WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Lieutenant Frank Drebin returns to LA an unsung hero, having foiled a terrorist plan, only to find that his partner has run off and his colleague Nordberg shot to pieces in a catastrophic drugs bust. Drebin investigates the shooting and discovers links to Vincent Ludwig, a respected businessman also in charge of overseeing a visit by Queen Elizabeth II. Frank is instantly attracted to Ludwig’s assistant, Jane; but does she really like him too, or is she merely keeping tabs on him at her employer’s insistence?
After veteran actor Leslie Nielsen’s superbly deadpan performance as the doctor in Airplane!, it was clear that his talents deserved a vehicle. However, after the spoof TV series Police Squad! was cancelled after just six shows in the early 80s (on the bizarre grounds, if Wikipedia is to be believed, that it was a show you “had to watch” to appreciate!), it seemed that the bumbling yet deadly serious character of Lieutenant Frank Drebin might not be it; yet the Kentucky Fried Theater Group of David and Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams, had enough faith in both the actor and the role to give the officer a last chance for glory in The Naked Gun.
After a (very funny) pre-credits sequence in which Drebin interrupts his vacation in Beirut to single-handedly beat up America’s enemies, the hard-bitten cop returns to Los Angeles, where all is not well. Not only does Frank’s friend Ed (George Kennedy) tell him that his ladyfriend Victoria has gone off with another man, but as we have seen Officer Nordberg (O.J. Simpson) has been gunned down whilst attempting to disrupt drug trafficking on the I Luv You, a ship owned by powerful businessman Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban).
Frank’s not entirely helpful visit to Nordberg puts him on Ludwig’s trail; but the smarmy entrepreneur throws lovely Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley) in Frank’s way, and the couple quickly fall in love while Ludwig, handsomely paid by terrorist’s best friend Papshmeer, plots to have someone assassinate the British Queen (Gawd bless ‘er!) without their even knowing it, using a form of remote hypnotism. In charge of security for the Royal visit, Drebin’s Police Squad is alert to every sign of danger and Frank himself is suspicious of his new girlfriend’s boss; but as Her Majesty is due to attend a baseball game, it’s surely inconceivable that he can check that everyone is clean without infuriating Mayor Barkley (Nancy Marchand) any more than he already has.
Fans of Police Squad! will be right at home here, despite a bit of re-casting that sees Kennedy ably replacing the lovely Al North as Ed and O.J. Simpson coming in as Nordberg. Importantly, however, knowledge of the series isn’t necessary to get into the film since it closely parodies many American police dramas, though of course The Naked Gun does punctuate the serious drama – every two or three seconds – with a joke of one sort or another. It could be a pun, a sight gag, a moment of extraordinary insensitivity from Frank, a montage, a bit of rudeness or even good old-fashioned slapstick (Presley’s collision with a wall is superb), but the script assaults the viewer with a salvo of humour of such ferocity that you are grateful for the concise running time.
Naturally, some jokes will fly over some viewers’ heads because of the age and origin of the film, and others miss because they’re not that funny, but the frequency of the gags means that there is always a good laugh coming around the corner. For example, although the plethora of baseball cameos was lost on me, the glorious silliness of Frank attempting to pass himself off as an opera star, then an umpire, amongst the tirade of other little jokes (I particularly like the fake baseball bloopers) meant that I didn’t feel as though I’d missed anything; and although she is put in one compromising position, the treatment of the Queen (as portrayed by looky-likey Jeannette Charles) is fairly respectful (bearing in mind Frank’s ‘No matter how silly the idea of having a Queen might be to us…’ speech).
Performances throughout are pitch-perfect, Presley showing a talent for comedy and Montalban impressing as the scheming Ludwig (O.J., pre-‘things’, merely suffers physical mishaps, a largely non-verbal part that suits him well). Nielsen steals the show, however, as Drebin: more cynical and violent than his foreign ancestor Clouseau, Frank shoots first and doesn’t worry about asking questions later; Nielsen’s solemn delivery generates serious laughs from potentially corny lines, and though there’s a look in his eye acknowledging that his universe is a little off-kilter, he’s not a knowingly comic figure in it (I haven’t seen them, but I would guess this is where Steve Martin gets it wrong in the Pink Panther remakes).
Perhaps most importantly of all, the characters, situations and jokes in The Naked Gun all feel remarkably fresh, the film having confidence in itself and not feeling the need to fall back on the random and lazy film reconstructions which the ZAZ team, or at least parts of it, fell prey to in second sequel The Final Insult and other movies (such as when they took over, but failed to improve, the Scary Movie franchise). All in all, The Naked Gun is probably the team’s best film since Airplane! and one that they haven’t looked like bettering since. And perhaps we should be grateful that Police Squad! was cancelled, no matter how stupid the reason: the decision turned a quirky, cult show into a quirky, hit film. It’s no Casablanca, sure, but it was never meant to be. It was meant to be funny, and it is, in spades.