Attending Police Academy

Yes, there is something worse than dying of dysentery. How has this “popular” franchise stood the test of time?

Over the years, without quite realising it, I’ve seen every Police Academy film.

It might sound like I have no taste, but really, they’re perfect background noise. You could go to the lav during a Police Academy movie and still make sense of it when you return. They’re the kind of films you leave on whilst flicking channels because there’s nothing else of interest, and seeing Michael Winslow mimicking a robot is still funnier than Keith Lemon. Maybe it’s out of a need to be cine-literature or the fact I’m a sadomasochist, but these myriad viewings have left a desire to bear my soul. The Police Academy films have to be exorcised.

It all began in the 1980s. The decade that saw my birth isn’t the most fashionable of eras.  Sure, we had loads of great films and a few iconic bands, but looking back on it, it was just about the tackiest time to be alive. Mere fuel for Calvin Harris, if you will. Bad clothes, bad hair, even badly-designed cars. It also inflicted many pains on the film industry and gave birth to what has become known as The Franchise. Don’t get me wrong… a franchise can be a wonderful thing in cinema. The Indiana Jones series and the Back to the Future trilogy are both great memories from that decade of trash, but the franchise exploded beyond all rationality. Did we really need ten Friday the 13th movies? For that matter, did we need seven A Nightmare on Elm Streets? Not really. And there we have it: The 80s was all about greed. Like a pack of Gordon Geckos, Warner Bros. took a smutty little R-rated comedy and ran with it.

Also, I’m not sure if any other film series has been launched by its score alone, but there’s little doubt that the one for Police Academy does half the work. Surely with backing this good, it can’t be all bad? Strap in – I’m going for it!

Police Academy (1984)

The original. The one that started it all. And since it meant well, I’ll try to go easy on it…

Time has treated Police Academy better than you’d expect, and out of the seven films, it is the only one that stands up to return visits. Breezy comedy has never been so laidback, and like Porky’s, what it lacks in wit it makes up for in well-mined crudity. Stuffed with real-life Muppets, the first film is also aided by the one and only Steve Guttenberg. An 80s relic and the butt of many a joke, the common consensus is that a Police Academy flick with Guttenberg is one of the best. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that the first film skirts by due to the good intentions of everyone involved. Not exceptional but not painful either.

Police Academy has a decent enough premise for a comedy, a plot that was spread over too much stale bread in the sequels. Thanks to a new initiative by an unsuspecting mayor, “No longer would height, weight, sex, education, or physical strength be used to keep new recruits out of the Metropolitan Police Academy.” A big mistake, since the new guns are hardly fit for the Force. Led by the well-meaning but drippy Commandant Lassard (George Gaynes), it’s going to be a bumpy ride training the recruits. Throwing petrol on the bonfire is Carey Mahoney (Guttenberg), the chauvinistic wise-cracker whose badboy charisma plants him in trouble constantly. But he isn’t the only one causing ripples in the water. Moses Hightower (Bubba Smith) is built like a house, proud of his ethnicity, and won’t take crap from anyone. But he’s also got a heart of gold.

Then there’s Laverne Hooks (Marion Ramsey), a timid woman who would be pushed over by a gust of wind. Eugene Tackleberry (David Graf) is obsessed with guns. They’re his livelihood and he doesn’t miss a chance to use them. Larvell Jones (Winslow) has one major talent and he milks it for all its worth: He can literally imitate any sound he wants to (committed to celluloid already in Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie). Adding presumed “sex appeal” to the ranks is Callahan (Leslie Easterbrook), a mannish woman who is tough and resourceful. And finally, Thaddeus Harris (G.W. Bailey), the captain who takes his job far too seriously and has a major distaste for Mahoney. Naturally, he spends most of the film looking like an ill-educated bellend.

And that is pretty much it for the plot. We are introduced to this motley crew followed by a steady stream of comedic scenarios, some of which seem hopelessly tame today. Directed with little flair by Hugh Wilson, the film is hardly a technical tour de force. Instead, the filmmaker allows the cast to make the material tick along, and despite a mostly lethargic pace, Police Academy just about works. It was obviously a major success in 1984 and I can understand why. It has a real delight in making authority seem ignorant and sloppy. It embodies the feeling of every decade; that the government shouldn’t be trusted, and it’s a notion emphasised by Mahoney. Guttenberg’s role is the best of the series, a fitting mantle considering he has the lead part here. He’s delightfully anti-establishment, loves trouble, and has a fair share of one-liners. The rest are playing broad stereotypes in comparison, yet it is mildly disappointing when Mahoney becomes the thing he hated – an upstanding officer of the law. But whilst he provides some good moments, Mahoney is also the kind of person you’d absolutely loathe in real-life.

