The first “Police Academy” movie is quite good – not, by any stretch of the imagination, great, or hilarious, but it burbles along nicely for an hour and a half, and was hugely successful. Steve Guttenberg became a star, Michael Winslow guaranteed a life of work doing weird sound effects, and…that’s about it.
The sequels, on the other hand, are miserable affairs, and the idea of writing full reviews for each of them filled me with dread. But there may come a time, dear reader, where you’re faced with the tricky question “shall I watch one of the Police Academy movies?” and you may need my help.
The first thing to appreciate is you’ll be able to see the jokes coming. All of them. There’s not a single remotely surprising or interesting comedic idea in any of the sequels, and if you see a scene being set up and think “there’s no way they could do a joke that cheesy”, I 100% guarantee they will do a joke exactly that cheesy. The rough outline of the first four movies is exactly the same – the first hour will be some sort of academy-based shenanigans, where a new group of people will be trained, and the last half-hour will be a mission, where our wacky misfits will have to save the day. As well as the good guy cops, there’s a bad guy cop (either a rival Commandant or a precinct Captain) who hates our heroes and wants them to fail.
The characters are the broadest caricatures, with one defining characteristic each – the cool guy; the hot woman; the guy who does dumb sound effects with his mouth; the gun nut; the timid woman; the timid man; the clumsy guy; the tall strong guy; the lovable psycho; and so on. In every scene they appear, this one characteristic will be the sole basis of any comedy involving them.
So, now we’ve wrapped up the structure of every Police Academy movie, let’s move on to the movies themselves.
Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985)
Our heroes (well, the ones who the audience liked) reunite to help out Commandant Lassard’s brother and his failing precinct. Joining the series are Tim Kazurinsky and Bobcat Goldthwait – Goldthwait’s “Zed” is the antagonist here, as the leader of “The Scullions”, but the problem is he’s about as frightening as a small cloud on an otherwise sunny day, leaving no tension at all. Colleen Camp and her wacky family are also introduced, and they’re moderately good fun (the father and son always fighting each other).
I won’t bother mentioning this in every recap, but the “Blue Oyster” bar scene in this movie is spectacularly homophobic. The regulars beat the crap out of the Scullions, and the cops come to help out. So far so good, but as the scene ends Hightower is surrounded by the leather-clad gents. A fine end to the scene would be Hightower smiling and thanking the law-abiding locals for their time, but they gather round, obviously infatuated with the cop, and he looks frightened. End scene. It’s like they’re going out of their way to be homophobic.
The jokes are really bad here. I think you might reasonably expect some that are at least tolerable, but you’ll barely crack a smile. And it doesn’t get a lot better.
Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986)
The unnamed city that’s the home of the first three movies (in part 4 they just say it’s Los Angeles) has two police academies, and due to budget cuts one of them has to close. The bad cop from part 2, Mauser, is now the Commandant of the other academy, and our band of heroes has to get back together to help Commandant Lassard keep his job. The new recruits include Kazurinsky and Goldthwait, as well as a few other one-note characters (the Japanese guy! Clumsy Guy’s wife!).
The first movie was R rated, and had boobs and swearing in it; by part 3, though, the action was PG and would remain so for the rest of the series, ensuring that no-one ever died, swore, took drugs, had sex, or indeed took part in any normal adult human activity. Talking of normal adult humans, there aren’t any in this movie as they all behave like robots whose only function is to enter a scene, have a funny thing happen to them and then leave.
Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (1987)
There’s a bit more to talk about with this one. Comedian Art Metrano, who’d played Mauser in parts 2 and 3, asked to be replaced (presumably as he had taste) so they brought back Harris from part 1, who liked money more than he liked comedy. The gimmick to bring back the gang and a new batch of recruits is the “Citizens On Patrol” program, teaching average citizens crime prevention techniques (the “hey, we need to save the day” segment is hilariously perfunctory in this one).
