Slapstick movies were a relatively rare thing up through the end of the 1980s, probably because they were an artifact of an earlier kind of film-making when a lack of sound lent itself to visual comedy. And of course, as years go by and tastes change, certain genres fall out of favor. But then then Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker went on their insane crusade to bring back crude, vulgar, slapstick with a number of successful projects throughout the Reagan era, but none of them more so, in pure comedic terms, than their 1988 masterpiece: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! a big-screen return to a hilarious and short-lived TV show lampooning the likes of Dragnet and other police procedurals that took themselves far too seriously.
The story begins while LAPD detective Lt. Frank Drebin is vacationing in (where else?) Beirut, where he crashes a secret meeting between Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, and Mikhail Gorbachev, and promptly trashes them all in a brawl. He returns to Los Angeles, where he’s put on a security detail to protect Queen Elizabeth II during a state trip to the United States. Drebin suspects that a smarmy industrialist named Victor Ludwig is behind a plot to kill the Queen, and investigates. Along the way, he meets with, teams up with, and then falls in love with Ludwig’s beautiful assistant, Jane Spencer. After a few misadventures that involve an unexpectedly profitable chat with an informant, the world’s greatest joke about taxidermy and a chase that ends with a cruise missile crashing into a fireworks factory, the entire thing ends up back at Anaheim Stadium. There, after a spectacular rendition of the national anthem, it’s revealed that Ludwig intends to kill Queen Elizabeth by using a hypnotized Reggie Jackson (yes, that Reggie Jackson) as a sleeper agent during the seventh inning stretch of an Angels-Mariners game. Drebin arrives…oh, why am I even bothering?
Look, The Naked Gun is not high cinema. Even by the standards of low cinema it’s not high cinema. It is, simply put, the most effective and densely packed barrage of sight gags, double entendres, body humor, comedic violence and sheer goofiness ever loaded into a cannon and blasted point-blank into the faces of its audience. This is a movie that when it first hit the theaters, actually drove people to fall out of their chairs laughing, and to laugh with their legs straight up in the air. This is a movie with over-the-top cornball humor that worked so well, it transformed members of the audience into the act. Very few movies ever achieve quite that level of audience participation.
Unlike a lot of the other Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker productions, The Naked Gun holds up over the years for a few reasons. Mhile most of its humor is fairly crude, it doesn’t really go for a lot of cheap racial and ethnic jokes that at first age poorly then later make you feel ashamed for ever laughing at them, and later still make you kind of disavow having ever watched them. It’s not saintly; there are still gags that you’ll hate yourself for laughing at. But you will laugh at them.
The movie also displays a weird kind of cleverness. Sure, Drebin accidentally falling on the Queen as if he’s mounting her in public, or a urinating loudly while wearing a hot mic isn’t genius material. But the way in which these jokes are played out make us first laugh at the jokes themselves and then keep laughing at ourselves for laughing at them in the first place. The Naked Gun was self-aware to know that even though its producers were pretty much the only slapstick game in town for a decade or more, there was still a weird sort of newness to this, since most audiences at the time just weren’t expecting it. So when the jokes come as fast and as furious as they do, nobody is given a moment to catch their breath and question any of it. Sure, it runs the risk of killing you for shortness of breath, but we all have to make sacrifices.
What keeps The Naked Gun working is its reliance on the cartoonish incompetence and buffoonery of Lt.Frank Drebin. Played gamely by Leslie Neilsen, Drebin isn’t just a send-up of old police procedurals and other cinematic detectives known more for their inabilities than their abilities. It’s a send-up of Nielsen himself, who built most of his career around playing precisely the kind of stone-faced leading men in the kind of B-movies that the Naked Gun is taking the Mickey out of. So with every cross-eyed stare into the camera, with every outrageous pratfall, with every mangled metaphor, we see a guy secure enough in himself and his previous work to take a sledgehammer to it. That’s what makes this movie so hilarious and so enduring, and explains why so many of the efforts to replicate it by other film franchises have done so poorly. It’s one thing to make 85 minutes of nonstop childish humor. It’s another to do it in a way that admits yes, we shouldn’t be laughing at any of this, and yes, we are going to, anyway.
If there’s a moment of truth to any of this, it’s from seeing convicted felon and totally-not-a-murderer O.J. Simpson’s starring role in it. Watching Simpson mug for the camera in some of the movie’s better moments is a little hard to bear for those who remember his trial and all that surrounded it. But it’s mollified a little bit by seeing the guy get shot 30 times, fall into the harbor, get brutalized in his hospital bed, and then sent on a wheelchair ride down a flight of stadium stairs to end catapulted from it in a triple-somersault into the infield. Sometimes, you take your justice where you find it.