It's harmless stuff, to be sure, but almost invisible, it disappears from memory so fast. A stealth comedy, perhaps?

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

It's hard to believe that twenty years have gone by since the initial release of 1984's "Police Academy," but here it is being issued on a 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD. Hard to believe, too, that this seemingly innocuous little movie spawned six, count 'em six, sequels and a short-lived TV series, each subsequently more silly and inept than the ones it left behind.

"Police Academy" seems to have been inspired by the "Animal House" movie of a few years earlier, with much the same irreverent attempts at humor and much the same type of oddball characters. But where "Animal House" was often genuinely funny and daring, "Police Academy" chooses mostly to play it safe. Although "Police Academy" is rated R, the rating is for a brief scene of nudity, a smidgeon of sex, and little else.

The movie sets up the situation of a group of misfits at a police academy institute and lets the audience see how silly they can react to the rigors of the training. Occasionally, a joke works. Most of them don't. But if you throw enough stuff at a barn wall, some of it sticks. So there are a few laughs along the way to make the journey tolerable.

The filmmakers undoubtedly wanted and would have benefitted by having an alumnus from "Saturday Night Live" on hand, someone who was familiar with the territory, someone like John Belushi or Chevy Chase or Bill Murray. But the filmmakers were working with a limited budget, and what they got was Steve Guttenberg. Now, don't get me wrong. Guttenberg is a nice, all-American, boy-next-door kind of guy, but he's not in the league of a Belushi, Chase, or Murray when it comes to comedy. The best Guttenberg can do is carry out his lines in as deadpan a manner as possible and look reasonably helpless when things go bad. Which is often.

Guttenberg plays Cadet Carey Mahoney, a slacker wise guy who is sent to the academy in lieu of going to jail. If that sounds preposterous, it is. It's too complicated to explain, so just accept it. At first, he tries to excuse himself from duty, but when he meets a pretty co-trainee, Cadet Karen Thompson (Kim Cattrall), he decides to tough it out just to be near her. Their relationship is of little interest to the plot's development, and sensing danger Ms. Cattrall bailed on the series early. Guttenberg would do three more sequels before realizing it was hopeless.

The story itself is inconsequential, subservient to the gags and the characters. Since most of the jokes are lame, like Mahoney purposely crashing a car he's supposed to be putting away as a parking attendant or the hated training officer, Lt. Thaddeus Harris (G.W. Bailey), going head first into the tail end of a horse, it's up to the characters to carry the picture. But they're all such bland stereotypes, it's hard to find any of them very amusing.

Guttenberg's character is a wiseacre with little personality of his own. Cattrall merely shows up. Bailey is effectively mean-spirited, the character you love to hate, but that only lasts so long. George Gaynes (you'll remember him from "Tootsie") as Commandant Eric Lassard is quite comical, however, a dim-witted old fart who gets a lot of mileage from his one best scene, a remarkably tasteless but funny piece of business behind a lectern. And Michael Winslow is good as Cadet Larvell Jones, who speaks in sound effects. Winslow, Bailey, and Gaynes went on to do most of the movies in the series but little else of note.

The rest of the cast are mostly ciphers. Big Bubba Smith, the former professional football player, is Cadet Moses Hightower, a florist who wants to join the police force to do something more with his life. Smith is obviously included because of his size and shows up for his scenes looking as game as possible, but you can see that his heart isn't always in it. Instead of climbing over a wall, he knocks it down; in learning to drive, he rips out the front seat and sits in the back to steer. These scenes don't play out on the screen any better than I'm describing them.

Donovan Scott is the requisite overweight patsy, Cadet Leslie Barbara, who gets picked on for his chubbiness. Andrew Rubin is Cadet George Martin, a lover boy who's surrounded by women. David Graf is Cadet Eugene Tackleberry, a gung-ho type who sleeps with his gun. Marion Ramsey is Cadet Hooks, a sweet little lady who brings a few chuckles with her. Bruce Mahler is Cadet Doug Fackler, a clumsy sort. Scott Thomson and Brant Van Hoffman are Cadets Copeland and Blankes, a pair of the Lieutenant's flunkies; and so forth.

A haircut joke is cute, but most of the humor is simpleminded: Like, "Officer, officer, can you get my kitty cat out of the tree?" asks an old lady. "No problem, ma'am," replies Tackleberry. Blam, the sound of a gunshot and a screeching cat. Or a running gag with gays that's overplayed. Or a climactic sequence during a street riot and looting that's not funny, exciting, satiric, or farcical. It's hard to understand why this film generated such a large number of successors. It's harmless stuff, to be sure, but almost invisible, it disappears from memory so fast. A stealth comedy, perhaps?

The film is presented in something approaching its theatrical-release size, an anamorphic 1.74:1 ratio. Daylight shots are fine, mostly brilliant in an eighties garish style, although the color tends to fluctuate in intensity from one scene to the next and sometimes within the same scene. When the color is most vibrant, it's a bit too much so, making faces seem overly purplish. When it's more faded, faces seem too pink. The screen is generally free of grain, except in nighttime shots, which was probably a result of the original film stock. Still, even the best shots have a slightly rough look to them. Oddly, the picture quality improves as the movie goes on. Maybe it's because later in the film more shots are outdoors in broad daylight. Dunno.

The audio reproduction is about as ordinary as it can get, a lackluster monaural that not even Dolby Digital processing can do much with. The dynamic range, frequency extremes, and bass are exceptionally commonplace, with only a small degree of edgy hardness to comment upon. At least dialogue is clear.

For a "20th Anniversary Special Edition" the disc has surprisingly few special features. Two, actually. The first is an audio commentary with stars Steve Guttenberg, Michael Winslow, Leslie Easterbrook, G.W. Bailey, director Hugh Wilson, and producer Paul Maslansky. The second is a newly made reunion documentary, "Behind Academy Doors: Secret Files Revealed." For about a half an hour, the director, the producer, Guttenberg, Smith, Bailey, Winslow, Gaines, and other cast members reminisce in fullscreen about the production. Neither feature is particularly enlightening. A generous thirty-one scene selections and a widescreen theatrical trailer conclude the extras. English and French are provided as spoken languages, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Shots:
I can't say I found "Police Academy" entirely humorless; as I've said, there are so many gags flying around that the occasional one is bound to hit home, no matter how trite or witless. The movie finds its latter-day counterpart in "Super Troopers," an equally silly affair that, nevertheless, also found a cult following. There's no telling with these things; humor is a funny thing.

"Police Academy" is available separately or in a complete box set of all seven "Police Academy" films from 1984 through 1994, when the whole enterprise self-destructed from its own ineptitude. The box contains the 20th Anniversary Special Edition of the original movie; "Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment"; "Police Academy 3: Back in Training": "Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol"; "Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach"; "Police Academy 6: City Under Siege"; and "Police Academy: Mission to Moscow." It amounts to over ten hours and eighteen minutes of "Police Academy" mischief, not counting the various bonus featurettes found on some of the discs. Think of it: You could spend an entire day with these guys. My, how time can fly.


Film Value