The Timeless Buffoonery of The Naked Gun

We take a look back at 1988's The Naked Gun, its timeless brand of comedy, and Leslie Nielsen's superb performance...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Detective Frank Drebin’s outside his Los Angeles police precinct, squeezing off shots into the receding backside of his own car.

How this came to happen almost defies description. Having driven his Ford Crown Victoria into a couple of bins outside the building, Drebin stumbles out, seemingly oblivious to the airbags going off inside. One airbag knocks the car into drive and off the vehicle goes, almost running Drebin over as it rumbles downhill.

As an orchestrated bit of comedy cinema, it’s the knockabout equivalent of the famous scene in The Untouchables, where Brian De Palma expertly wrings every drop of suspense from a baby carriage thudding down a flight of stairs at a train station.

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On the spur of the moment, Drebin comes to the conclusion that there’s a criminal at the helm of his car, so he starts shooting at it. A startling ball of flame belches from the trunk, sending the boot lid roaring down the street. Then the car trips over a fire hydrant, leaving a geyser of water in its wake.

Bystanders are running all over the place. Some of them are screaming. In the midst of all the chaos, Drebin remains calm, even as the gradual realization dawns in his eyes that he, once again, is the eye of the storm in this latest disaster.

The entire scene is over in less than a minute, but within it you’ll find everything that makes David Zucker’s 1988 comedy The Naked Gun such a classic. It’s that perfect mix of one error leading to another, like falling dominos or a snowball gathering momentum. Like the best moments elsewhere in the film, and in Zucker’s other movies like Airplane! and Top Secret!, it mixes believable physical impact with outrageous absurdity.

We all know that air bags down behave as they do in The Naked Gun, slowly inflating like barrage balloons until they’re bulging suggestively from the rolled-down windows. We know that the backs of cars don’t explode into flames when shot. But none of this matters, because there, in the midst of it all, is Leslie Nielsen.

Beautifully staged though Naked Gun‘s car scene is, it’s Nielsen who’s the lynchpin as Frank Drebin. Nielsen’s performance is so perfect because he plays the role of the clumsy, clueless detective almost entirely straight; the situations in which Drebin finds himself may be absurd, but the character at the center of them is entirely serious.

Look at the way Nielsen carries himself as he walks down the hill to the police station, unaware of the two-tonne car closing in behind him. The way Nielsen plays it, Drebin could be any ageing, slightly pompous detective from a ’60s or ’70s TV show – the stuff Zucker and his writers are cheerfully lampooning. When Drebin starts blasting away at the car with his six shooter, his expression and stance are straight out of one of the old TV favorites like TJ Hooker.

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This is Drebin in a nutshell: he’s an anachronism, a detective who’s unaware of how out of time (and out of his depth) he really is.

The Naked Gun arrived towards the end of what had been a creatively fruitful time for Zucker and Nielsen. It all began with Airplane! in 1980, a febrile parody of old disaster movies. Along with his creative partners Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, who co-directed as well as co-wrote, David Zucker created a true comedy classic – a marriage of the painfully earnest, the slapstick, the puerile and the downright weird.

The filmmaking trio’s masterstroke was in casting straight actors rather than comedy stars. Robert Stack, who played Captain Kramer, was most widely remembered for his work on The Untouchables TV series. Lloyd Bridges had been a staple of TV and film since the 1930s. Peter Graves had previously appeared in things like Mission: Impossible and Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17, and initially resisted playing the role of the creepy pilot, Captain Clarence Oveur.

Then there was Leslie Nielsen, who was best known for his leading role in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, and as one of several doomed characters in Irwin Allen’s watery 1972 disaster movie, The Poseidon Adventure. In Airplane!, Nielsen played Dr Rumack, the physician who concludes that his fellow passengers – including the pilots – have been stricken by a vicious bout of food poisoning.

It’s a wonderful performance from Nielsen; he delivers such immortal lines as “Don’t call me Shirley” and, “You can tell me, I’m a doctor,” with perfect deadpan smoothness. There’s an effortless quality to his timing; a sublime collision of the authoritarian and the childlike. Part of the brilliance in casting Nielsen is that, like Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves, Nielsen could – and sometimes did – appear in the kinds of straight-facedly silly films Airplane! is parodying.

