Monday, February 12, 2018

Reviewing ZAZ


The trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (let's call them ZAZ) is responsible for some of the greatest comedy films of all time. They made six episodes of a cancelled TV series, and that's up there too. Their efforts may have paved the way for less talented people to make some of the worst films of all time as well, but that's not their fault.


Key:

From the files of Police Squad!

Not actually ZAZ


The Kentucky Fried Movie ***


The first cinematic offering from Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, The Kentucky Fried Movie stands out from their more celebrated works by being a bunch of sketches rather than a narrative, and for its charmingly low budget.

Things get off to a weak start with many of the lesser sketches at the top, presumably because they needed to set up some running gags, but things get better in the build-up to the climactic ending. It doubtless would have helped if I'd seen Enter the Dragon too, so that the many specific send-ups in the longest sequence wouldn't have gone over my head. As it is, I was only really able to appreciate the subversion of lazy racism with the roll call of Hung Well, Long Wang and Enormous Genitals.

This was made during the era of the Monty Python films, and the influence is irritatingly obvious at times. It's at its best when it pushes the boundaries of taste, like the borderline porn of 'Catholic High School Girls in Trouble' that must have been a popular section among VHS-owning teenagers back in the day, and the relentless, merciless destruction of 'Zinc Oxide and You.'

There are also a few signs of what would soon become hallmarks of the trio's writing, such as the send-up of the disaster movies in 'That's Armageddon' and confusions over words that have more than one meaning in the courtroom sketch, as the various parties listen to the 'tape' (it's sticky tape!), 'call' their witness (on a phone!!), go over their 'briefs' (pants!!!) and 'lead' the witness (!!!!), but the best moment of the whole film is when a seductress commands her prey to "show me your nuts" and the guy goes bonkers.
"These reports are not intended to foster a belief in astrology, but merely to support people who cannot take responsibility for their own lives" - Barbara

Airplane! *****


This is one of those films I've seen so often that it takes a self-imposed themed marathon to force me to enjoy it all over again.

I probably haven't watched it since my early teens, but I was already old enough to understand the more lewd parts. This time around, I was more appreciative of how Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker succeeded in wrapping their relentless gags around an actual plot, and the tacky romance and tackier disaster movie dialogue (apparently lifted wholesale from 'straight' movies in parts) was doubtless part of its massive success. It's their Life of Brian compared to The Kentucky Fried Movie's And Now For Something Completely Different, and watching the ZAZ films in order, it wasn't surprising to learn that they originally intended this disaster spoof to be the centrepiece of another sketch anthology before confidently going with it all the way.

This is the benchmark against which Naked Gun and all the lesser spoof films should be judged, and the deadpan delivery from serious actors is a big part of this. It surprised me that Leslie Nielsen only shows up 30 minutes in, since his "and don't call me Shirley" exchange is the most famous part, but Peter Graves is also fantastic as the outrageously pervy Captain Oveur. I'd be here all day if I was going to list everything I love about this film, and there are admittedly plenty of gags that are dated or just too broad or daft to really enjoy, but that's expected when you're throwing so much shit at the fan. The wall, I mean.
"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue" - Steve McCroskey

Airplane II: The Sequel ****


I saw this maligned sequel even more than the original as a kid, thanks to the random chance of finding it on discount VHS one time and having to wait for the other one to show up on TV (that still happened often enough). As a result, it doesn't give me the same sour taste I'd doubtless have if I was coming to it for the first time today.

While it does rely heavily on the previous film for familiar laughs, you can choose to view these more as tributes than theft - though admittedly, that would be easier if it had actually been written by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker rather than by some other guy against their express wishes. There's still plenty to enjoy though, including some running gags that I always assumed were holdovers from the first film - "over Macho Grande," the "I've never been with a man before" girl and the prophetic nudie metal detector. If I didn't know better, I would have just assumed this was ZAZ phoning it in, rather than a dedicated forgery.

