I’m not sure what I was expecting when I sat down to watch Police Academy for the first time since getting my driver’s license. I’ve talked before in these articles about rose-colored glasses and how ugly things can be when you remove them. Police Academy looked ripe for that kind of letdown: a puerile Animal House knock-off that spawned six sequels currently ranking lower than anal hemorrhoids in the public’s overall goodwill levels. They were awful films and the one that perpetrated them couldn’t possibly be any good… could it?
Frankly, it couldn’t, but I have to give it credit for making more of an effort than I expected. The story is simplistic, the jokes scattershot at best, and yet from time to time, a few dumb laughs scratch their way to the surface. Most of them come courtesy of Michael Winslow, the human sound effects machine whose one-of-a-kind tricks find a nice rhythm here. (And my God, he’s still touring! http://www.michaelwinslow.net.) He gets a little help from George Gaynes as the academy’s clueless commander, who evinces a nice sense of benign idiocy and scores at least one bona fide existentialist joke in the middle of it all. (“You mean I’m trapped here?” “Of course! We all are.”)
To that, I will add a few more modest joys, notably Robert Folk’s score (which seems to be actively mocking Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Patton) and the film’s resident timid mouse Laverne Hooks (Marion Ramsey). Her concept isn’t brilliant, but it provokes a few smiles. More importantly, you didn’t see a lot of black women in the movies in this era, and to give one actual personality traits beyond “the black chick” actually represented some kind of progress. Considering the caliber of material on display, I’ll take those pleasures as they come.
The rest of the movie, unfortunately, sinks a great dealer lower in its quest for laughs. It actually evinces a strange anti-affirmative action vibe, as the mayor of an unnamed city opens up the academy to any screw-up interested in a job. Said screw-ups form the bulk of the film’s jokes. Police Academy establishes each figure’s one-note gimmick – the klutz, the gun nut, the ladies’ man, the scary black guy – then settles into a steady routine of riffing on the established expectations. Winslow has the versatility to handle that duty. Everyone else flounders on the screenplay’s distressing repetition. Tackleberry (David Graf) produces an enormous hand cannon! Hightower (Bubba Smith) glares at someone until they back down! Thompson (Kim Cattrall)… well, Thompson exists mainly to flash her gams and put up with overt sexual harassment, one of the film’s many reminders that we were fucking barbarians in 1984. (Don't even get me started on the Blue Oyster gag.)
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the film’s lead, Carey Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), an unrepentant swine whose appalling behavior is intended to pass as iconoclastic rebellion. He gets away with things that should by all rights have him shot, and while you can make that work if you have a John Belushi or a Bill Murray in the part (more on this when Ghostbusters hits in a couple of months) Guttenberg lacks the chops to overcome the screenplay’s tiresome formula.
None of the onscreen figures are real characters, just fulcrums for crude physical humor and the occasional verbal zinger. The story arrays them against various squares and authority figures for an hour or so until the climactic city riot somehow sorts everything out. That, as you may be inclined to point out, is pretty much the purpose of the exercise. Turn off brain, laugh at fart jokes, go on with life. But the fart jokes just don’t score as often as they need to, and with the onscreen figures locked into their individual shticks, the humor has nowhere to go.
And yet Polie Academy became a monster hit, riding its R rating and easy tone to collect an army of fans who gradually abandoned it as the sequels got progressively worse. Nostalgia helps it hold up better than it deserves, as we remember the moments that made us giggle hysterically when we were ten and forgive them for not being nearly as funny this time around. The movie had its moment in the sun, somebody made a lot of money from it and then it vanished. Mercifully so in most ways, but not without leaving at least a little whiff of younger, happier days behind. You can’t fault it for that, no matter how much you might want to. There’s plenty of other things wrong with it that make for much better targets.