and opening fire should the situation call for it. This all seems very suspect to me, but there’s little discussion of the ethics of a citizen stasi at work, or even if this will work.
Indeed, Lassard’s old enemies stand in direct opposition, and G.W. Bailey has returned as Capt. Harris in order to protest against this horrible new measure. Bailey is incredibly game as Harris, and delivers catchphrases and makes a fool of himself with aplomb. He is also teamed up, oddly, with Proctor, making sue the dynamic is still in place. While the jokes from these two may be painful, it’s clear they work well together.
Since we’re presumably love Lassard and his recruits, we want to see the new system be put into play with flying colors, however actually misguided it may be. Let the gags begin. Harris begins to belittle and hector Mahoney and the rest just like in the first film, but he seems to be more of a buffoon in this new film. He receives instant karma (he tells people off, accidentally wanders into a shower, and immediately gets drenched), and the pranks are beginning to tip into cruelty: Zed replaces Harris’ spray-on deodorant with mace. Mahoney glues Harris’ megaphone to his face.
Zed has a love interest in this film, played by Corinne Bohrer. There’s no real romance here, sadly. It’s just an excuse to show Goldthwait in incongruously sweet positions. Also around is Tackleberry’s brother-in-law, a septuagenarian foulmouth named Mrs. Feldman (Billie Bird), and a huge fat guy nicknamed House (6’5” 400-lb. Tab Thacker). Brian Tochi has a few scenes, and it’s actually sweet to see that he and Callahan are still having an affair which began in the last film. They repeat the same dialogue, but the relationship is there.
He will also come into play in the film’s climax involving, I kid you not, a group of ninjas. Yes. Ninjas.
Anything really funny? Here? Lemme see. Easterbrook is still game, and David Graf is still chewing scenery with gusto, but most of the gags kinda fall flat. There are only so many times you can chuckle at Ramsay screaming “Don’t move, dirtbag!” There is that exciting (if extraneous) skateboard sequence, and Spade and his buddy Brian Backer are caught by the police and forced into the academy. Mahoney, Jones, Tackleberry and Hightower play a great prank on those two and House by staging what looks like a voodoo resurrection. It involves a chainsaw. That’s kinda fun/weird, I guess. The plot gets going when the citizens are finally released onto the streets, and immediately bugle an undercover fencing operation.
Third act action: Proctor accidentally releases a bunch of prisoners, and the COPs must reunite to catch them all. There’s a chase to a hot air balloon pageant. Goldthwait and Kazurinsky fly a bi-plane, and bicker a lot; I suspect their bickering was supposed to be a huge comic crux, and it plays well, but isn’t always funny. The stunts for this sequence are actually spectacular, as real hot air balloons were used, and people actually bothered to dangle off of them. This is refreshing, especially in an era when stuntmen seem to be increasingly replaced with CGI avatars.
You can tell most everyone is tiring of the material. Guttenberg especially, while still a professional, is not giving nearly as much energy to his role than he did in the past. This will be his last “Police Academy” film.
Our next outing will be the low point of the series.
Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach (1988)
Directed by Alan Myerson, also a TV veteran, who has a small role in the film as “cigar smoking man.” His screenname is A.L. Meat.
I began to formulate a cockeyed theory by this film. Since the city where these people work is never named, they refer to themselves as simply the Metropolitan police. I realize this can be applied to any city, but perhaps their city is indeed… Metropolis. Like where Superman lives. It would explain why they’re not used to dealing with any real crime; Superman has them covered. O.k., maybe it’s not a good theory.
I mention this as, as the title suggests, “Police Academy 5” takes place in Miami, which is the first mention we’ve had of a real time and place.
“PA5:A:MB” gets started when Harris, snooping through Commissioner Hurnst’s desk, discovers a file, revealing that Commandant Lassard has surpassed the required retirement age. The age is not specified. This means Lassard must go to Miami to attend a country-wide police convention and make a speech, and, since he can’t operate without his favorite recruits, drags them all along.
Well, not all of them. Mahoney is visibly absent here. Our irascible hero has dropped out. Also absent are Goldthwait, Kazurinsky, and Mahler. Actually, Mahler wasn’t in parts 3 or 4 either. It’s getting harder to keep track of who is around, but we do get the feeling that characters are missing. We are still, however, in the company of Ramsay, Smith, Easterbrook, Graf, Winslow, Bailey and Kinsey, and, of course Gaynes. Guttenberg is replaced, after a fashion, by Matt McCoy, who plays Lassard’s nephew, Nick. Nick occupies the space of “flirty white guy, and instigator of pranks,” which was largely the role Guttenberg played in all the previous films. Nick is, indeed, given a love interest in the form of Janet Jones, who looks really good in a swimsuit. I learned after the fact that she is the wife of Wayne Gretzky, and has appeared in Playboy magazine.