Leslie Nielsen isn't in it, which is a major blow, but we do get William Shatner putting in a typically over-the-top, film-stealing performance as commander of the moon base. The sci-fi gimmicks are generally pretty crap, with obvious parodies of Star Wars, ET and 2001 alongside the repetitive disaster movie elements, but I'm glad they actually put in the work to give us some nice special effects. Those floating bodies and pretty asteroids work like the deadpan actors in setting a realistic background for the ridiculous excesses to work against.
"I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes" - Buck Murdock

Police Squad! 1: A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise) *****


If I'd been born a couple of decades earlier and in America, there's a chance I'd think of the Naked Gun films as 'the film version of Police Squad!' But I wasn't, so like the rest of you, I only learned that this series existed when the internet told me about it.

This opening episode is the best one, not coincidentally because it's the only one written by ZAZ. They oversaw the rest in executive producer capacities, but without their hands-on involvement, the golden touch is a little lacking. Here, their sense of humour is in full force, and if you're not loving it by the time Frank Drebin finishes his first monologue, there's not going to be much for you here.

Many of your favourite, less risque Airplane! gags are present, from Leslie Nielsen's definitive deadpan delivery to extensive name confusion, laboured visual puns and senseless wastes of human life. You can't afford to take your eyes off the screen for fear of missing the next corker, and just when you thought you'd started to build a resistance after being relentlessly pummeled by the onslaught, they throw a bonkers curve ball with "one of those all-night wicker places" and you just lose it.
"We're sorry to bother you at a time like this, Mrs. Twice. We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn't dead then" - Frank Drebin

Police Squad! 2: Ring of Fear (A Dangerous Assignment) ***


Episodes based around boxing are generally a hard sell to me, being a bit of a wet pacifist when it comes to things like people beating each other to a pulp. That did affect my enjoyment of this one, much as The Naked Gun gets less entertaining with all the baseball stuff.

Frank goes undercover to investigate murder and corruption in the game, which fortunately means he's pretending to be a manager rather than throwing punches and taking his immaculate suit off. The supporting cast plays things as straight as they were presumably instructed, in line with the ZAZ philosophy, but they do occasionally feel like they're in the wrong show when they try a little too hard with the drama.

The gags feel more forced here than they did in the previous one, though not to Airplane II levels or anything. I wasn't especially titillated by "taking a dive" meaning scuba diving, "no sax before a fight" or Frank's order of a screwdriver being for the tool rather than the drink, but "no dice" still got me. I don't think there's a formula to it.

Pervy scientist Ted Olsen is easily my favourite character after Frank, becoming almost as creepy as Captain Oveur from Airplane! as he requests that his lab boys bring in items of their mother's underwear and takes their education down dark paths. He's the only other character who survived intact into the films.
- "I could take him blindfolded."
- "What if he's not blindfolded?" - Buddy and Frank

Police Squad! 3: The Butler Did It (A Bird in the Hand) ****


A wealthy heiress has been kidnapped and the only clue is the sound of a tuba on the recording. But who can succeed in pinpointing her location in the tuba capital of the world?

This was back on form after the last one didn't really do it for me, though by now the trained viewer will see things like the 'Japanese garden' and 'phone tap' coming a mile away. But if I can stop being pointlessly pedantic for a moment, the conversational confusions are still on fine form, Frank's hoop-shooting stunt double is hilarious, and I enjoyed their sarcastically non-copyright-infringing variant of the Happy Birthday song very much.

The guest stars are better than they really deserve to be, and the less controversial Caucasian incarnation of Norberg makes his first appearance. I'm a little worried that the compulsory freezing-for-the-end-credits gag has reached its peak so soon.
"Ed and I drove around for hours for no particular reason. We came up empty" - Frank Drebin

Police Squad! 4: Revenge and Remorse (The Guilty Alibi) ****


I feel like quite a few of these gags were reused for the films, though it could just be that my memory of this episode is stronger than the others. I thought I'd watched the whole series before, but maybe I only saw this one. What was I so busy doing that I couldn't spare those other 120 minutes?

There are some classic scenes here, from William Shatner's typically over-the-top cameo death to Norberg getting flustered and confused when he thinks Frank and Ed's interrogations of their suspect are comments on his lunch.

While I generally prefer the briefer TV format to the films, the limits of the medium are easy to see on occasion, especially with the tow/'toe' truck that could have used a second take. I didn't even know what I was looking at the first time.
- "Is this some kind of bust?"
- "Yes, it's very impressive, but we'd just like to ask a few questions" - Mimi and Frank

Police Squad! 5: Rendezvous at Big Gulch (Terror in the Neighborhood) ***


Five episodes in, they've started subverting their own formulaic conventions. This show deserved so much more than six episodes. What else was so deserving in the 1982 schedule?

