What an Institution!


This post is part of Forgotten Films’ 1984-a-Thon, a series of posts that celebrates the films of 1984. Check out more 1984-ness at The Forgotten Films Blog.

Whenever I sit down to review a movie, I inevitably find myself doing a mental, one-sentence review.  “It’s cute,” “Wow, this is really gory,” or “This could have been half an hour shorter” are common ones that come to mind.  When I finished watching Police Academy for the first time since the late 1980s, I thought, “This got six sequels?”

This got six sequels.

A comedy starring Steve Guttenberg, Eighties comedy hottie Kim Cattrall, and a cast of silly misfits, Police Academy actually made $81 million and was the sixth highest grossing film of 1984, which is amazing considering the top five were (in order): Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, and The Karate Kid.  But unlike those other films, which all have a timelessness to them (even Beverly Hills Cop, which is clearly an Eighties movie), Police Academy has not aged well.  Or maybe that’s an inaccurate assessment and it simply hasn’t grown up with me.

For a movie that is rated R, Police Academy‘s humor seems to be more directed to the late elementary/middle school set, which makes sense because I loved this movie when I was about eleven or twelve years old (confession: I loved Police Academy 3: Back in Training because of the jetski chase at the end) and that was around the time when I discovered dirty jokes and sex humor but before the days where I really understood it.  The movie’s premise is simple:  the mayor of a large city (presumably Toronto Los Angeles) has opened up enrollment in the police academy to the average citizen, which means that every last klutz and moron now has the chance to become a cop.  Cary Mahoney (Guttenberg) is more or less sentenced to the academy after getting in trouble for the umpteenth time (a customer at the parking lot where he works insists on having his car parked despite the lot being full, so Mahoney turns it on its side and parks it that way) instead of going to jail because police captain Reed was friends with Mahoney’s father, who was also a cop.

We also meet our other potential defenders of the law:

  • Karen Thompson (Kim Cattrall):  Mahoney’s love interest and serious female police candidate.
  • Moses Hightower (Bubba Smith):  Exceptionally tall florist.
  • Leslie Barbara (Donovan Scott): Constantly bullied proprietor of a Fotomat-type store.
  • Doug Fackler (Bruce Mahler):  Complete klutz.
  • George Martín (Andrew Rubin): Resident lothario.
  • Laverne Hooks (Marion Ramsey):  Woman with soft, high, squeaky voice.
  • Larvell Jones (Michael Winslow):  Guy who can imitate any sound effect.
  • Eugene Tackleberry (David Graf):  Security guard and psychotic gun nut.
The theatrical release poster for Police Academy, which was drawn by famed poster artist Drew Struzman

The theatrical release poster for Police Academy, which was drawn by famed poster artist Drew Struzman

Oh, it’s a motley crew that’s destined to get into hijinks and that’s basically what happens, mainly because the police academy is run by Commandant Eric Lassard (George Gaynes), who is just about as absent minded as his recruits.  The conflict comes when the chief of police, who hates the mayor’s idea of open enrollment, asks Lieutenant Harris (F.W. Bailey) to ensure that none of the misfits actually graduate.  In order to do this, Harris recruits Copeland and Blankes (Scott Thomson and Brant van Hoffman) to sabotage Mahoney and his friends’ chances.

The rest of the film is more or less a series of gags until a final action/comedy sequence when the recruits are sent downtown to handle a riot and wind up saving the day.  Mahoney repeatedly tries to get himself kicked out of the academy until he falls for Karen and decides to stay.  Jones uses his sound effects mouth to fake everyone out.  George beds just about every woman until he finds his one true equal, the enormous-breasted Sgt. Callahan (Leslie Easterbrook).  Tackleberry wants to mow down everything in his path.  And we get the first appearance of one of the more famous gags from the Police Academy series:  Copeland and Blankes are given a fake address to the party that Mahoney is throwing and that address winds up being a gay bar named the Blue Oyster.  I didn’t find myself laughing very often, to be honest.  But I am not going to spend the next few paragraphs crapping all over the film because … well, that would be way too easy.  After all, Police Academy and its six sequels–Their First Assignment, which introduced series mainstay Bobcat Goldthwait; Back in Training; Citizens on Patrol, which was Guttenberg’s last film in the series and also starred Sharon Stone; Assignment Miami Beach, City Under Siege, and the direct-to-video Mission to Moscow–are kind of the standard-bearers of the badness found in Eighties comedies.  Instead, I’m going to give you five great things about Police Academy, even thirty years after its release …

1. The legacy of Steve Guttenberg.  This may be a stretch, but I have a feeling that without Carey Mahoney, we may not have gotten Zack Morris.  Okay, that’s just me projecting my Saved By the Bell fixation on a movie that came out a good four or five years earlier than the show and it’s clear that Ferris Bueller was more of a directly influence on the Zackster than Mahoney.  But Guttenberg’s portrayal of the smart-assed trickster is important because it proved the bankability of a relatable main character who was more attractive than some famous comedians out there but was not a matinee idol.  We’ve been getting those guys for years since.

2. F.W. Bailey as Captain Harris.  There’s so much about Police Academy that is derivative, with elements of National Lampoon’s Animal House and Private Benjamin, and Bailey’s Captain Harris character is definitely no exception.  I see a little bit of Dean Wormer in him and definitely bits of Ted Knight’s Judge Smails.  In fact, Bailey has the same sort of slow burn as Ted Knight, but brings a little bit more to it, with more of a pursed-lipped face than a descent into mania.  He plays the character as less of a villain and more of a comedic foil for someone like Mahoney and despite the film’s silliness and cheap jokes, they actually have some good chemistry.

3. Michael Winslow.  Now, the “Loud Mouth” Jones character gets real tired real quick but just like Bobcat Goldthwait in the sequels, I have to give Michael Winslow credit here because his character really is an icon of Eighties comedy.  He more or less is one of the main things anyone remembers about any of the Police Academy movies in the same way that most people will point to Curtis Armstrong’s Booger when they think of the Revenge of the Nerds films.  So even if you find his shtick annoying, props to him for making a career out of the character and his sound effects gags.

4. Eugene Tackleberry.  When I was a kid, Tackleberry was my favorite character.  Thirty years later, Tackleberry is still my favorite character.  The late David Graf plays the over-the-top gun nut with such sincerity that it’s one of the few things that still holds up (in fact, according to the film’s IMDb trivia page, “Tackleberry” is a term that private security firms often use to describe a person who is a little too enthusiastic about large firearms).  He’s perfectly intense and the other characters’ reactions to him (especially Harris, when Tackleberry produces what is quite possibly the largest handgun in the world on the firing range) are absolutely golden.  Dare I say, he makes this movie.

5. The Nostalgia Factor.  To this day, whenever I’m watching an old VHS tape and the Warner Home Video logo comes on the screen, I expect to hear the first few bars of the Police Academy theme song immediately afterwards.  This movie and its sequels hold a special place for me because they remind me of riding my bike to the video store on a regular basis and renting and re-renting all of my favorite flicks.  It was one of the first tastes of independence I had as a kid and really my first taste of comedy.  I’d eventually move on to Caddyshack, Airplane, and The Naked Gun movies, but this is where I started and I have to at least give it credit for that.

Police Academy is available on DVD and Blu-ray and can also be streamed on Amazon.