The screenplay by Neal Israel, Pat Proft and Wilson is mostly shambolic in execution, but also well-suited to the characters. There are some unexpectedly funny moments peppered throughout. Who could forget such “classic” skits like Larvell simulating gunfire in the busy police station? Or Tackleberry’s out-of-control moment on the firing range? Or even the recurring joke of the Blue Oyster bar, where two hetero officers meet their opposites? Police Academy is out-dated on so many levels that it almost becomes endearing.

There are even some surprises to these modern eyes. I had totally forgotten about Kim Cattrall’s involvement. Seen here as Mahoney’s love interest, the pre-Sex and the City starlet looks positively sizzling in Police Academy. And there is even a nod towards racism in the Force. Yes, you did read that right! As the impossibly-quiet Laverne fails a driving test, a racial slur is uttered. Hightower then tips the police car over in anger like a lost scene from The Incredible Hulk TV series. Such a moment would have washed over me a child, and anything resembling a natural human reaction in Police Academy is like expecting one from the shadow cabinet. But I feel like I’m reading into this too much already.

An exceedingly minor childhood memory, the original Police Academy remains gentle viewing, enlivened by a few enjoyable sequences. The under-the-podium gag, the horse scene, and the gratuitous campfire nudity are all present and correct. Add Robert Folk’s memorable theme music, and this isn’t anywhere near as foul as you remember.

If you remember it at all.

Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985)


A year later, the beancounters at Warner Bros. followed-up their surprise success with the obligatory sequel. This time, the characters would hit the streets as officers – surely a bad idea in anyone’s book! It was also a bad idea to make the film anyway. Only producer Paul Maslansky returned to make the film, so the creative reigns fell to new director Jerry Paris, and writers Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield. While Their First Assignment is far from the worst of the series, it lacks the warmth of its predecessor and has only a quarter of the gags that hit the mark. There is some fun to be had, but even this early in the series, the laughs are thin on the ground…

Just like the original, the plot is scarce. A new gang has moved into the city, operated by the manic Zed (Bobcat Goldthwait, in his first of three appearances). Naturally, only the police force can stop them. Yeah, that’s it.

Police Academy 2 was certainly a quickie in terms of production. It was also cheaper than its predecessor, without sacrificing the bulk of the cast. G.W. Bailey is absent this time around, replaced by the similar Art Metrano, who fills Lt. Mauser with a familiar hatred of Mahoney. The pair, inevitably, oppose each other throughout. Apart from Zed’s gang rampaging through the streets, this is pretty much the same film as the original, with some limp sub-plots thrown in. For instance, the gung-ho Tackleberry falls in love with his new partner, Sgt. Kirkland (Colleen Camp), a decent addition to the formula one might say, but it fails to go anywhere interesting. Also disheartening is the treatment of Bubba Smith’s Hightower. He mumbles about three lines in the entire film. A waste of a character people actually liked first time around. But, most importantly, the film is excruciating for long stretches of celluloid, and only one action scene lingers in the memory: The accidental destruction of a jewellery store, as Tackleberry hits the crime scene. Literally.

The reason this film holds together at all is still Guttenberg, even though he’s so smug here. And due to his rising popularity in 1985, this film is literally dominated by Mahoney… more so than part one. Paris and the writers spend so much time giving their lead things to do that the rest of the “Academy” amount to elongated cameos. He has become the Kermit to their Muppet troupe. Still, Guttenberg tries his absolute best and makes the most of the reheated humour. If only he’d said no to more sequels, his career might have been salvaged.

Oh, and while it’s cool to like Goldthwait now, for his rather impressive indie films, he’s utterly and completely aggravating as Zed. He’s like listening to a chipmunk in a blender to the Sex Pistols.

Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986)

Probably the best sequel in the series, and that’s really faint praise, Back in Training was also helmed by Paris who passed away in the same year. A mild improvement on part two, it gets things back to basics by referencing the original throughout. Yep, the boys are back at the Academy! While the laughs are still few and far between, there is something oddly compelling about this instalment that makes it a step up from cinematic herpes.

