I loved the Police Academy franchise as a kid. In fact, one of the biggest thrills of my childhood was meeting G.W. Bailey (the villainous Lieutenant Harris) while skiing in Aspen. Given the nature of that town I doubt he was my first celebrity encounter, but he definitely stands out to me as the one I was most nervous to meet. This was in the winter of 1989 and the only question my prepubescent mind could formulate was if there would be a sequel to that year’s Police Academy 6: City Under Siege. He shook his head and said something to the effect of, “I don’t think so. I think we’re done.” I wasn’t necessarily crushed, but I was very disappointed (this was a good five years before someone’s money ran dry and they opted in for Mission to Moscow).
So when I opted to revisit the original Police Academy for its 30th anniversary this year, I sort of expected to still kind of like it. After all, it spawned six sequels and even if none of those are very good (and at this point I feel safe guessing that they are all actually terrible), I at least expected something from the original to really pop. There has to be something truly inspirational in there to keep the fanbase clinging on throughout all of those diminishing returns, right? That’s what I expected this article to be - a celebration of the film’s charms while perhaps lightly dressing it down for its outdated approach to race and unfortunate institutionalized misogyny.
Except the film has no charm. Scratch that - there is exactly one scene that gave me hope that this would be a pleasant trip down memory lane. Early on, while the film is establishing the rogue’s gallery of fuck-ups that will join the Academy (this film is a pointed takedown on affirmative action, something that went unnoticed to me when I was 10), a roving gang of criminals assaults a film developing booth. Only they don’t want to rob it. They just want to toss the booth and its occupant (Donovan Scott) off a bridge. They don’t even want to hurt him, so they perform the whole operation as gingerly as possible! As the booth flows safely down the river, Scott emerges from it and declares he’s joining the Police Academy - passing under the bridge as he does so. The thugs actually take the time to walk to the other side of the bridge to finish listening to what he has to say. They’re very considerate!
Other than that, the film has no charm. I can’t imagine what caused audiences to respond to it in the manner they did. It’s so rote and leaden that it’s almost shocking. None of the humor lands (and I’m a fairly easy lay when it comes to comedy) and the narrative is remarkably turgid. While I can see why Steve Guttenberg became a star on the heels of this film’s success, his charisma as Carey Mahoney is constantly fighting an uphill battle against the “jokes” he is asked to deliver.
I mentioned earlier that I was anticipating a light dressing down for whatever sort of cultural ignorance this film might have perpetrated in 1984 (from childhood memory alone I of course was going off the obligatory women’s locker room scene). It turns out my issues with it are more complicated than that. The film’s approach to race seems to be coming from the right place given that the ensemble is remarkably diverse for a 1980s mainstream comedy, and moments of compassion and victory are abundantly granted to the characters. Still, writer/director Hugh Wilson (along with his co-writers Neal Israel and Pat Proft) revels in racial stereotypes to such a degree that it’s hard not to cringe. When your film’s idea of subverting archetypes is to shockingly reveal that Bubba Smith’s Moses Hightower likes flowers, you may not be on the right path.
The diversity of the cast could also be seen as a concession necessary to illustrate one of the film’s central conceits - that affirmative action is essentially bad. Sure, these misfits (code for overweight, clumsy, black or female) can eventual be whipped into shape, but it’s a costly and destructive endeavor that isn’t really worth the effort. I’m not sure that this message is entirely a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers (they do go through the effort of making sure the bad guys have a Confederate Flag on their license plate), but that’s certainly the taste the film leaves behind.
Just as problematic is the treatment of homosexuality. There are comparatively minor examples everywhere, like the villains being sent to a gay bar as a prank or Mahoney’s offhanded toss-off “sleeping is for fags.” But Police Academy’s entire point of view on the matter is surprisingly strident. At the end of the film Guttenberg kisses Kim Cattrall and it’s framed in such a manner that, given their police uniforms, it looks as though two men are kissing. George Gaynes’ Commandant Lassard happens upon them and orders, “You men stop that!” When it’s revealed that Cattrall is indeed a woman, the audience is meant to share in Lassard’s relief as he says, “That’s more like it!” In a movie where surprise blow job rapes are traded as pranks it takes a lot to stand out, but this scene more than rises to the occasion.
I can forgive all sorts of institutionalized horribleness if I watch a film as an artifact of its time. As long as our consciousness and compassion as a society continues to grow in the right places I’m comfortable revisiting things that come from an archaic mentality, if only to marvel at how far we’ve come in the past 30 years (and perhaps agonize over how far we still have to go). But if there’s zero value in a film other than that, I have to wonder what attracts people to it. Do they sit through this tedium just to experience a simpler time when their world views were more widely accepted? That’s kind of frightening to me.
Ultimately, not being funny might only be Police Academy’s second biggest crime.