The jokes are getting more subtle and ingenious, or maybe I was just more awake and attentive this time and previous ones slipped me by. It's not quite at the Arrested Development level, but there would be a lot to gain from rewatching. I especially liked the incongruous Eiffel Tower views in downtown LA, Frank's instantly vanishing wounds and Frank searching for an apartment for two weeks because script brevity meant the femme fatale didn't leave her address.

That's not to say things are getting too high brow, as the kids will still enjoy Frank driving back to the lab in reverse and demonstrating superhuman combat abilities when the plot demands it. As for "putting a tail on her" - come on, you can do better!
"When you held me in your manly arms and crushed me to your lips, I discovered what it meant to be a real woman" - Frank Drebin

Police Squad! 6: Testimony of Evil (Dead Men Don't Laugh) ***


Frank goes undercover for the last time on the small screen, and is unnaturally talented as always as he poses as a comedian and crooner. There are some more gags that would be re-used in the films - "you take a chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street or sticking your face in a fan" - but still plenty of surprises. I especially enjoyed the mortician sidelining as a DJ during postmortems. Norberg getting high was a bit rubbish.

The series ended here, when NBC failed to renew it for the usual ridiculous corporate reasons. It's a real shame, because even though they're not all corkers, it was really building momentum. I would have loved to see how far they could have taken the running gags, like Ed reeling off the increasingly lengthy list of criminals they've put away and Frank crashing into ever larger stacks of bins representing the number of episodes.

Still, we got three high-profile films, that's better than these unfair cancellations usually work out.
"Married, one child. That didn't work out, so he married a grown woman" - Ed Hocken

Top Secret! ****


It may be second tier ZAZ, but this send-up of war/espionage/adventure/musical?/whatever was a lot of fun, especially as I hadn't seen it before.

There's a similar balance of wackiness and 'proper film' as Airplane!, with gags that are a little less frequent but aren't afraid of going overboard to new extremes. This time around there's less reliance on wordplay (though still the occasional "I know a little German" before pointing to a dwarf), but a massive helping of visual gags messing with the established rules of how things like perspective work.

The musical is a new direction for the writers, and they go all-out on big song and dance numbers to sell us the idea of a young Val Kilmer as America's hottest rock 'n' roll star. That doesn't mean the whole thing is too preoccupied with realism though, what with its convenient conflation of history so they can fight Nazis in the 80s, a shitting statue and singing horse for no reason, the spectacular final battle in an underwater saloon and that downright nightmarish scene featuring a backwards-talking, giant-eyed Peter Cushing like something out of a David Lynch film.

It might not have the classic appeal of Airplane! or The Naked Gun, but as a spy spoof I'd take it over Austin Powers.
"It's a German name. It means 'she whose bosoms defy gravity'" - Hillary Flammond

Ruthless People ****


From the directors who brought you Airplane!, Top Secret! and The Naked Gun, but written by some guy called Dale Launer, this black comedy about slimy extortion stands out a mile in the series of silly spoofs, and I liked it a lot.

Danny DeVito is reliably on form as Sam Stone, a frustrated husband with plans to kill his wife, who receives a blessing when kidnappers threaten to do the job for him unless he meets their demands. He doesn't, even as the first-time, mild-mannered hostage-takers keep lowering their rate, and things become increasingly convoluted as Sam's mistress executes plans of her own to frame him that unwittingly expose the police chief instead. Throw in a psychotic killer just to make things more annoying to summarise, and the whole thing is a masterclass in miscommunication where everyone thinks the other person's talking about something they're not.

There are very few signs this is a ZAZ movie at all - the only thing that smacks of their touch being a race-and-gender-swapping identity mix-up in the morgue - so if I was going for thematic links I should probably have swapped this for David Zucker's Hot Shots films or something. But then I would have been committed to watching some of the Scary Movies too, and I don't deserve that. I'm glad for the chance to watch something I probably never would have come across otherwise.
"What the hell's the point of being a decent person when no-one is? Let's be assholes and get rich" - Ken Kessler

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! ****


This is the first time I've approached these films as adaptations of the TV series, and by that standard it succeeds admirably. I guess I did prefer the comforting structure and escalating in-jokes of those six episodes, but this feature length edition doesn't feel gratuitously long. It's not like you'd only watch one episode of Police Squad! at a time anyway.

