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(Copyright: Paramount Pictures, the
film publisher or graphic artist.)
Written By: Mark Armstrong
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Director: David Zucker
Producer: Robert K. Weiss
Scriptwriters: Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Pat Proft
Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalbán, George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson and Nancy Marchand
Released: December 2 1988 (US) and February 10 1989 (UK)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
I am personally a huge fan of comedies, and the Naked Gun trilogy is one of my absolute favourites. As such, when I decided to re-watch the first Naked Gun for the purpose of a review, I was slightly nervous in case my own nostalgic memories of the movie may have hindered my viewing experience or, at least, influenced my review. Fortunately, I need not have worried: the whole film is one gigantic gem.
To set the stage, this movie is an extension of the previous cult TV series Police Squad! Leslie Nielsen remains the star as Lt. Frank Dreben, but two roles have changed: his main detective partner Capt. Ed Hocken is played here by George Kennedy, and Det. Nordberg is now played by O.J. Simpson – an awkward casting in hindsight, although the trilogy would be over before this was an issue.
Unlike the short episodes of Police Squad, this is a feature-length movie (obviously) which has several story arcs, but two are most dominant: the possible attempt by Vincent Ludwig (played by Ricardo Montalbán) to arrange an assassination of Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Los Angeles, with Dreben continuously trying to find evidence of such a plot with ridiculous results; and Frank falling in love with Ludwig’s associate Jane Spencer, although their romance encounters a few bumps along the road.
There are a couple of other storylines of note, which include Nordberg’s difficulties to recover from a previous attack (that being said, some of these problems are hilariously due to Frank’s own incompetence). It all comes down to a major baseball game where Dreben knows a murder attempt is likely – but trying to convince Mayor Barkley (played by Nancy Marchand), who doesn’t want anything to do with Frank by this point, that the plot is genuine, and more importantly Frank’s attempts to get involved so that he can try to prevent the assassination attempt, present challenges that seem impossible for him to overcome. His methods are totally daft and riotously funny – but will he succeed?
The plot sounds simple, but it works very well; however, the real strength of this movie is in the slapstick comedy. If you have never seen this film before and plan to watch it, you will be laughing from the first minute to the last at a variety of physical and verbal quips. It is a film that isn’t very violent, doesn’t have too much swearing, only has occasional sex references – and, yet, this film should be a draw to adults who simply want to have their funny bone tickled.
Central to the humour is Leslie Nielsen. I was a big fan of his work, but it is in the Naked Gun trilogy that he shines brightest. He brings to life the character of a police detective who is bumbling and often causes more harm than good, yet we never feel rage or apathy towards him. He always has good intentions, he comes across as a genuinely nice and polite man (a rare breed amongst police characters dealing with deadly criminals), and in the end, somehow or someway, he nearly always makes good on his promises.
But what really makes the Dreben character, and Neilsen’s portrayal of it, is the very frequent humour. His one-liners come thick and fast, made funnier by the ‘that was odd but I won’t question it’ facial reactions of those in his presence at the time, and, most importantly, his own deadpan delivery of these quotes. There are so many that they tend to have you still laughing by the time you hear another one. I could provide a list of the best jokes, but instead I’ll let you watch the film; I don’t want to spoil lines that, during the movie, will frequently give you the giggles. In fact, you’d probably have to watch the film several times to hear all the jokes, since you’ll probably miss some due to the sound of your own laughter.
As stated, Neilsen is marvellous in this role. Some comedy actors sport an expression that says “I’m funny and I know it.” Not Neilsen: he is funny – really funny – but he approaches the role of Dreben as an actor playing a comedy character. This means that despite the sheer daftness of his lines and situations, he never once looks like he is dying to laugh; he manages to keep a straight face and a calm, confident delivery throughout, as do his fellow cast members. Best of all may be Neilsen’s range of facial expressions, from utter confusion to disgust to my favourite, his ‘everything’s great’ grin; that smile alone would be enough to have an audience laughing wildly. If you don’t believe me, watch him and you’ll soon agree. The casting of Neilsen here and in the original Police Squad! series is superb as he is a constant shining light in what was the greatest role of the career.
The supporting cast also put in strong performances. Priscilla Presley plays the Jane character well: she is emotional but not overly so, she reacts to ridiculous situations in the same, understated way that Frank does, and while she plays second fiddle to Dreben on the humour scales, she does have a few funny lines or situations herself which are all her. Frank’s fellow police officers are good too, and even Jeannette Charles, who plays the Queen, delivers a humorous visual of Her Majesty joining in a Mexican Wave whilst the rest of her entourage do not. But make no mistake about it, Leslie Neilsen is the absolute star of this motion picture; he takes a funny film and, with his character and performance, elevates it into all-time great territory.
The film is produced by David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, which explains the daft situations and slapstick comedy as silly humour is their forte, but they do it well as evidenced here. In this case, they not only include intentionally stupid jokes and visuals but also standalone moments which, in another context, may lower the tone of the production but, here, they fit in well. From a tiger attacking a baseball player in an archive video to Dreben hanging off the edge of a building by a statue’s, er, member, this movie delivers so many different situations that are produced perfectly and are almost all hilarious that you will struggle to find a favourite moment because there are so many contenders.
Overall, then, The Naked Gun is as good as I remembered it all those years ago (if not better since I now get some gags that I didn’t understand when I was younger). It is a classic 1980s comedy which hits far, far more than it misses with its humour. The premise is simple, the jokes are often and at times outrageously funny, and although it is by its very nature a daft film, it makes enough sense to leave one feeling satisfied with developments and with the conclusion. But it is the career performance of Leslie Neilsen in his greatest role as Lt. Frank Drebin which takes this from what would have been a really funny film anyway to a truly perfect comedy (as evidenced by the rating below).
Overall Rating: 10/10 – Perfect