Dragnet (1987) – A Review
Jack Webb’s famed Los Angeles police show Dragnet gets an updating with Dan Aykroyd assuming the role of Joe Friday’s namesake nephew. He’s got all the distinctive characteristics of his by-the-book uncle, but somehow in 1987 his demeanor makes it look like more of a square than when his uncle patrolled the city streets.
The straight-laced, deadpan, rapid fire talking police sergeant gets a new partner – Tom Hanks as Pep Streebek, who’s as lax and reckless as Friday is meticulous and conservative.
Along with the hurdles of trying to make a partnership work between their odd pairing, Friday and Streebek stumble onto a case involving adult magazine owner Dabney Coleman, respected Reverend Christopher Plummer, virgin Alexandra Paul, their angry and put-upon police captain Harry Morgan and an underground pagan cult who wear sheep leggings at their big outdoor gatherings.
Jack Webb never had such a strange case!
Dragnet came along during the height of the cop/buddy movie genre of the 1980’s. There’s no mistaking that. If someone had no knowledge of Webb’s Dragnet (which was both a popular television and radio program) they could easily assume that this was just another cop/buddy movie entry birthed in the 80’s and rode the wave with so many others. Back then they were practically coming out on a weekly basis.
It was also a time when it was still somewhat novel to take an old television title and revamp it into a movie. By the 90’s audiences would be inundated with countless adaptations of beloved shows, but in 1987 updating an older show into a feature film wasn’t automatically greeted with head shaking and eye-rolls.
For a film that calls itself Dragnet, it doesn’t take as much inspiration from the actual television show as it probably should have. I mean, of course there’s Aykroyd’s performance as Friday.
He’s got the no-nonsense delivery that Webb had done for years while arresting TV bad guys.He’s funny as he reels off sections of obscure laws, drops in the famed “Just the facts” line and walks around with his stern-faced puss. I remember Siskel and Ebert adoring Aykroyd’s performance in this.
We hear the beats of the opening theme song, Friday’s ongoing narration throughout the film and the inclusion of Webb’s co-star Morgan as the chief. But really that’s it all the original Dragnet influence we get.
I’m not sure what original Dragnet fans thought of the movie at the time. I imagine they must have enjoyed Aykroyd’s Friday. It seems like the performance is a real love letter to Webb. But it didn’t seem like the film attempted to emulate or even spoof more of the devices the show had contained. Rather they were just happy to just plug in the title and present it as a standard 80’s cop comedy.
Compared to The Naked Gun, which would follow a year later, Dragnet does very little with mining the old police show clichés for laughs. Aykroyd and director Tom Mankiewitz seemed content with staying closer to more of the conventions of a a standard cop/buddy film – a pair of drastically different partners having to find common ground, learning to work with each other and having each other rub off on the other in a good growth kind of way.
When Dragnet hit in the summer of ’87 my friends and I were very excited to see it. We were big fans of both Aykroyd and Hanks, so a movie teaming them up was automatically a must see.
And they’re both funny in it. Rewatching it I was still entertained by their pairing more than anything else. Their bickering, their one-liners, they’re good together. It’s the two of them that really propel this movie.
Aykroyd is committed to doing his monotone Friday character throughout. Hanks is likable and really tries to sell every gag and line he’s given. They are working hard to be as entertaining as they can throughout the whole thing.
The story itself is downright ludicrous. For some reason the revered Plummer and smut peddler Coleman are working together, but Plummer and Police Commissioner Elizabeth Ashley are planning on killing Coleman.
Plummer heads this secret cult calling itself P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness and Normalcy) and they are stealing zoo animals for their pagan rituals. Giant Jack O’Halloran is a thug member of P.A.G.A.N. who heads their criminal activity. They leave P.A.G.A.N. cards at all these crimes scenes and they plan to sacrifice the virgin Connie Swail to a giant anaconda.
Luckily, Friday and Streebek stop their ritual, but can’t convince Morgan of all of what they saw and Ashely fires Friday. Then just when Plummer is about to unleash his final plan of torching truckloads of Coleman’s magazines and killing him, Friday and Streebek come racing in and catch Plummer and save Connie.