Leslie Nielsen is still the king, even if he plays the buffoon a lot more than I remembered. Frank's character is fleshed out in glorious detail, with a tragic backstory, a slightly unrealistic romance and a troubled record that will probably end up about even in the number of crooks brought to justice and innocent bystanders unfairly killed along the way. But even Ted Stryker in Airplane! talked a few passengers to death, so some sacrifices must be made.

I don't want to be a bummer about this film I used to like a lot, but for every great scene like Nordberg's unfortunate pratfalls and Frank levelling Ricardo Montalban's apartment and escaping with the aid of priapic statues, there are others that are just too goofy, at least for me. The sexual imagery isn't as deliciously shocking any more as it was when I was 12, thanks to the increasingly puerile efforts of subsequent generations' Zuckers and Abrahams (whoever they are, now isn't my era) but the things that got the biggest laughs in my teens are still the winners today. "Use your open eye, Frank." "...And where the hell was I?"

It doesn't topple Airplane!, but it takes second place.
"I've finally found someone I can love. A good, clean love, without utensils" - Frank Drebin

The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear ***


This is a typical sequel, in that it rehashes many plot points from the first one but does it less well. But we're not talking high cinema here, so it's still well worth checking out for guaranteed chortles if you enjoyed the earlier adventures of Lieutenant Frank Drebin - though if you've seen Police Squad!, you'll notice even more reworkings of old gags than in the first film (Frank getting his car washed and reversing to the station, "is this some kind of bust," pretty much everything at the crime scene. They stand out for generally being the best parts).

Apart from those archive contributions, this one was written by David Zucker solo, and if there is a noticeable difference this time around it's in the rather lame satire, which amounts to exposing then-President Bush as a moron and making his wife suffer almost as much as Nordberg. It wouldn't be long before O.J. Simpson's presence gave these films a weird layer of infamy, but anyone who does find it strange to watch can at least get some satisfaction from seeing him get thoroughly battered. Poor Richard Griffiths didn't do anything to deserve it though.

Rather than give Frank a fickle new love interest, I'm glad they kept Jane and Priscilla Presley, and their innuendo-heavy sex scene complete with an unpleasant Ghost parody (un film de Jerry Zucker) is one of the best parts. The stuff with the escaped zoo animals is a masterclass in setting up a running gag just so you've got a convenient deus ex machina at the end, but my favourite scene of the lot is the severely depressing lounge bar where Frank goes to drown his sorrows, where photos of devastating catastrophes are backed by a suicidal soundtrack.
"The truth hurts, doesn't it, Hapsburg? Oh sure, maybe not as much as landing on a bicycle with the seat missing, but it hurts" - Frank Drebin

Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult ***


The traditional decline in quality continues with this final file from Police Squad - at least until the forthcoming reboot/continuation with Ed Helms that I don't know anything about but I'm not exactly well disposed to. It's still pretty funny, but while the earlier films combined wackiness with an actual plot, this one's much more in favour of the former. There isn't even a charismatic bad guy, and Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith is clearly only in it for two reasons.

Like the other films, this is very much a product of the time, with references to Clinton and lots of LA violence. As with Bill & Ted, the casual homophobia is a little unpleasant (both in and out of prison), and while they try to push a girl power angle for a while as Jane goes to Frank's 'rescue,' she immediately becomes a damsel-in-distress again, so it's not the most progressive of the bunch.

I saw this a few times when it was out on video in the mid-90s, and it probably works best for the adolescent market. At least, the bits I remember finding hysterical back then weren't so special 20 years later. There's less material borrowing from the TV series too, which might be thanks to the second film taking a hefty harvest, but once again the ending involves Frank going undercover at a high-profile live event to prevent a catastrophe. These are all basically the same film.

It doesn't really tarnish the legacy or anything, since even the second film wasn't that good, but it's still the one that would get you excited and then disappointed when you see a Naked Gun film in the schedule and it turns out to be this Naked Gun film.
"Like a midget at a urinal, I was going to have to stay on my toes" - Frank Drebin

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