The casting is more interesting too. David Spade, future Adam Sandler hanger-on, is a teen skateboarder who gets involved in the program instead of going to prison (mirroring Mahoney in part 1 – perhaps they wanted him to take over the series? Yikes) Appearing as Spade’s double is a 19 year old Tony Hawk (who also doubled for Josh Brolin the previous year in a movie delightfully titled “Thrashin”); also showing up in a small role is Sharon Stone, as the crowbarred-in love interest for Mahoney.
It’s absolutely stuffed with people – almost everyone returns from part 3, along with a huge number of new cast members. Hightower, Jones, Sweetchuck, Hooks and Callaghan are barely in it, all just happy for the paycheque, with Zed (Goldthwait) as virtually a co-lead with Mahoney, getting a love interest and a lot of stuff to do. I guess by part 4 everyone had settled into a rut. It’s also slightly better than part 3, but then watching a compilation video of people vomiting for an hour is better than part 3. The end chase scene is an almost exact copy of the previous movie, with boats replaced by planes and balloons; the last scene is Guttenberg and Stone flying off together in one of those balloons, with Guttenberg leaving the series for good. I imagine it must have been a good feeling.
Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach (1988)
The three employable members of the cast were out of the door (Goldthwait, Guttenberg and Colleen Camp) and we’re left with first-billed Bubba Smith, a man who barely does anything other than raise his eyebrows and do the occasional feat of strength. The plot of this one would struggle to fill an episode of the average American sitcom – our friends go to Miami so Commandant Lassard can be awarded with “Police Officer Of The Decade”, Captain Harris finds out he’s above retirement age, and a group of jewel thieves accidentally swap their bag with Lassard’s.
Three plot threads, the same as the average sitcom episode, and the acting is substantially worse. The evil Captain Harris and his incompetent sidekick are almost unbearable by this point, having become even stupider as the movies have gone on. On the other side, we have Matt McCoy as Lassard’s nephew and the obvious Guttenberg replacement; he’s a bland copy, and while he’s had a decent career since these movies, this was not a great beginning.
I knew I was in trouble when I saw the bit that was in all the pre-release publicity (me and my long memory) – the bit where Tackleberry threatens a shark with a huge handgun, and the shark skulks off. It raises, at best, a very slight smile, and it’s by a million miles the best gag in the movie. Knowing that Stephen Curwick is responsible for the writing of both this and part 6 makes me sad for part 6 before I’ve seen a second of it – he was an occasional TV writer before landing this gig, and then did pretty much nothing afterwards.
Police Academy 6: City Under Siege (1989)
Amazingly, part 6 attempts to have a plot of sorts, from beginning to end. For the flimsiest of reasons, Lassard (who, lest we forget, is a teacher and over the age of retirement) and the gang (looking a little thin on the ground now, but bringing back Matt McCoy as the very poor man’s Mahoney) are called in by the Mayor to help stop a criminal gang who are terrorising the city. Of course, as it’s a Police Academy movie the gang is three people and they’re all goofy idiots – including Gerrit Graham, a completely decent actor and wasted on this rubbish – but there’s a mysterious Mastermind behind their actions too.
Much like part 5, it’d be better as an episode of a TV show. Fackler (the clumsy one) comes back, and he knocks things over and appears entirely oblivious, every single time; Hooks squeaks until she’s forced to shout; Tackleberry will shoot things…etc. My god, by part 6 they were really sapping my will to live. Perhaps the sole thing of any interest in this movie is a very early appearance from Dean Norris, who’d go on to play Hank in “Breaking Bad”. He’s one of the horny cops who ogles Callahan as she’s exercising. You can tell I’m stretching for things to write about.
Police Academy: Mission To Moscow (1994)
Five years after part 6, presumably due to some sub-clause of some contract somewhere, a once-proud (well, proud-ish) cinematic franchise was brought out of retirement. Yes, there was still a failed, cancelled-after-one-season live-action TV series to come (an animated series having been produced in 1988) but for the sake of our sanity we’ll ignore that. Part 7 was the end.
