Spoof movies are in poor shape. A genre that used to promise laughs a mile-a-minute has been reduced to rehashing scenes shown in the trailers of popular movies released in the last three months. I cringe at the thought of anyone getting a laugh out of Meet the Spartans, Epic Movie, and other such ...uh... movies. Rehashing dialogue from another (better) movie, strung along with random dance numbers, and shoehorned vulgarity does not constitute parody.
Thankfully, I can always look back on some titles of yesteryear and be reminded of a time when spoofs weren't lazy and cheerless. That brings us to The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988), possibly my favorite spoof movie. It's got outrageous one-liners, hilarious sight gags, and wonderfully deadpan performances. It's not merely a string of gags; it's a wonderful sendup of all those old cop and detective movies.
Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Neilson) and his captain Ed Hocken (George Kennedy) are investigating the attempted murder of Frank's partner Nordberg (O.J. Simpson), who was shot and left floating by the docks. Drebin's search leads him to suave but shady businessman Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban) and his seductive assistant Jane (Priscilla Presley). Soon, he stumbles and bumbles upon a plot to assassinate the Queen of England when she visits Los Angeles.
The Naked Gun throws in everything but the kitchen sink: one-liners, double entendres, sight gags, slapstick, and background antics as the characters act oblivious in the foreground. I can't really go into detail without revealing the jokes, so all I'll just say it's funny. There's so much silliness going on, it requires multiple viewings to catch it all. Yes, a lot of it is stupid, but if it's funny, it's funny.
The biggest asset of the film is Neilson. My dad put it best when he said, "He's so clueless." Drebin is a first-rate moron, accidentally burning evidence, destroying an apartment he's sneaking around in, telling a hitman not to fire a gun while talking, knocking people over, reaching the most absurd conclusions, and saying perhaps the most nonsensical analogies ever ("Women and cops don't mix. Like eating a spoonful of Draino, sure, it cleans you out, but it leaves you hollow.")
But here's the important part, Neilson plays him totally straight-faced. He's not mugging for the camera so much as acting as if he's in a more serious movie but doesn't realize it. He even gets a would-be hard-boiled voiceover. Essentially, Nielson is playing off the cliches of the grizzled detectives of past cop movies like Dirty Harry and Phillip Marlowe, but by being so incompetent, he becomes hilarious. Those characters took themselves so seriously, it doesn't require much exaggeration to make them laughable.
The plot's mostly a throwaway. It might not make much logical sense, but it builds enough for the viewer to become invested in following it through. It's more than a bunch of random sketches with the same characters; it progresses and buildups the jokes. Unlike the recent spoofs, which completely disregard continuity, this one requires some degree of attention. Jokes set up in an earlier scene pay off later in the movie. Others work by seeing how far the filmmakers can take them. It's not enough the doctor crashes into a gas truck but also a missile, followed by a fireworks store.
What else is there to say? The Naked Gun is hilarious, and Neilson plays stupid so well, he's brilliant. Watch and laugh.