By Steve Vivona
Paramount, $29.95, Widescreen
The film "Airplane!" created an entirely new comedy subgenre, the spoof. Today we take films like "Scary Movie" and "Hot Shots" for granted, but thanks to the twisted minds of Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, nothing is sacred and no one is safe.
After the success of "Airplane!" the "ZAZ" team turned their attention to TV and created the short-lived series "Police Squad" which starred Leslie Nielsen, a respected character actor with a knack for their brand of comedy (as evidenced in "Airplane" -- "Don't call me Shirley!") Nielsen played Lt. Frank Drebin, a no-nonsense cop with no sense! Six episodes of Police Squad were produced and only four were aired before ABC pulled the plug.
After making "Top Secret" with Val Kilmer and "Ruthless People," starring Danny DeVito and Bette Middler, the trio decided to develop "Police Squad" into a feature. Leslie Nielsen was game and they set out to populate the film with as many respected actors they could find (as they note in the DVD commentary Oscar winners were preferable!)
George Kennedy (an Oscar winner for "Cool Hand Luke") signed on as Frank Drebin's partner, Ed Hocken, and other cast members included Ricardo Montalban, Priscilla Presley, the infamous O.J. Simpson (wearing a knit cap, hmmm..) and baseball legend Reggie Jackson.
After his partner Nordberg (O.J.) is nearly killed investigating a sinister plot, Drebin takes over and uncovers a scheme to assassinate Queen Elizabeth during her U.S. visit. The plot is engineered by crooked businessman Vincent Ludwig (Montalban), a man who has developed a mind-control device enabling him to get anyone to carry out his dirty work for him. In the meantime Drebin romances Ludwig's lovely assistant Jane (Presley) to pry more information from her and the pair fall in love.
As Drebin, Nielsen is a cross between Robert Mitchum and Jerry Lewis. Most of the laughs result from his deadpan delivery of the incredibly ludicrous dialogue as well as his knack for physical comedy. Apparently Nielsen was game for anything and his roles in "Airplane!" and "The Naked Gun" series opened a whole new career for him in the spoof genre, which continues to this day (although the less said about films like "Spy Hard" and "Mr. Magoo" the better).
The Zuckers and Abrahams had the brains to realize (as Mel Brooks did before them) that some genres were crying out to be spoofed. "Airplane!" was released just as the seventies disaster films were dying out. Frank Drebin is a spoof of every hard-boiled cop played by Bogart, Mitchum and most especially, Jack Webb.
I'm glad the DVD contains a commentary with director David Zucker, producer Robert Weiss and Peter Tilden (serving as host). They describe the method to their madness and shed light on how their brand of comedy developed. In their films the plot exists to serve the jokes, and any exposition is there to let audiences recover from their laughter and hear all the jokes.
The transfer for "Naked Gun" is great, and Paramount gets my vote for "Most Improved" when it comes to their DVD product. In addition to the lively commentary there is a theatrical trailer. Both sequels have been released with great audio commentaries, and they're both highly recommended as well.
"The Naked Gun" is a classic of its kind and stands right up there with "Airplane!" (the ZAZ team had nothing to do with "Airplane II") Spoofs like "Austin Powers" owe a great deal to "The Naked Gun," and I feel weird calling it a standard-bearer, but it is. Nielsen's subsequent efforts without the Zuckers have been lame at best, and I wouldn't mind seeing a "Naked Gun 4" (hey I'm sure O.J. is free!)