The regulars that assemble at the beginning represent the “couldn’t find work anywhere else” contingent. So, making it all the way to the bitter end, we have Jones (mouth-noises); Tackleberry (gun nut); Callahan (big boobs); Captain Harris (stooge) and Commandant Lassard (well-meaning idiot). Joining them as the bland white guy who gets the love interest plot is Charlie Schlatter, who was briefly given leading man roles before going on to be third banana on “Diagnosis: Murder”; he’s spent the last decade as a voice actor.
Incredibly, despite these very slim pickings on the Academy side, the guest casting was the best the series had ever had, with three legitimate stars. Biggest of the lot is Christopher Lee as the Russian police chief, in that post-Hammer, pre-Lord Of The Rings part of his career (doing a favour for the producer); then there’s Ron Perlman, as the villain of the piece, a Russian Mafia boss; and bringing up the rear in the fame stakes is Claire Forlani, early in her career, looking staggeringly beautiful (okay, maybe it’s just compared to the lumpy regular cast, but still) as a Russian cop / translator.
It is, perhaps surprisingly, slightly better than parts 5 and 6, but then those two were abominably written. Although “Mission To Moscow” was written by a couple of people with a grand total of 5 credits between them, neither of whom wrote another word after this (or for a couple of years before, which indicates the script had sat on the shelf for a long time). Filmed in Russia during the 1993 attempted coup, so it’s got that interesting fact going for it, and it’s got Ron Perlman saying he considered his part in shutting down the franchise “a public service”. Christopher Lee remains the only person in 7 damned movies to notice what Jones was doing, not fall for it and just get pissed off…you know, because he’s supposed to be a serious police officer on an international mission and not a gibbering lunatic (in other words, the way he’s been played since part 1).
But we can’t end this on a positive! Marion Ramsey (Hooks, the squeaky voiced one) was not hired for this, and as she couldn’t get any other acting work, begged Bubba Smith (Hightower) to intervene on her behalf. The producers refused, and Smith, top billed in 5 and 6, quit the movie in sympathy with his friend. Oh, and the director disowned it and blamed the producer’s interference on it sucking. Finally – the first time you see “The Game”, the rather tedious linking segment in the big bad’s plan, it’s on a Gameboy…with no cartridge in the back! They can’t sneak that past a nerd like me!
So, what have we learned from watching all the Police Academy sequels? That I should really stop myself from taking on pointless challenges like this? That Michael Winslow’s mouth shenanigans are perhaps the most annoying thing about a major movie franchise ever? That if Bobcat Goldthwait quits on you because he thinks he can find better work elsewhere, you’re in trouble?
I could list dumb questions like that all day. But let’s at least try and analyse them. The first movie, for all its flaws, is okay-ish. There are real jokes that land, Guttenberg and Cattrall make a decent central couple, and the shticks hadn’t got tired yet. It had an actual conflict that generated the plot, too – Mahoney couldn’t quit the police academy, and they couldn’t throw him out. Solid stuff, and I can totally see why it was a hit. Even part 2 had its moments, even if it had effectively ossified by that point, with the characters appearing, doing their one “funny” thing and then disappearing again. Despite my fond childhood memories of parts 3 and 4, they’re both pretty bad, short on jokes and long on garbage, and 5 and 6 are just shocking, as bad as cinema-released comedy has ever been.
But why? I think it was a producer (Paul Maslansky) whose vision of comedy was that of a child – pratfalls, stupidity, and the idea that getting one over on “teacher” is the funniest thing ever. After part 2 (coinciding, I suppose, with the animated series, explicitly aimed at children), this franchise steered hard for the family market, ensuring that 6 year olds could understand every joke, that criminals were comic rather than frightening, and that every movie should end with a big noisy chase. Nothing has any consequence in this world, and no-one ever changes.
Doing this has bummed me out way more than I expected. I thought it’d be a few laughs and a weak final instalment, but aside from a few jokes here and there, they were miserable after part 1. Look, for example, at a show like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, a sitcom about a busy police station where any episode has more going for it than the best “Police Academy” sequel. Literally – look at that and leave these movies in the dustbin of history.
Rating: thumbs down x 6