Now, this is a little outside our normal wheelhouse here at the ISCFC. “Police Academy” was hugely successful, spawning 6 sequels, an animated series and a live-action series; plus, it’s a comedy, with no monsters in it. But, there’s quite a lot to talk about – well, for the first movie, anyway. I think I’ll just do one long review for all the sequels, as…there’s not an enormous amount of difference. The characters and their comedy tics are the same, the plots are largely the same (an hour of academy-based hijinks, half an hour of saving the day), and it’s definitely diminishing returns as the series goes on. But we don’t need to talk about how miserable “Mission To Moscow” was just yet!
It’s a beautifully simple premise for a movie. The Mayor decides that the stringent entrance criteria for the police force are to be removed, and a whole lot of people decide to sign up – most prominently for our tale are George Martin, a Hispanic fella who has five girlfriends; Eugene Tackleberry, a gun-obsessive who presumably failed the mental exam for the Army; Leslie Barbara, the fat loser (a character type I’m glad the movies don’t have quite as much any more); Moses Hightower, the 6’7” monster with super-strength but a heart of gold; Laverne Hooks, the extremely timid one; and Douglas Fackler, the extremely accident-prone sort-of-douchebag who drives to the academy with his wife hanging on to the hood of the car, demanding he stop.
I’m spending a lot of time on the characters, because this will come in useful later, and they’re all rather lovely little comedy archetypes. On the police side of things, we’ve got bumbling Commandant Lassard; extremely evil Lieutenant Harris; and the inscrutable and beautiful Sergeant Callahan. Plus, of course, our star Carey Mahoney and his best mate Larvell Jones. Mahoney has been arrested (again) for parking a rich asshole’s car on its side, and is given a choice by a friendly captain of prison or the Police Academy. As he’s sat waiting in the lockup, he meets Jones, and the two of them get on immediately and Mahoney decides to help his new buddy out by getting him off his charge and into the academy too.
Mahoney is told he can’t quit, but he can be thrown out; the Chief of Police tells Commandant Lassard that he can’t throw anyone out (as it would be bad for publicity), but needs to make them quit. From this central conflict has sprouted the Police Academy franchise! In this first movie, where the family-friendly groove the series got into was not yet in effect, there’s boobs and swearing, perhaps even a smidgeon of mild drug use; but there’s a couple of extra threads that conspire to show that 1984 was not quite as modern and forward-thinking as you might have assumed.
Is racism bad when the villain is doing it? One of the two evil recruits says, on arrival at the academy, “there’s a lot of spades here”; then later on, when Timid Recruit runs over his toes during a driving test, he screams “you dumb fat jigaboo!” Now, he’s immediately punished by Hightower, but it really shouldn’t just be the gigantic black guy who’s upset by this sort of talk. I know, light comedy and all, but I can’t imagine black people who didn’t have freakishly strong and violent friends were all that thrilled about watching the “decent” white cast just let this happen around them. And the words themselves! Straight out of some 70s thriller, not a mainstream broad comedy.
But the most famous, the image that will pop into your head if you ask them about “Police Academy” being dodgy, is homophobia and the “Blue Oyster” bar. When the evil recruits are trying to find out where the others are having a party, Mahoney directs them to the Blue Oyster, where they’re immediately trapped / surrounded by a room full of stereotypical leather daddies. Forced to dance with the gents all night – with the “dancing” clearly standing for something a little more earthy – they’re seen the next morning, clearly badly shaken and insisting nothing happened. How to even process it? Okay, the gay guys aren’t effete pushovers, so at the very least I guess there’s that…but it’s the implication that they live entirely apart from the rest of society (no matter what time of day or night, the Blue Oyster is full to capacity) and are solely interested in raping whoever comes through the door – none of them have a word of dialogue, of course.
There’s a reference to the Blue Oyster in the recent “Lavalantula”, as Guttenberg says “I liked that place” upon hearing news it’d closed down. It feels like a very subtle apology, but…I don’t know. You can still enjoy the movie by ignoring that section, I suppose. But these two things – racist and homophobic elements when there’s no need for either – make it feel a lot older than 1984, like bizarre relics of the 60s and 70s, and are so old-fashioned that I imagine most kids watching this for the first time would have no idea what they were meant.
Even as annoyed as I was with those segments, they’re small parts of what is still a great film (bear in mind I’ve loved this since I was a kid, other opinions are definitely acceptable). There’s a reason it spawned so many sequels and is still beloved today, to the extent that, for example, “Tackleberry” is now a standard word in the private security industry for a gun nut); the jokes come thick and fast and are of a pretty high quality. They lucked into a great leading man with Steve Guttenberg, and while none of the other cast members are anything like as strong as him, they fill their mostly one-dimensional roles with gusto. All, that is, except Michael Winslow as Jones, the human sound-effect device. His part was written specifically for him after the producers saw his stage act, and they did a pretty poor job of integrating him into the movie – think of the number of times he’s just doing sounds for the benefit of nobody. There’s one scene where he’s doing all the sound effects for a video game, holding a pretend controller…and there’s no-one there. He comes across as a lunatic who’s followed Mahoney to police academy because he’s got nothing better to do.
So far, the series stopped in 1994, with a TV series in the late 90s. Plans to reboot it have been going on for over a decade, but I’m sort of glad they never came to fruition. Firstly, there’s a police comedy on TV right now which, while excellent, is doing poorly in the ratings (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”); and secondly, police comedies are a tough sell with the many many stories of police brutality and even murder by police officers. A knockabout comedy in this style would probably not go down all that well.
Rating: thumbs up