The late Paris had certainly improved in the year since his previous effort. Back in Training boasts a better pace and the script is certainly more crafted; it was probably done on an actual word processor this time and not a series of hastily strewn post-its. Once more, there’s no specific plot to really grapple with, and since it mirrors the first film ever so closely, there aren’t many surprises. The core cast reunite (still minus Bailey), and they’re still enthusiastic about their roles. Though Guttenberg takes centre-stage once again, Back in Training introduced a new onslaught of cadets. There’s Asian exchange student Nogata (Brian Tochi), who falls hopelessly in love with Callahan. We also discover that Tackleberry has a brother-in-law, Bud Kirkland (Andrew Paris), a forgettable character that managed to slip into the next film, too. Causing friction through the ranks is Metrano who returns as Mauser. The most perplexing development, though, is Zed who switches sides and becomes a cadet. He brings Sweetchuck (Tim Kazurinsky) along for the ride – the jewellery store owner he harassed previously. Zed’s meaningless droning, coupled with Sweetchuck’s nervous geek, redefine the term “odd couple.”

Also watch-out for a not-so-subtle homage to Wilson’s film. Georgina Spevlin, who fans will remember as the under-the-podium hooker, once again shows up at the Academy. This time, she locks a cadet out of a hotel room while he’s naked, only for him to wander into the Blue Oyster bar. It conforms to the classic American rule of gag repetition but works nonetheless. Well, if you’re dumber than a bag of hammers and a homophobe.

Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (1987)

Citizens on Patrol marks the descent of the franchise into total meltdown, and from the first few frames, it’s a depressing puss sack that is always threatening to burst. Maslansky should take pride in the fact it generated huge international numbers, if only to prove that Europeans can also make irrational decisions that border on treason. Though, judging by Citizens on Patrol, it is a little hard to understand the continued appeal. The first three are Blake Edwardian masterpieces next to this muddled mess. However, that might be too harsh since it isn’t the bottom of the barrel (yeah, we haven’t got to the worst yet). This one is all about that studio greed I mentioned earlier. It’s layered so thick that it kills the comedy and buries it under the patio. Its cinema-by-numbers, and by this point, the formula had its own Idiot guide.

This time, Lassard develops a new scheme – C.O.P. (Citizens on Patrol), which allows any member of the public to assist the police force in their efforts. This could have made way for utter chaos, with the city exploiting this new scheme for something unethical. But the script doesn’t go in that direction, instead focusing on Harris’ efforts to foil Lassard’s plan. So, this is exactly the same as the other films, although the return of Bailey to the fold was treated like the second coming of Christ to fans. He’s the usual gruff law-enforcer he always was, but Bailey is put in the dark by Goldthwaite and Kazurinski, who are the only worthwhile protagonists here. Even Guttenberg looks bored and who could blame him? This ship is sinking slower than the James Cameron Titanic.

Director Jim Drake doesn’t even try. I imagine him like Gus Van Sant in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, endlessly counting one hundred dollar bills. Part four has no life, no reason for existing. If you must see it, it’s worth noting that Sharon Stone has a pre-Basic Instinct performance as one of Mahoney’s love interests. But I’ll understand if that turns you against the film even more. Also memorable (for all the wrong reasons) is the “action” set piece that is only humorous unintentionally. Seeing the Academy huddled inside a hot air balloon might have sounded good on paper, but in reality, you hope for them to go down in a fiery demise.

Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach (1988)

With the series now a staple of mediocrity akin to the works of Tracey Emin, Warners trudged on regardless with the fifth chapter. Assignment Miami Beach adds some new strings to the bow, but it is still the same old formula stretched over ninety hernia-inducing minutes. The setting is a nice change of pace, yet all the sunshine in the world couldn’t make a Xeroxed script and faxed-in direction seem adequate.

As the story begins, we realise that Captain Harris is happy. Makes a change. It appears that Lassard has reached retirement age, resulting in the Captain’s promotion. For his body of work, the Academy award Lassard with the “Policeman of the Year” mantle at the Miami Beach convention. However, smiles soon fade away when Lassard is kidnapped by a group of crooks in search of their lost diamonds. Though it is clear director Alan Meyerson wanted to bring some new ingredients to this stodgy mix, the results are decidedly tragic. Hardly anything works; the jokes fall flat consistently as if overseen by the Gestapo, the pace is non-existent to the point of creating a black void in time and space, and the absence of Guttenberg nails the coffin lid shut. The cast go through the motions as if puppeteers are operating them from beneath the screen (yeah, I’m gonna run that Muppets comparison into the ground).

