Class of 1987: ‘Dragnet’
In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1997 and seven from 1987 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films that were among either year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
“I think Dad is probably disappointed that I have not worked up to what he considers to be, and I must say I consider to be, my creative potential. He’s never said he’s disappointed, but I know he is, and I know that come Oscar night some year, he would love to see some wonderful film that I wrote and directed being honored. … I don’t apologize for anything I’ve done. But I wonder if I’ve aimed.”
— Tom Mankiewicz, successful writer / director who worked on Superman, 007 and “Gremlins”
“I do share Tom’s disappointment. Or put it this way. He came to share my disappointment. … The point is, Tom sold his stuff. Now I happen to think he’s better than that. Tom found it a little too easy. Instead of shooting the fourth draft of his screenplay, they shot the second. I have said to him, ‘I don’t think the second draft is good enough, Tom. You can do better.’ But he didn’t have to do better, and that was a pity.”
— Joseph L. Mankiewicz, four-time Academy Award-winning writer / director and Tom’s father
Comparing Mankiewicz epitaphs, Tom’s “franchise hero and co-parent of cheeky piss-take TV adaptations” does pale beside Joseph’s “award-winning sculptor of Golden Age snap, sophistication and spectacle.” Tom’s work was calculatedly commercial; Joseph’s was carefully cultivated. This is no slam, per se, on Tom; not many could whittle “Superman” down from a 400-page script into working order, let alone a classic of the superhero genre.
And for better or worse, the Hollywood in which Tom made his mark is the Hollywood we know today … and it is eons beyond Joseph’s: Superman and James Bond remain event-level characters while junky-jokey comic spins on comparatively serious TV series range from wild successes (“21 Jump Street” and “22 Jump Street”) to woolly mishaps (“CHiPs,” “Baywatch”).
The latter began in earnest with 1987’s “Dragnet,” Tom’s penultimate film overall and his first as a director. Removed from weekly HBO viewings, and taken in total beyond a few still-funny one-liners, “Dragnet” is notable almost solely for what it wrought — a one-step-forward, two-steps-back genre of “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Get Smart,” “Maverick, “I Spy,” “Wild Wild West” and so on.
Like most of those films, “Dragnet” simultaneously pays homage to, and honks the nose of, its source IP — here a radio show turned TV series about tough-talking Los Angeles cops that ran eight seasons from 1951 to 1959 and was revived for four more go-rounds from 1967 to 1970.
Even if you don’t know the show, it has penetrated pop culture’s psyche. Its “true story with names changed to protect the innocent” introduction has been coopted by everyone from Woody Woodpecker to Noah Hawley in his TV incarnation of “Fargo.” Its plea for witness brevity, “Just the facts, ma’am,” became boilerplate. And you’ve certainly heard the theme — a tympanic “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” scaled for the small screen that served as the forefather to “Law & Order’s” dun-dun. To make things seem hipper and more with it, composer Ira Newborn transforms it into a fat-beat ’80s instrumental complete with interspersed dialogue delivered in “Max Headroom”-like stutters.
Dan Aykroyd inherits “Dragnet” star / creator Jack Webb’s iconic straitlaced Sgt. Joe Friday role while Tom Hanks’ “hipster fleabird cop” Pep Streebek takes the place of Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan, who turns up here for an unenthusiastic cameo; Webb died five years earlier). A formula that started with odd-couple chemistry has now, in the “Jump Street” films, thrown two Streebeks together and let them rip.
Ultimately, “Dragnet” comes off as a plastic butter-knife version of “Beverly Hills Cop” and its first sequel, even going so far as to incongruously toss Friday — an apoplectic, anachronistic paragon of virtue in a modern-day L.A. slouching toward Bethlehem — into a strip club as a Patti LaBelle song plays. (Newborn’s score also tends to borrow from that of Harold Faltermeyer as well at numerous points.)
