This overlooked gem offers a conservative hero who isn't the butt of the joke.
“Dragnet” may not be the ultimate ’80s comedy, but it screams 1987 in ways that were unintended and quite intriguing.
Here are the facts.
Dan Aykroyd stars as Joe Friday, the nephew of the legendary Los Angeles policeman. The new Joe Friday investigates crime in the same clenched-jawed, rapid-fire patter that made Jack Webb a television legend.
Webb played Friday in the televised “Dragnet” from 1951-59, logging in 276 episodes, before returning to the character in a 1967-70 series that racked up a total of 98 episodes. Webb died in 1982 at the age of 62. His trademark manner of speaking, in which he could make a long sentence sound like it was two words long, remains a point of fascination and tribute.
Both Aykroyd’s spot-on and spectacular performance and the film itself are a loving ode to the style of Webb’s series. It’s also a wonderful satire of police procedurals that covers some of the same ground as the brilliant “The Naked Gun” did a year later.
Aykroyd’s Friday is assigned a partner who is his total contrast- Pep Streebeck (Tom Hanks, consistently funny and displaying impressive comic timing), an undercover cop with a casual regard for the laws Friday treats as gospel.
FAST FACT: The 1987 comedy “Dragnet” earned $57 million at U.S. box office, good for 14th place that year.
A bizarre case involving a cult, a questionable televangelist (Christopher Plummer), an adult magazine mogul (Dabney Coleman, stealing every scene they give him) and a robbed zoo tests Friday and Streebeck’s partnership and offbeat friendship.
For children of the ’80s, the 1987 “Dragnet” was a summer movie event, a big highpoint in Aykroyd’s film career and one of the last great comedies Hanks made before he inched towards dramatic work and acclaimed superstardom that far outshined his “Turner & Hooch” era.
They Want Their MTV!
While it was a parody of both the beloved, no-nonsense Webb series and cop movies, “Dragnet” also connected to the MTV audience. During the MTV Premiere Party special, both original series and ’87 “Dragnet” star Harry Morgan was interviewed, while Aykroyd was filmed busily making burgers at the Hard Rock Cafe after-screening event.
Then there was the “City of Crime” music video, which became a medium-sized hit and MTV staple. The clip featured Aykroyd and Hanks rapping in character and dancing to moves choreographed by Paula Abdul. It was all meant in good fun. Seen today, it’s cheesier than an entire season of “Bosom Buddies.”
While “Dragnet” is the second film bearing the name of the series to appear in theaters, it’s the first true adaptation (as opposed to being an episode that was extended to play in movie houses). While there were four “Star Trek” films distributed by the time “Dragnet” came into theaters, it’s still one of the earliest examples of 20th century TV adaptations, aimed at baby boomer-aged audiences and their teenagers.
Not long after “Dragnet” would arrive and hit big, everything from “The Addams Family,” “Car 54, Where Are You?,” “Leave It To Beaver,” “McHale’s Navy” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” would all become motion pictures, to wildly varying degrees of success.
This isn’t even taking into account several examples of TV movie reboots of “The Munsters,” “Dobie Gillis” and “Get Smart.”
Oddly enough, as of this writing, we have yet to see “Gilligan’s Island” movie, though I digress.
Now, in light of classic TV (“Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone”) and late 20th century TV (fare like “The X-Files: Fight The Future” and “Miami Vice”) going from a square box to the silver screen, it’s no longer an anomaly to see this progression (or the opposite, as “M.A.S.H.” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” began as movies and evolved backwards to television).
The Jack Webb-starring series ran for over seven years and remains a pop culture touchstone but is so antiquated, I wonder if a new feature film adaptation would make young audiences simply remember the property when it starred Aykroyd and Hanks.
An intriguing component is the villain, Reverend Jonathan Whirley, a popular TV preacher who leads a double life as a political power player and the secret priest of the evil cult, “P.A.G.A.N.” (more on them later).