If I were you, skip directly to David Graf’s ever-eccentric Tackleberry, since he gets some new firepower to play with. Also decent is the interaction of Harris and Proctor (Lance Kinsey), who clearly realise they are in a comedy and actually try to raise some laughs, the noble bastards. Watching Miami Beach is like getting sand in your butt-crack.

Police Academy 6: City Under Siege (1989)

More successful than Assignment Miami Beach is the sixth chapter, City Under Siege, directed with some flair (or something dangerously resembling flair) by Peter Bonerz, whose unfortunate name is one of the many laughs during the credits. Bonerz actually seems bothered about the material, which lends this chapter some fun, fleeting though it is. The main conceit is the most commercial and a plot usually utilised for straight buddy cop pictures. This time, the city is placed on red alert after a crime wave hits the streets. Orchestrated by a mystery villain, the Academy are doing everything in their power to bring this mad man to justice! Or, to be more precise, stumbling into trouble and accidentally saving the day…

It took six movies to reach this point, but the actors have finally realised that they are in a stinker of a franchise. They seem more relaxed, safe in the knowledge that the material isn’t decent and that the film will be a hit anyway. All of the crew is here (except Mahoney, Zed and Sweetchuck), and the family vibe from working on these films is palpable. For better or worse, Police Academy was now a real-life institution. Sure, the jokes wouldn’t make a virgin stoner laugh and the trademark slapstick needs to be left to The Three Stooges, but it does pass as “so bad its good,” unlike many of the entries. The workable story and a collection of amusing film parodies raise it an iota above its predecessor.

Stephen J. Curwick will never be awarded for his writing but at least he gives the actors something to do, an admirable feat considering characterisation was usually an afterthought in this series. Bubba Smith finally steps up to the challenge, filling Mahoney’s vacant shoes. Hightower gets much of the best material here, followed only by Winslow, who is a major player in the film’s conclusion. His “dubbed Bruce Lee” routine is more interesting than the bulk of this picture’s humour. It’s a shame that they couldn’t end this dreaded turkey here, since the next film would be an all-time low…. even for this series.

Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (1994)

Not only is this seventh film the worst of the saga, its also the nadir of cinema. Even the racist propaganda of Birth of a Nation is less insulting. Possibly the weakest film I’ve ever inexplicably endured, Mission to Moscow was supposed to bring the franchise into the 90s with a bang, but all it did was put the horse out of its misery. The audiences who enjoyed the original entry were now grown-ups, and we’ve yet to see another chapter in the Academy journals. A blessing that we must cherish for the rest of our lives.

Director Alan Metter wastes a wonderful supporting cast – which includes Christopher Lee and Ron Perlman (???!!!) – and uses the background of Moscow to hide the sheer ineptitude of his product. It’s essentially a case of “same film, different place,” but less outwardly annoying as The Hangover 2. There isn’t really a valid reason for why the team would need to go to Moscow, either – something about the Russian Mafia controlling the world through computer games! But why on Earth would the Russian authorities call an American Police Academy for help? Yes, logic was out being raped on a pinball machine.

Quite why Perlman was drawn to this project is anyone’s guess, and he struggles to keep a straight face as the film’s Mafia heavy. Even the mighty Lee is made a fool, since he has to kiss Lassard on the lips. At least we have a bit of decent eye candy; the gorgeous Claire Forlani (Mallrats) shows up as a translator, but it’s all for nothing. Mission to Moscow is unfathomably awful, even making the regular characters seem worthless. Seen here is a sickly sweet sub-plot that has Lassard entering the home of a Russian family for some “substance,” or Captain Harris once again acting like he’s been out of the womb a few days (you’ll see him on stage as a ballerina in one sequence, or getting dog urine in his eyes in another).

No words can describe Mission to Moscow. Skin cancer would grow on you more effectively, but it does have one indisputable strength: It closed the Police Academy doors. Although threats of an eighth instalment persist (both IMDb and Wikipedia have it listed indefinitely). What a depressing way to end this article.

Fuck it… here’s Michael Winslow performing the guitar chords of “Whole Lotta Love” with his mouth.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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