The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Pat Proft (Television Series: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker)
Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson, Susan Beaubian, Nancy Marchand
Buy on DVD
It has been a number of years since I’ve seen the original Naked Gun film and watching it again, I’m taken aback at how well it has aged.
Released in 1988, The Naked Gun was the first of three films adapted from the short-lived television comedy Police Squad starring Leslie Nielsen (in both incarnations) as bumbling detective Frank Drebin. The film opens as a number of prominent, and dangerous, world leaders are meeting to discuss an event that will destroy the credibility and prominence of the United States. That one of the leaders, Muammar Gaddafi, is a prominent figure in the news of late, the scene carries a bit of eeriness today. And the other leaders, Yasser Arafat, Idi Amin, Ayatollah Khomeini and Mikhail Gorabachev, have, for ill or good, become important parts of that history. Yet, it’s Nielsen’s skill as a physical comedian with unquestionable timing that gives the film much of its timeless quality.
The film concerns itself with a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II while she is in Los Angeles on a three-stop American trip. At the head of the plot is prominent business tycoon Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban) who has invented a watch-based mind control device that will turn ordinary citizens into assassins. It’s like Manchurian Candidate without the psychological torture or controlling mother. Ludwig’s goons assaulted police detective Nordberg (O.J. Simpson), pulling Drebbin out of the field and back to Los Angeles where he can investigate the near-fatal attempt on Nordberg’s life, which then leads to an investigation of the scheme to kill the queen.
Through a series of pratfalls, well-timed comic dialogue and clever sight gags, The Naked Gun dances through the narrative to create an entertaining and exciting comic triumph. Part of that success is thanks to director David Zucker, his brother Jerry and their cohort Jim Abrahams who created the original series on which the film was based. Their initial success with Airplane! in 1980 set them up a gifted team of spoof filmmakers. Though their post-Naked Gun series output has left a lot to be desired, their ’80s and early ’90s successes have been copied and augmented ever since. The other output has been undeniably inferior, which speaks volumes of the quality of the originals.
While I remember nearly every detail of The Naked Gun since I last saw it more than 15 years ago, a number of small sight gags that I missed the first time around made for a more enriching experience. Whether it’s the origin of the finger hot dog or the self-moving expired refrigerator food, there’s seldom a scene or segment of the screen that doesn’t provide fertile ground for capable humor.
There have been few comic actors like Nielsen. He could deftly deliver a witty line without so much as a smirk. His trademark face of idiotic sobriety added depth of purpose to his work. How many actors could deliver a line like “Yes, he’s in the intensive care ward at Our Lady of the Worthless Miracle” without seeming like he’s trying too hard to be clever. He was one of a kind.
But the film wasn’t a one-man show, though it often feels that way. Ricardo Montalban plays the film’s villain with effortless charm, playing straight to someone playing his comedy straighter isn’t an easy task. Doing so while keeping your prestige and dignity in tact is. Also in fine form is Oscar winner George Kennedy. Kennedy plays Drebin’s boss and friend Ed Hocken, a well-meaning, by-the-book leader whose stupidity is just a shade more bold than Nielsen’s. They play so extremely well in scenes together that you might have imagined them playing elder versions of Laurel and Hardy with a great deal of ease.
Despite the historical frame of reference with Arafat, Khomeini and Amin having passed away between then and now; and Gorbachev having faded into the historical Cold War reference material as a private citizen, the film almost feels like it could have been released only a few months ago. The design elements and fashion only seem slightly faded and some of the cultural references are a bit obtuse these days, but there’s no question that The Naked Gun is as funny as it ever was.
March 21, 2011