Ripped from 1987 Headlines
On the surface, Whirley (who Plummer portrays with visible glee) is an inspiring religious leader and the head of “Moral Advanced Movement of America” (also known as “M.A.M.A.”). The character is limited, as he’s all mustache twirling and sinister glances; if there was a scene where Plummer gave a monolog explaining exactly why Whirley needs a TV gig as a cover for his P.A.G.A.N. role and what he hopes to accomplish, it didn’t make the final cut.
Nevertheless, the portrait of a respected, trusted and highly influential religious figure, becoming known for a shocking behavior and dubious secrets, was very spot on; the widely reported scandals surrounding televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart occurred during and after the release of “Dragnet.” There are aspects of both figures in the Plummer character.
Another aspect of “Dragnet” that seems especially on the nose is the “P.A.G.A.N.” cult, in which the letters spell out “People Against Goodness and Normalcy.” While the followers are all zonked out on drugs and are depicted as buffoons, the imagery is troubling. All of the members are working class Caucasians.
Neo Nazis, Then and Now
The pageantry (namely the book burning) and the three P.A.G.A.N. flags bear a close resemblance to a Nazi rally. The comic wildness of these scenes are undercut somewhat by the reality of Neo-Nazi groups still in existence. While the criminal element of “Dragnet” is clearly intended to be humorous, their vile nature doesn’t seem implausible or, sadly, especially out of date.
Aykroyd’s gonzo imagination has its fingerprints all over this one. starting with the pleasingly odd names: Venkman, Stantz, Egon and Zeddemore, meet Pep Streebeck, Emil Muzz and The Virgin Connie Swail.
This quality also carries over into Aykroyd’s ultimately unsuccessful but fascinating failure, the 1991 “Nothing But Trouble” (the original name was “Valkenvaniaa”).
Aykroyd’s “Dragnet” script (which he co-wrote with Alan Zweibel and the director Tom Mankiewicz) displays his fascination with the occult, worlds within worlds and secret societies, though his portrait of Friday’s heroism cuts deep.
We witness Friday reading Whirley’s “American Moral Companion” magazine – clearly, discovering Whirley’s true identity is a great betrayal to Friday, who is otherwise on board with the view of L.A. as a moral cesspool.
Yet, the intriguing element that comes from the screenplay and Aykroyd’s performance is that Joe Friday is absolutely a conservative. He’s also the hero of the piece, not Streebeck. While Friday’s inability at casual interaction and other character traits are criticized by Hanks’ character, Streebeck and everyone in the film who truly knows Friday loves him.
It’s this quality that makes this so good. There’s no condescending to the character, at the screenplay level or otherwise. Friday is truly a square, a stickler for details and, hilariously, the perfect match for The Virgin Connie Swail. He’s also the anti-P.A.G.A.N., a morally righteous police officer with genuine zeal for law enforcement and protecting the innocent.
A Long Overdue Treatment (In HD, No Less)
The new Shout Factory “Dragnet [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]” is one of the those Collector’s Edition discs I never thought I’d get to see and am grateful it exists. It features a commentary from pop culture historian Russell Dyball (who also provided a commentary on Aykroyd’s “Doctor Detroit”), an interview with Alexandra Paul (whose performance as Swail is a charmer) and promotional features from the film’s release.
Considering what a scrappy jewel the movie is and how its release has been sandwiched on the same disc as “The Money Pit” and “The ‘Burbs” for ages, it’s a treat to see this receive a release that invites overdo retrospection.
Coming out the same season as “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “RoboCop” “The Untouchables” and “Lethal Weapon,” the goofy mayhem of “Dragnet” is TV-sized and small scale in comparison to its competition. It’s also light on special effects, which is why scenes of a tank destroying a milk factory and a big shoot out around a bonfire have an old school, CGI-free kick.
Outside of “Splash,” Hanks’ pre-“Big” vehicles don’t get much love. That’s unfortunate. His work here is among his funniest. For Aykroyd, whose subsequent film choices were all over the map, this is a major highlight, as his Friday is a no mere Webb impersonation but a fully fleshed out character.
The biggest hit of 1987 was “Three Men and a Baby,” a durable farce to be sure, but it lacked Aykroyd and Hanks diving into a pool to save the Virgin Connie Swail from a giant snake. “Dragnet” is pretty silly but it’s much funnier and even smarter than you might remember.