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Two years later, and along came Frank Drebin. A detective with a heart of gold and a brain of wood, Drebin emerged fully-formed as an immediately recognizable comic creation; take away the zany lines and sight-gags in the short-lived TV show Police Squad!, and Drebin could have fit right into one of the police procedural shows that were so popular on American TV just a decade or so earlier.

It’s weird to think that, even after the colossal success of Airplane!, Police Squad! ran for just six episodes before it was cancelled by ABC in 1982. Nevertheless, Police Squad! successfully applied the Airplane! approach to the cop show formula, ruthlessly subverting and sending up every cliché or overused idea from old, deadly-serious series like Dragnet.

read more: Why Airplane 3 Never Happened

After its cancellation, Police Squad! became a cult favorite thanks to its rapid-fire jokes, where every line or action set up or paid off another gag. This led to The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad, which revived Drebin for a feature-length adventure with an all-star supporting cast.

Like Airplane!, which lifted its plot (and the exclamation mark in its title) wholesale from the 1957 film Zero Hour!, The Naked Gun borrows some of its story from Don Siegel’s 1977 thriller, Telefon. A crooked, unfeasibly wealthy businessman named Ludwig (an urbane Ricardo Montalban) plots to use hypnosis to turn an otherwise ordinary person into an assassin – his target: a visiting Queen Elizabeth II. Naturally, Detective Frank Drebin’s on the case – though his bumbling nature could wind up causing more harm than good.

That simple plot is, of course, a coat hanger for a string of gags and extraordinary comic set-pieces. Not all of them necessarily hit the mark, but when they do, like the one mentioned above, the results are quite astounding.

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The Naked Gun also features one of the most surprising cameos in ’80s cinema.

In a now famous scene, where Drebin gets in the back of a learner driver’s car and commands them to chase the escaping villain. The driving instructor’s played by none other than John Houseman, who collaborated with Orson Welles on his legendary War Of The Worlds radio broadcast, and worked with Welles again on the production of Citizen Kane – one of his jobs was to keep screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz sober long enough to complete a draft of the script.

Houseman also won an Oscar for his role in The Paper Chase (1973), and appeared in such films as Three Days Of The Condor and Rollerball (both 1975). Along with Scrooged and Bright Lights, Big City, The Naked Gun was one of Houseman’s last film roles – and in a strange sort of ways, it’s quite perfect. Once again, Zucker casts a straight actor in a comic role, which only makes his grave, precise utterance of the line, “Now extend your middle finger” all the funnier.

It’s another example of the “domino effect” style of comedy Abrahams and the Zuckers perfected in The Naked Gun. Yet another instance is the early scene where OJ Simpson (before he became famous for all the wrong reasons) is shot by bad guys and then stumbles into a series of increasingly painful situations: falling against a freshly-painted door, landing face-first in a wedding cake, stepping in a man trap, and so on.

It isn’t a particularly sophisticated type of comedy, granted, which often means that the brilliance of its execution is easily overlooked. Leslie Nielsen’s performance as Drebin was never nominated for an Oscar, nor were the filmmakers working behind the camera. Yet The Naked Gun‘s slapstick humor has a timeless quality that is absent from more “high-brow” comedy that is more keyed into the social mores of its day. 

Sure, there are things in The Naked Gun that probably wouldn’t make it to the screen today, including an opening fight scene with some of the 1980s’ more infamous political leaders (the film was banned in Iran because of this scene – these days, it would probably start a war).

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But in its strongest moments, The Naked Gun remains evergreen; you don’t have to know about ’60s cop shows to find Drebin’s encounter with a priceless pen and an angry “Japanese fighting fish” amusing. The sight of Drebin’s car rolling down a hill and terrorising the public doesn’t require any historical context. Nielsen’s turn as the hapless, hopeless detective is as funny as it was in 1988.

To a lesser extent, The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) and Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994) had the same quality too, largely thanks to Nielsen’s presence, who remained reliably great even as the gags grew ever more scattershot. Nielsen passed away in 2010, taking away his dry screen persona with him. Ed Helms is reportedly playing Drebin in a new incarnation of the character – a casting choice which seems to run counter to the whole notion of putting a stern-faced man in absurd circumstances.

Whatever form the new Naked Gun film takes, the original’s comic strength remains undiminished. Like the slapstick comedies of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, The Naked Gun‘s buffoonery is utterly timeless.