After winning an Oscar for Get Out, his proposed Police Academy reboot is probably not looming large on Jordan Peele’s mind. That’s a pity, because if you strip back the Police Academy franchise to the bare roots, there’s significant if problematic American film in there. Yes, there’s a vein of slapstick which the series immediately doubled-down on for an annual family/children’s entry of notable dumb-ness, but there’s also a surprising streak of social relevance that begs for an update.
I saw Police Academy when I was still at school; my mum took me to an afternoon matinee when I wasn’t old enough to beat the certificate. The word around the playground was that this was a funny film; the benchmark was Airplane, and Police Academy was deemed to be a parody of the self-empowerment movement that was blooming with Rocky sequels and An Officer and a Gentleman. Transformation, at least according to Ronald Reagan, was in the air, and Hugh Wilson’s film posited an un-named American city where officials had eased restrictions on the nature of candidates which might join the police force. Step forward a number of green recruits, sneered at by the lazy policemen who were desperate to step on their dreams. Of course, the top echelons of the police academy are every bit as clueless at those seeking to join, and the stage is set for a specifically class conflict in which the underdogs triumph over their oppressors.
Some of the broadest slapstick of Wilson’s film grates, but there’s also some good humour; Michael Winslow, the self-styled man of 10,000 sound effects, gets a laugh in almost every scene, notably when he creates chaos in the office with the sound of flying bullets as Carey Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg) waits for his first interview. Mahoney’s introduction, part of an Altman-esque spread of character information, is also a crowd-pleaser; a disinterested parking attendant, he responds to an obnoxious, well-heeled customer by wrecking his Trans-Am in boisterous style. This class-conflict theme blossoms in the film’s later stages, when a riot breaks out (remarkably easily) amongst the city’s low-lives and the new recruits have to step up to the plate. The notion that a repressed class war has put things on edge throughout society is consistent throughout the film.
Attitudes are very much of their time here, in terms of homophobia and a general inability to comprehend women, but Police Academy’s big scene surfs a wave of sexual pranksterdom left over from Porkys and other voyeuristic teen movies; the veteran Eric Lassard (George Gaynes, between Tootsie and Vanya on 42nd Street) attempts to give a presentation from a podium, not realising that he’ll have to disguise his own sexual ecstasy while he speaks. Yes, there’s an obvious distastefulness about this gag, which recalls the worst excesses of misogyny offered by Aldrich or even Altman, but the punchline, in which Mahoney leads his superior to believe that he is responsible for performing the sexual act, is agreeably transgressive and progressive. This puts a positive spin on the celebrated Blue Oyster Club scenes in which the macho posturing of two recruits is rigorously unended via the persuasive charms of the city’s gay community, broadly drawn here to be sure.
‘What an institution,’ ran the posters as Police Academy became the biggest comedy of all time, and shorn of the infantile baggage of the sequels, there’s plenty to chew on. This is a film about the irrepressible nature of the ordinary American, and the fight against corrupt institutions that supposedly serve them. I’ve never read a positive word from critics about this film, but I enjoyed it as every bit as much in 2020 as I did in 1984, so like it or lump it, Cahiers du Cinema.