While I bemoaned his directorial debut with the dull and laughless Wrongfully Accused, and the quality of the later Scary Movies, there was a time when Pat Proft was a name to watch in big screen comedy. Outside of his work with Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, Proft also worked with Mel Brooks on When Things Were Rotten (a Robin Hood spoof thirty years before Men In Tights), George Lucas on the Star Wars Holiday Special, and even partnered up with Neal Israel (Surf Ninjas, Combat Academy) on a couple of projects. Bachelor Party, Real Genius, Moving Violations and what was, likely, their most regular stream of residual revenue during the 80s, Police Academy.
In a nutshell, if you don’t have any nostalgic ties to this property, Police Academy takes the standard plot of your typical frathouse comedy and switches the setting from a campus to a police training academy: you have your group of misfits out to prove themselves (including the lover, the fat guy, the quiet girl, the hot girl and the loveable rogue), the bullies, the authority figures who don’t believe in them and the set amount of time where the characters have to achieve something. All the while, going through the usual pranks and hijinks you’d expect from such a comedy (parties, peeking in showers, romantic misadventures, bullies and a big showdown where the gang prove everyone wrong).
How they milked that premise for seven movies and two TV shows is beyond me, but we’re here to just discuss the first film. And how is it after nearly 33 years? Well, for starters, the cast all handle the material well and play up to their various archetypes. Guttenberg is capable as our goofy bad boy lead Mahoney, Michael Winslow is a hysterical scene stealer as human beatbox Jones and G.W. Bailey, Brant Von Hoffman and Scott Thomson have fun as the pompous lieutenant Harris and his subordinates, respectively. The rest of the cast, including future Seinfeld alum Bruce Mahler, all have good chemistry and create the needed likeability of these mismatched goofballs.
Hugh Wilson’s direction is very basic and lacks much in the way of visual creativity or flair (unlike Proft’s more famous collaborators, Wilson doesn’t try to recreate or parody the aesthetics of more famous crime films of the time), but good pacing and editing more than make up for it, ensuring no gag or line overstays its welcome. Robert Folk’s score is cheery and upbeat, including the iconic title theme, and perfectly underscores the absurdity on film.
Indeed, the humour is pretty much what you’d expect from a Proft-Israel project: plenty of slapstick and innuendos that isn’t necessarily smart, but not exactly stupid either. Like some of ZAZ or Brooks’ material, the gags are just inventive enough to get a chuckle (Winslow’s various acts of mimicry, the ways the cadets mess up various training exercises), but straight forward enough to not fly over your head (such as a blowjob bit during an important police presentation by the Commandant).
It’s as lowbrow as you can go without resorting to toilet humour, but that’s not automatically a bad thing. Police Academy knows full well what it is: a big, round crowd pleaser about training in a dedicated field that anyone can relate to and laugh at because they recognise those scenarios and people. It doesn’t bog itself down with a tedious sermon about police institutions, and just wants to squeeze out some laughs from funny scenarios. If there are issues, it’s simply the common afflictions of comedies of this era: the plot is sometimes a little thin on logic, sacrificing character development for more jokes, and there’s a dated running gag involving a gay leather bar.
However, if that sounds like your kind of film, then the first Police Academy will fit the bill nicely. Not among my favourite of Proft’s works, but a solid enough 80s comedy with a consistent laugh rate that may show its age in some spots, but still delivers the goods after all these years and the dead weight of its subsequent franchise.
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