Anyway, there’s actually something of a story in this film. A trio of thieves have stolen a pile of diamonds and fled to Miami at the same time as this police convention. The lead thief is played by an overacting Rene Auberjonois and one of his sidekicks is played by Archie Hahn. Since the story doesn’t strain to be anything more than a boilerplate sitcom, there is a bag mix-up at the airport, and Lassard accidentally ends up with the thieves’ bag. The thieves spend the film trying to locate Lassard, break into his room, and get the diamonds back. Inevitably the break-ins go awry in some slapstick fashion.
Something sad began to happen in this film, which is why I site it as the series’ low point. Harris is still a hardass, and he is still the butt of everyone’s pranks, but things seem to have taken a cruel and tragic turn here. In the previous films, Harris was a hardass and a blowhard, but it was always in the line of duty, and his cadets and inferiors would act out in a form of playful rebellion. The pranks were, perhaps, larger than the crime, but they were always committed with an attitude of playfulness. In part 5, the pranks seem unduly harsh, and largely unwarranted. The police are all on vacation. Harris may be a jerk, but he’s not doing anything more than harshing their mellow. Does he really deserve to be sunburned, set on fire, forced into a plane with goats, coated in bird poop, and kidnapped? It seems less like playful rebellion anymore, and more like bullying. I started to feel sorry for Harris. A man who is destined to be a jerk, and destined to be harmed by his peers. He has no real friends. He is alone.
Anyway, there’s our usual two acts of wacky gags, a fight scene, and some romantic dalliances. But, y’know, chaste ones. The word “dork” is used a lot. Eventually the thieves, stooping to extreme measures, kidnap Lassard and find themselves making demands from a hotel penthouse. This is amusing: Since this police convention, as a grand demonstration of policework, stages a grand crime every year, Lassard assumes that his kidnapping is a hoax, and is delighted to play long. He offers advice to his kidnappers, plays cards with them, and they all begin to like him.
There’s a big chase, Harris is also kidnapped, and our heroes get to ride around on those swamp-skipping noisy fan-backed boats that you see in every film and TV show set in Miami. Of course the good guys apprehend the bad guys. Thanks to this, the police commissioner announces that Lassard need not retire, and can stay on for as long as he wants. This is a baffling move, as Lassard seems genuinely senile at this point. He only ever plays golf and obsesses over his fish. Indeed, that goldfish crops up a lot in this film, and a point of comedy seems to be that Lassard is traveling with golf clubs and a goldfish.
More than ever, the actors seem tired. The new blood and exotic locale aren’t enough to disguise the fact that the jokes are stales and re-used. This one was hard to sit through.
Police Academy 6: City Under Siege (1989)
Directed by the unfortunately named Peter Bonerz, another long-time TV vet.
Strangely, “Police Academy 6” is the most cinematic of the series. It was made a mere year after part five (indeed, there had been one “Police Academy” film a year for a while there), but it feels like a lot of time has passed since the last one. Like this is a reunion of sorts. And indeed some people return.
Matt McCoy is back, and our usual gang, but also Billie Bird (now named Mrs. Stanwyck) from part 4, and Bruce Mahler as Fackler. Mahler is in one of funniest scenes of the film. Fackler, you see, is a klutz who can’t turn around without unwittingly knocking something over, hitting someone, or setting something on fire. There are two scenes in which he walks through an office and essentially wreaks havoc along the way. He opens doors, and there is someone injured behind him. The scene in question shows Fackler strolling through the office, and each and every person dives dramatically out of the way, causing just as much havoc as Fackler would have otherwise. It made me laugh.
Anyway, “Police Academy 6” has an actual story, so let’s get to it. The mayor (Kenneth Mars) has noticed an uptick in crime recently, and enlists our heroes to get on the case. Evidently there is a trio of thugs (Gerrit Graham, Brian Seeman, Darwyn Swalve) robbing banks and museums with an efficiency unseen in Metropolis. They receive their orders in a darkened basement room from a shady mastermind who is unnamed and only seen in silhouette. There is some grand scheme at work.