Aykroyd more or less adapts Elwood Blues’ motor-mouth into a clenched, conservative clip and calls it a day, not developing his take much beyond his skit work spoofing Friday on “Saturday Night Live.” Then a go-to goofy comedy guy, Hanks’ heart hardly seems in this, as if he knew a “Big” break and attendant fame awaited. (He still had “Turner & Hooch” and “The ’Burbs” to come, both far preferable, in his studio-comedy vein.) And if you think that sounds depressing, it could have co-starred Aykroyd’s first choice, Jim Belushi, who was unavailable. (While watching “Dragnet,” it’s easy to wonder what more, and to what greater ends, Aykroyd could have done with John Belushi had the latter lived.)
And yet “Dragnet” is the prototype for modern meta riffing on the classic TV churn, if only because it was more successful than most people remember — a $57 million gross on par with “Predator” and “Throw Momma from the Train” and far ahead more fondly remembered comedies as “Spaceballs” (which opened the same day), “Adventures in Babysitting” or “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” To hear Aykroyd whine about “Ghostbusters” today is to forget what a force it made him in the 1980s, as 1985’s “Spies Like Us,” and its Hope-Crosby road movie spoofing, also was a hit (and a funnier movie).
Despite co-writing from Aykroyd himself and comic legend Alan Zweibel (whose career spans“SNL” to “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), “Dragnet” seems uncertain of what comic stance to assume. Will it throw fastball spoofs at the wall like a broken pitching machine a la Zucker-Abrahams? Is it sending up the satanic panic and moralism of the 1980s? Does it want to pitch Friday as a man hopelessly out of time? Will Joe simply endure disdain delivered upon him by all of the denizens he purports to protect? There are a handful of good jokes in each of those veins, but they are remarkably few and far between.
It’s also got more narrative fat to chew than most, packing Aykroyd’s thick-notebook narration with more expository details than necessary. Friday and Streebek investigate a series of robberies at which business cards that read P.A.G.A.N. are left behind. Standing for People Against Goodness and Normalcy, P.A.G.A.N. is a goat head-wearing cult of miscreants willing to sacrifice a helpless virgin, Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul), to prove their anarchic point.
P.A.G.A.N. is in the sights of another mildly amusing acronym: M.A.M.A., the Moral Advance Movement of America fronted by the butter-toned Reverend Jonathan Whirley (Christopher Plummer). Although not a noted comedian, Plummer gets some of the film’s biggest laughs just with his sycophantic sniggering — indicative of the film’s generosity toward its supporting players in lieu of its top stars.
As a put-upon landlady, Kathleen Freeman unleashes 1987’s second-best torrent of profanity (forever behind the gold standard of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”) when she refers to someone as a “useless scum-lappin’ shitbag” or Friday himself as a “slimy little jizz bucket.” Then there’s porn king (and Larry Flynt stand-in) Jerry Caesar — he of Field & Cream magazine, and played with astounding lisping-Leghorn linguistics by Dabney Coleman.
Caesar is, of course, also on M.A.M.A.’s hit list … until it’s revealed Caesar and Whirley are actually in cahoots — the latter fomenting moral outrage as the secret leader of P.A.G.A.N. in an attempt to seize power from the L.A. mayor and install his police commissioner pal (Elizabeth Ashley), who will look the other way on his own wallet-lining experiments in vice.
The setup would seem screamingly obvious, pitting the rigorously uptight Friday – and his alignment with the seeming rectitude of Whirley – against his actual turpitude and the resulting temptations. Friday inspects a magazine called American Moral Companion so closely, you suspect he’ll turn it sideways and drop a centerfold. After all, if it wants to be “Beverly Hills Cop,” it’s got to sneak in some social commentary, right?
Instead, it settles for Streebek’s optimistic button-pusher versus Friday’s buttoned-up rule-follower with perfunctory car chases and gunfights, which at least created the curio of Hanks doing what seems to be his own stunts. (The same can’t be said for Aykroyd, whose double at one point seems to have as thick a mustache as Daphne Zuniga’s in “Spaceballs.”) The most enduring laugh? “City of Crime,” a closing-credits number rapped by Aykroyd and Hanks, amusingly resurrected by the latter a couple years ago.
At one time, maybe Aykroyd’s accelerated authoritative jibber-jabber caroming off Hanks’ loud wailing was enough. But today, “Dragnet” feels pokey next to its peers. Then again, like many prototypes, it’s a merely sufficient expression of possibility without the refinement later versions would bring.