Police Academy

Basically a remake of “Stripes” with the police in the place of the Army and Steve Guttenberg in the role of Bill Murray. It was a huge success and returned a giant profit on the amount of money they spent to make it. It was the number six film of the year, coming in ahead of both “Splash” and “Footloose”. It was followed up by six sequels and a television series, so clearly there was a market for the sort of humor the movie is based on.

police_academyThe movie takes advantage of the cast and their talents to get a good amount of laughter out of silly situations and convoluted set ups. The fact that it works most of the time speaks more to the audiences desire to laugh than it does the creativity of the script. There is not a lot to be said about the story but some of the bits are worth mentioning as they are entertaining.

The setup of the story involves a new woman mayor’s order to open the Police Department up to a more diverse force. Trying to make a more politically correct department means bringing in a lot of “undesirables” according to the old school police command. That would include blacks, women and assorted malcontents that would have been bypassed in the past. Among the new recruits is Steve Guttenberg’s Mahoney. One of those typical movie anti social misfits who get in trouble mostly just for the fun of it. He has a guardian angel in the form of a police captain who offers him a chance to join the academy instead of going to jail. That makes Mahoney the reluctant protagonist who is trying to get out of the job for the first part of the movie.

Police-Academy-Catrall_320For the decade of the eighties, Guttenberg was the go to light comedian. The list of actors considered for part of Mahoney was impressive: Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Michael Keaton and Judge Reinhold. Somewhere along the line though, he became so ubiquitous that his name ended up as a punchline for most of the nineties. Here he had the right mix of nonchalance and humor. He mixes well with the cast to prompt them in their parts or to play off of the characters they have created. I can’t say he is lovable but he is likable enough for this film.

The movie brings Kim Catrall in as an upper-crust debutant anxious to break away from her family by joining the police. Football legend Bubba Smith is the giant of a man with a gentle soul who plays it straight but does get a couple of punchlines near the end of the film. G.W. Bailey is a character actor who has been in a hundred things you are likely to have seen is the training officer that is Mahoney’s antagonist. The rest of the cast consists of comic actors that bring enough personality to their parts to make the characters distinctive and amusing. No one here will win any lasting accolades for their skills as thespians, but they entertain pretty well.

One newcomer who was used judiciously in this movie was Michael Winslow, a comic who used sound effects like Skiles and Henderson before him to entertain. There was just enough in the movie to make it fun and unique but like all things that generate some heat, Hollywood then exploited that talent to the point that it became annoying and also another punchline.

A couple of standout bits from the film include the parking stunt that Mahoney gets in trouble with at his job in a car lot and a silly blow job joke that should get a groan but actually gets a laugh and it gets repeated. The director and co-writer of the film was Hugh Wilson. He was a TV writer and producer who gained traction in Hollywood as a result of the TV show “WKRP in Cincinnati”.  He had big screen success with “Guarding Tess” and “The First Wives Club” but since the disaster of “Dudley Do Right” appears to be mostly inactive. There is a loose TV style around this movie that makes it sometimes innovative but occasionally stilted. Even though jokes are sometimes telegraphed, he manages to get the timing right enough so that they payoff. This was especially true in the podium sequence which features X-rated film star Georgina Spelvin of “Devil in Miss Jones” fame. A joke that could have been grossly crude and tasteless manages to be sly and just a little bit dirty because of Wilson’s good sense of timing.

police_academy_2There are a couple of unfortunate racist comments meant to make two minor characters into buffoons, but even the mild language they use is disturbing to a contemporary audience’s ear. Those comments and some very brief nude shots are what made this a R-rated comedy. None of the sequels had a rating stronger than PG-13 and they seem to have become milder as time went on.

The characters who represent obnoxious authority figures often hurl mild epithets at Guttenberg and the other recruits, “Scumball” and “Dirtbag” are typical examples. Guttenberg manages to get a laugh by his incredulous expression as he repeats the name in a mildly mocking tone. Although there is plenty of slapstick in the film, many of the most amusing moments are these sort of throw away double takes or double entendres that Mahoney casually tosses off:

Lieutenant Thaddeus Harris: Mahoney! Remember, that nobody screws with me.

Carey Mahoney: Well, maybe you’ll meet the right girl and all that will change.

It’s hard to believe that this amiable goof of a movie spawned so many successors and that it continues to have a speculated eighth part somewhere in development. There is nothing wrong with the movie, but it clearly benefited from being what the audience wanted at the time. It is a thirty year old mystery that I can’t quite fathom but it is entertaining enough that if you have not seen it, you could enjoy ninety minutes of nostalgic humor and not hate yourself.


8 thoughts on “Police Academy

  1. I love this movie! I remember watching this as a kid w/ my brothers and always had a great laugh. Guttenberg is so good here but it’s G.W. Bailey who’s absolutely hilarious!

  2. I keep catching bits and pieces of this (strangely, it’s almost always the strip club scene when it comes up during channel surfing). I’ll get around to it one of these days. Sounds like your take on it is that it’s moderately funny rather than an all-time great, but just happened to strike a chord, which is what I kind of suspected from how its popularity has gone.

    • Wow, I never thought anyone would say they preferred Guttenberg over Murray in a comedy, but to each his own. I liked it fine but it does not have the quotability of Stripes, “That’s the fact Jack”.

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