There is time and space for all the usual gags. Tackleberry is still well armed, and now he has a young son who appears in one scene. Harris is glued to his chair in one scene. There’s a lot of glue in these movies. The story, however, rather than being relegated to the third act, is always in play. The bad guys institute a city-wide blackout, and our heroes must calm the populace, which is represented by Jones doing standup comedy in a darkened club. Hooks is given a bad computer guidance system, and accidentally instructs some peers into a river. Or did that happen in a previous film?
Eventually, thanks to some actual detecting, the police track down where the thugs have been hiding out. The thugs are well-prepared to face off against the cops. The mystery boss even has a Batman-1966-style sealed room with a deadly gas pump. Thug #1 is a firearms expert, and he and Tackleberry get to have a showdown. Thug #2 is a martial arts expert, and he and Jones get to have a showdown. Thug #3 is named Ox and is huge, and he and Hightower get to have a showdown. Eventually the identity of the mastermind is revealed. I won’t say who it is, but line “Don’t shoot me, shoot him! HE’S the imposter!” is actually uttered.
In terms of comedy and quality, this film is about average, but in terms of story and filmmaking, it’s surprising how well “Police Academy 6” stands up in the face of the others.
I think that the filmmakers and actors felt that this was going to be the last hurrah, and the film ends with a feeling of relief. Like we’ve come to the end of our journey.
Ah, but we haven’t quite yet.
Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (1994)
Directed by Alan Metter (“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Back to School”).
It’s been five years since the last “Police Academy” film. “Do the Right Thing” has been a hit, and the Soviet Union has fallen. The Super Nintendo has hit the market. Beavis and Butt-Head have entered the lexicon, and Nirvana changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll. Screen comedy has undergone a change; no longer are audiences interested in unrealistic antics. Well, they are, but the flavor is different. Comedy these days skews toward Adam Sandler, Pauly Shore, and other lovable loser types. Kevin Smith is on the immediate horizon.
In this climate, why bring back “Police Academy?” I guess it’s so that the actors and filmmakers can prove that they are still working and still have comedic chops. To a large degree, they do.
Let me pause here to give some praise. David Graf, Michael Winslow, and George Gaynes are he only actors to appears in all seven “Police Academy” movies. Winslow is always game, and, I must admit that he can be very funny. Say what you will about the annoying legacy of the “Police Academy” films, Winslow managed to make a name for himself. Gaynes, while playing a slightly different version of Lassard in Part 4, manages to actually act his part throughout the course of the series, rather than just relying on cheap gags. He brings a Leslie Nielsen/Lloyd Bridges quality to his performances. He finally got top billing in part 7.
G.W. Bailey may be playing a sad character, but he manages to sell every last second of Harris. He may be a hardass onscreen, but is actually a friendly and compassionate actor who heads up a charity organization.
Leslie Easterbrook appears on most of the films, and she seems like the kind of actress I’d love to have lunch with. She knows exactly what kind of movies she’s in, and plays the part with a vicious commitment unseen in most comedies of this ilk. She’s perfectly o.k. with being objectified, and, in interviews, seems amused and tickled at some of the things she’s had to do. Pragmatic, flirty, professional and practical, Easterbrook is one of the stars of this series.
The other star belongs to the late, great David Graf, who is not only just as committed as Easterbrook, but drop-dead funny. Genial, amusing, humorous and unafraid, David Graf is always a delight. He pours himself into the role of Eugene Tackleberry with unceasing gameness and aplomb. He was a professional. Graf died of a heart attack in 2001. The world lost a comedic talent.
Also, I have to say, I love the “Police Academy” theme music, composed by Robert Folk. It’s a regal march that is fun and catchy.
Anyway, onto “Police Academy 7.” This film was actually shot it Moscow, shortly after the coup, and the settings are genuine. Also, having personally visited Moscow about the time this film came out, it gave me a sense of nostalgia. The film isn’t all that funny; indeed there are only a few moments worth a giggle, but, like part 6, managed to have a real story.
The world has been overrun by a new Russian video game called simply The Game. The Game is played on portable videogame systems (played in the film by Nintendo Game Boys, always carefully photographed from the back, and sometimes missing their game cartridges), and home computers. How The Game is played is never made clear, but we see that it has taken the world by storm. The Game has been developed by a shady Russian super-criminal named Konstantine Konli (the stalwart Ron Perlman) who has a plan…
There is an exchange program in place, and our remaining heroes, Jones, Tackleberry and Callahan, along with Capt. Harris and Lassard, travel to Moscow to investigate. Do police actually work this way? Of course not. But I’m guessing that filming in Russia was inexpensive. The police are allowed to take along a single cadet, and a troublemaking computer hacker in the academy, Kyle Connors (Charlie Schaltter) is dragged along. I guess we need a white young man in each film, who can fall in love with a hot young thing. In short, we need a Zeppo. Kyle fills those shoes well, and gets to fall in love with a Russian cop played by Claire Forlani.
