The passing of Leslie Nielsen last year was a very sad day indeed. While many actors have tried to nail the same style of deadpan comic delivery, none have managed it quite as well as Nielsen. It’s often said that his defining performance is that of Dr.Rumack in Airplane! – of which he’ll always be remembered for a particular line involving a very serious Shirley. But for me, the role of Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun is the best performance by the comedy star.
The partnership of David & Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams – also known as ZAZ – resulted in some of the greatest comedy movies of the 1980’s. Their first big screen production, John Landis’ Kentucky Fried Movie is an early example of their trademark zany humour – mixing crude sight gags with satire (most notably Bruce Lee films with a Fistful Of Yen). But it wasn’t until the global success of Airplane! that the nonsensical humor of the trio was catapulted into the mainstream.
A pitch perfect spoof of cheesy 70s disaster movies, Airplane! set the template for not only the proceeding work of both ZAZ and Leslie Nielsen, but also the entire spoof genre itself. A commercial success and critically acclaimed as one of the funniest comedies ever made, the trio decided to move onto other projects rather than direct 1982’s vastly inferior Airplane II : The Sequel - instead parodying the spy genre with the excellent Top Secret!
In the gap between Airplane and Top Secret, the group decided to make a jump to television – taking the style of Airplane! and spoofing TV cop dramas with Police Squad. Despite being cancelled after a measly six episodes, each one was 30 minutes of pure comedy gold. Thankfully, Police Squad ended up continuing on the big screen with 1988’s The Naked Gun – which is essentially an extended episode of the short-lived but classic series.
Nielsen is Lt. Frank Drebin, a bumbling detective – who despite his good intentions, often ends up making bad situations inherently worse. During an American tour by Queen Elizabeth, Drebin uncovers a plot to assassinate the British monarch – schemed by sinister business tycoon Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban). It’s an interesting enough plot, but really it’s just a thread to tie the film together, with the real emphasis being the comedic set-pieces as well as endless sight gags, one-liners and satirical swipes at the cliche ridden genre.
Just like Airplane! before it, part of the fun of The Naked Gun is that you’ll notice something new with every viewing. Simply watching it again for the umpteenth time for the purpose of this review, I spotted a block of cheese crawling on top of Drebin’s fridge in the background of a scene. Hidden sight gags like this are buried throughout the film and while you’re busy laughing at the more obvious jokes, there’s plenty of stuff that requires a keen eye for detail.
So while it’s stuffed to the brim with great gags, The Naked Gun wouldn’t be nearly as funny if the performances didn’t work, yet all of the actors play it straight for maximum comedic effect. Be it Priscilla Presley as the sultry pot-roasting Jane, George Kennedy as Ed…. Or heck, even convicted criminal OJ Simpson remains funny in the film – suffering through a sequence which involves not only being shot, but scalding his hand, getting covered in wet paint and stepping on a bear trap. Lets not forget the most realistic depiction of kicking down a door, which undoubtedly inspired the kicking through the windshield sequence in Pineapple Express.
It’s almost easy to forget that Nielsen began his career with serious roles in films like Forbidden Planet or The Poseidon Adventure, having such a fantastic ability to deliver insane dialogue and act out ridiculous slapstick with true conviction – making him the Al Pacino of the spoof genre. Sadly this also led to a later career of appearing in awful Naked Gun rip-offs like Spy Hard. Nevertheless, Nielsen remained a true professional devoted to making people laugh even in declining health – baring all at the age of 80 in a audacious sequence in Scary Movie 4.
Looking back at The Naked Gun also puts today’s so-called spoofs into perspective. Films like the atrocious Vampires Suck, which are driven by lame parodies of pop culture and the latest ‘trending’ celebrities like Justin Bieber and Britney Spears. It’s even sadder to think that David Zucker himself went on to direct installments in the dire Scary Movie series which thrives on cheap and mean spirited humour. The Naked Gun on the other hand is full of clever word play dialogue and simple but effective gags (“Doctors say that Nordberg has a 50/50 chance of living, though there’s only a 10 percent chance of that”) which nicely compliment the more lowbrow humour.
But it’s probably also fair to say that The Naked Gun wont be to everyone’s taste. If the nonsensical idea of someone having a pillow thrown at their face and reacting with sheer horror doesn’t raise a smile, or if you find the idea of a concrete dildo not in the least bit amusing, perhaps you‘ll grimace your way through the entire movie. But for anyone who enjoys the unique Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker sense of humour, it’s a true classic which is just as hilarious 22 years later.
The Naked Gun was never going to look stunning on Blu-ray – it’s an 80s comedy – but this is a decent transfer which looks better than the DVD, even if that’s only marginally so. The image is heavy with grain and often looks a little on the drab side, but detail is good overall. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s probably the best The Naked Gun has ever looked on a home release.
There’s a fun commentary with director David Zucker, and producers Robert Weiss and Peter Tilden – but devoted fans will have already listened to this on the previous DVD release. Along with this recycled commentary there’s a HD theatrical trailer, but that’s it. No retrospective features or tributes to Nielsen – in the words of Frank Drebin “There’s nothing to see here folks, move along!”
The Naked Gun is one of the best comedies ever made and features such a high gag rate that it lends itself nicely to repeat viewings. Sadly this slapdash Blu-ray release is marred by a lack of decent extras and no real need to be viewed in high definition – making it hard to recommend the upgrade.
Final Score: 2.5/5
The Naked Gun and Airplane! Are released today on Blu-ray by Paramount.