I don’t know. It’s a pretty crazy caper.
There are a lot of good actors in this. I’ve always loved Coleman and he does this strange lisp with his voice the whole time. He’s great to watch. The guy was terrific at playing arrogant creeps. Plummer is devilishly sly. He also has a weird tick doing a bizarre chuckle every now and then.
Kathleen Freeman shows up as an angry vulgar landlady (something of a reunion between her and Aykroyd, yes Elwood and the Penguin meet up again). And Paul simply looks cute and is here to be a romantic love interest for Friday.
Despite the cast trying their darnedest Dragnet plays as a safe, adequate, but ultimately forgettable flick. There’s really nothing outstanding going on. I keep wanting to love it and waiting for the real hilarity to kick in, but sadly have to resolve myself that it’s not going to get any better than it is.
It’s fine, there’s nothing to hate about it and there are a few very funny lines and bits. One I’ve always really liked is after beating up some punks trying to rob him Aykroyd disgustingly says, “And on a school night too”.
But the movie ends up only being merely a light diversion and one I certainly wouldn’t call a ‘classic comedy’. It’s passable and there’s nothing I really dislike about it, but it could have been much funnier with all the talent here.
One funny little thing is how this flick takes me back to ’87 when movies started to feel like they needed to be more responsible to its audience. Aykroyd smokes throughout the movie, so they have to include a blatant shot of the warning on a cigarette pack.
This was also the height of the AIDS scare, so to remind us to practice safe sex, Hanks picks up an empty box of condoms while lying in bed with a pretty police woman. He tosses it away and resigns himself that no sex will take place now since he ran out of rubbers.
It’s pretty strange seeing it today. I remember when this simple condom inclusion got a lot of attention. A public service message about condoms weren’t usual occurrences to see in light summer movie fare. I think Dragnet might have been the first film to have a safe sex message in it.,,I’m not sure though.
Rewatching Dragnet, I was also struck about where Aykroyd and Hanks’ careers were at the time and what eventually came next for them.
After a string of hit movies like Ghostbusters and The Blues Brothers, Dragnet was something of a last gasp of leading man cred for him. For the remainder of the 80’s he would bounce between a few more highs (Ghostbusters II, his Oscar nomination for Driving Miss Daisy) and some very low lows (My Stepmother Is an Alien, Caddyshack II).
From there he became more of a supporting actor in countless movies. My Girl, Sneakers, Chaplin, North, Exit To Eden, Sgt. Bilko, Grosse Pointe Blank, and on and on and on.
His leading man days were over Maybe it was Blues Brothers 2000 that was his last lead role. Nowadays he continues to do supporting parts and voice work, but it seems like he’s more enthusiastic about his Skull vodka and resurrecting Ghostbusters at any cost.
Hanks on the other hand was at a much different point during Dragnet. His career was just gaining momentum. He did a string of silly comedies throughout the 80’s that made him a recognizable star and was attracting fans. It would be the following year in 1988 that Big would garner him awards attention and set him on a path to being the king of Hollywood and one of the most beloved film stars around.
While Hanks would be scooping up Oscars and enjoying hit after hit, Aykroyd would be starring in Coneheads.
Last thing about Dragnet and an example of them being more eager making an ’80’s mainstream flick rather then it being a true homage to the 50’s show is the music they used.
The old Dragnet theme gets used momentarily before a rapping update takes over. It’s pretty awful. What’s even more disturbing is the rap video Aykroyd and Hanks made for the song ‘City of Crime’. It’s a sight to behold.
Funnily, enough Hanks still remembers the lyrics to this Dragnet rap. That’s one of the things that I’ve always liked about him, he owns up to his earlier work and has no problem talking about any of it. He might be slightly embarrassed by some of it, but he doesn’t ignore it.
Here’s the trailer
And here’s the unforgettable music video for City of Crime, performed by Aykroyd and Hanks
I wish movies would still do cheesy music videos like this!
And twenty-eight years later Hanks still remembers the lyrics! How great is that!