Oh, y’know who’s in this film? Christopher Lee. What a champ. That guy’ll do anything. What a pro. Lee plays a Russian police chief who briefs out heroes, and kisses George Gaynes on the mouth.
Anyway, Gaynes spends most of this film away from the main action, as he accidentally gets into a hearse rather than his taxi. He spends the film with a Russian family who are so polite, they put him up and assume he’s a long-lost relative. Lassard’s protector (Gregg Berger) has some mildly amusing scenes as he tries to hide the fact that Lassard is missing.
Konali takes a shine to the curvy and tough Callahan, and there are a few bumbled sting operations which lead to Callahan being kidnapped. Harris lurks about the margins of the film, using spy equipment. Once again, he is the butt of pranks and harm, being subjected to dog urine, and Tackleberry’s violence demonstration. There is also a trio of Russian cops in this film who have no dialogue, and who do a lot of onscreen tumbling. They do sort of mutter and chatter, but it’s clear that was added in post. It’s surreal.
Eventually our young cadet Kyle manages not only to land the girl, and take her on a date to a Russian circus, but use his computer hacking skills to uncover Konali’s true plan for The Game. It’s not exactly “Sneakers,” but at least it’s a story.
I’m not exactly sure why this film was put into production. Perhaps to capture a new generation of fans. Perhaps to take advantage of a new shooting location. I’m not sure of the world was really asking for a seventh “Police Academy” film, so perhaps they were just trying to tap the nostalgia vein of kids who, like me, grew up watching the movies on TV and home video. It was, I’m sorry to report, a cynical moneygrab.
A “Police Academy 8” was planned for release in 2001, but, because of Graf’s untimely death, the project was scrapped. Plans are, however, still afoot. According to the Internet Movie Database, “Police Academy 8” will be released in 2011.
Addendum: The animated “Police Academy” series (1988)
Odd that an R-rated film should spawn a Saturday morning animated series. I think the only other time that happened was with “RoboCop.”
I watched two hard-to-find episodes of this series as a capper to my movie marathon. I’m not sure if I have much to say about the show. None of the cast played their roles, and even the premise was changed. Evidently the show takes place at Police Academy Precinct (I guess the “academy” part of it has long since been forgotten), and our heroes Mahoney, Tackleberry, Hooks, Hightower, Callahan, Zed, and Sweetchuck get into wacky misadventures. There is also, inexplicably, a mad scientist character who invents fantastical weapons for the cops. Um… … … K.
The stories of the two episodes I saw were more complex than any of the movies. One involved Hooks, underappreciated, becoming the sheriff of a small Western town. The other had a criminal lady wrestler who seduces Sweetchuck. This is standardly substandard SatAM animation garbage. You don’t need to bother tracking down this show.
As for the 1997 ”Police Academy” live-action series, I haven’t seen any of them, although, from what I understand, it ran a full 26 episodes, which is a lot for a largely forgotten sitcom. I also understand that Winslow bothered to be in the show.
Starting with amusing and mildly raunchy and anarchic, running into solid slapstick, dipping into terrible and incomprehensibly free-form, occasionally insufferable and ending with a sense of retired peace, the “Police Academy” movies are actually a more important footnote in American film comedy than we ordinary like to acknowledge. They were, for better or worse, a powerful comic presence in the 1980s, and are simultaneously mocked and praised for representing the decade.
I’m not exactly sure what made the films so popular. None of them are as funny as other comedies from the era (“Top Secret!” comes to mind) that had no sequels or follow-ups. Perhaps it was just the vague durability of the material that made for easy sequels. If you have vaguely charming comic archetypes in an intentionally ill-defined universe, the comic possibilities are endless. Plus the production values are low. I guess the success of the “Police Academy” movies are more a testament to savvy production, and less to comedic power.
Part 3 was clearly the standout of the series, and told its jokes the best. The first two are amusing, and perhaps worth a look if you can get into the trenches of stupid comedy. I encourage you to, however, stay away from parts 4-7, unless, of course, you are a mad completist like myself.
The biggest pleasures to be had, though, are, as I have said, from Leslie Easterbrook and David Graf. The low points are, however, pretty low, and when the joke are dumb, they’re really dumb.