[2 March 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
During the opening sequence of The Naked Gun, world figures of terror have gathered in Beirut to plot an attack on America. Sitting at the table of the meeting room are the likes of Yasser Arafat, Idi Amin, Gorbachev, Momar Khadafi, and many more. Though the opening is (obviously) satirical, there are certain echoes of this supposed fearmongering can still be felt today, even though the film was made in 1988.
Of course, instead of using the scene to make some sort of political point, the whole thing instead devolves into a Three Stooges-styled fight sequence, as the terrorist’s waiter proves to be none other than Police Lieutenant Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), who proceeds to render each one of these threats unconscious within a matter of seconds. It’s a nice stage-setter for what’s to follow: Drebin is as heroic as he is completely clueless, a stone-faced police investigator that just so happens to be trapped in one of the most delightfully madcap movie comedies since 1980’s Airplane!.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that those two movies share the same writing/directing team of Jim Abrams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker. After the success of Airplane! (still one of the greatest comedies ever made no matter which way you slice it), the Zucker/Abrams trio developed a detective show for ABC called Police Squad!, starring Nielsen in the same role and featuring much of the same absurd humor that dotes virtually every one of the Zucker’s releases. The show was cancelled after only four episodes (six were filmed), and it wasn’t until several years later that the Zucker/Abrams crew revisited Lt. Drebin for a big-screen adventure, resulting in a gigantic (and somewhat surprising) box-office smash.
The plot is simple: Queen Elizabeth is visiting Los Angeles, and it’s the unit known as Police Squad that’s in charge of her security during her stay. Things get complicated when Nordberg (O.J. Simpson), an off-duty cop, is nearly murdered while investigating a drug smuggling ring. When Drebin and police Captain Ed Hocken (George Kennedy) investigate, they find that the drug ring Nordberg was investigating is connected to high-class businessman Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban, deftly sending himself up), the man who is charged with entertaining the Queen for the duration of her visit. Drebin suspects that Ludwig might be up to some wrongdoing, but before he can get to the bottom of things, Ludwig has dispatched his leggy personal assistant Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley), to make sure Drebin stays out of his way.
Though some of the movie’s jokes are carried over from the Police Squad show, The Naked Gun actually improves upon the cancelled series in many regards. Instead of trying to cram as many humorous moments as they can into a 30-minute episode, the Abrams/Zucker team have time to let the gags build up, the running time of a feature-length film allowing for the audience to laugh without missing a single punchline.
Though the Zucker’s are never afraid to dip into base humor (as with the full-body condoms, for one), their specialty remains witty dialogue and sharp one-liners (“Jane, since I’ve met you, I’ve noticed things that I never knew were there before: birds singing, dew glistening on a newly formed leaf, stoplights ...”). Of course, the Zucker’s have found their muse with Nielsen, whose do-anything earnestness positively sells the movie, which is why some of his solo sequences are the film’s best (the scene where he breaks into Ludwig’s office is one of his finest displays of physical comedy ever).
Now, of course, we have to wonder why this comedy classic is being re-released as part of this “I Love the 80’s” series of DVDs. The bare-bones special features are carried over from previous DVD releases of the flick, the only thing of note being a feature-length commentary with David Zucker, producer Robert Weiss, and Peter Tilden. During it, the guys appear to make fun of their own film more than they do talk about the making of it (“Not many people know this, but this was based off of Shakespeare’s The Tempest” they quip at one point), occasionally joking about the unusual events that have occurred since the film’s initial release (Zucker at one point asks in jest “So is O.J. Simpson still acting?”).
Aside from that, this “80’s” edition includes a four-track “Music of the 80’s” audio CD, featuring songs from Echo & the Bunnymen, Erasure, INXS, and a-ha. What this has to do with The Naked Gun is anyone’s guess.
Still, it’s hard to argue against a goofy comedy classic like this one. The studio can add on as many bells and whistles as it wants to these DVD releases, but some facts never change: some 21 years down the line, The Naked Gun is still pretty damn funny.