“Kicking buttski! Making you laughski! The Academy is backski!”
With a tagline like that, what could go wrong, right?
Arguably the most disliked of the deservedly maligned Police Academy series of movies is the last. Mission To Moscow is, to date, the final entry in the series, and by the time the final cut was locked, even Warner Bros. lost confidence in the film, giving it a miniscule release. As such, it didn’t even gross $150,000 at the US box office.
In short, Police Academy: Mission To Moscow killed the series, even though talks continue about a remake. But of all the Police Academy films, did it deserve to be the fatal bullet? For some reason presumably related to drink/coffee/lack of sleep, I had a sudden urge to rewatch the film and find out.
Full disclosure: I say rewatch, but I turned it off after half an hour the first time I tried to watch this one, and I’m the person who paid to see four different Police Academy sequels at the cinema. As it turns out, Police Academy: Mission To Moscow is a fascinating mess. It’s piss-poor, obviously, but it’s the only piss-poor comedy I know of that was filmed in the midst of a Russian uprising. That has to count for something.
Had politics and history taken a different turn, then it wouldn’t have taken seven films for the Police Academy film series to make it to Russia. Producer Paul Maslansky had originally wanted Police Academy 6 to head to Moscow, under the subtitle Operation Glasnost. But his plans were foiled by the less than savoury relations between the US and Russia at the time, and he couldn’t get permission in the late ’80s to film in Russia.
Thus, Police Academy 6 became City Under Siege, and Mission To Moscow wouldn’t follow until five years later, in 1994. In its own way, it would be a cultural breakthrough, given that it was one of the first American films to shoot on Russian soil. Furthermore, it features filming in Red Square, and scenes of the Bolshoi Ballet. I strongly suspect that the Russian authorities did not get script approval, or that the boxset of the previous films had been held up at customs. It seems odd that a Police Academy film would be at the heart of such a cultural union. But it was.
What’s more, it had been a film we’d had to wait for. In modern day parlance, Mission To Moscow is a sequel so relatively belated (given that the Police Academy films had regularly arrived a year apart to that point) it would be classed as some form of reboot or wry, tongue-in-cheek belated follow-up. But that’s absolutely not the case here. Instead, it’s basically less of the same.
For the most part, the six Police Academy films before this were a mix of minimal location shooting, and mainly studio work. Mission To Moscow presented real challenges to the budget though, given the intention to film in Russia.
As such, the vast bulk of the cast got the flick, presumably to keep costs down (plus, to help pay for Christopher Lee).
Originally, George Gaynes, Michael Winslow, the late David Graf, Leslie Easterbrook and the late Bubba Smith got the nod to return. However, Smith dropped out of the film when he was informed that his good friend Marion Ramsey (Hooks) wouldn’t be returning. When he queried this with the producers, and was told her character wouldn’t be returning, Smith quit the movie. As a consequence, G W Bailey’s Captain Harris was written in at the last minute.
That’s one reason why things in Police Academy: Mission To Moscow have a bit of a last minute, bodged together feel. Because it was a bit last minute, and bodged together. But the other was the fact that the production was filming in Russia, at the point where violent political conflict was breaking out.
For while the Police Academy team was in the country, the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis was happening. This resulted in ten days of street fighting in Moscow, with tanks shelling Boris Yeltsin’s White House. Some of the damage is visible in the final cut of the movie (right near the end). As the Russian president and parliament fought, the Police Academy team were wondering how they were going to get the shots they needed for their movie. Sequences had to be very quickly rearranged to accommodate the violence that was breaking out around the production.
It would be fair to say this was not an easy shoot.
To the film’s credit, it did have a not-terrible idea at the heart of it, one that in some ways was a little ahead of its time. The central conceit is that a videogame is taking over the world. It’s titled The Game, and it’s introduced in the film’s first scene, where we see a news co-anchor playing said title on a Nintendo Game Boy.
Alas, it takes seconds for the film’s first misstep, as the Game Boy cartridge slot is clearly empty. Furthermore, we get teased screenshots of The Game later in the film, and it looks, well, shit. Quite possibly the most uninteresting videogame – either real or fake – that we’ve ever seen. Nonetheless, the residents of the Police Academy world liked it, and we’re duly informed that The Game has taken over the world, and has grossed $1.5 billion.
”This is the first time that a videogame has appealed to both a youthful, as well as an older, more sophisticated market,” one of the news anchors tell us. As a predictor of the future, Mission To Moscow is close to the money. Well, in some regards.
Turns out though that The Game is Hellboy’s fault. Ron Perlman has subsequently boasted that his turn in Mission To Moscow was a public service that helped bring down the Police Academy series, and to be fair, his role as Russian mafia powerhouse Konstantin Konali doesn’t really have you desiring a spin-off for the character. As you might expect, though, he’s not that high on the list of the film’s problems.
It seems folly to stare slackjawed at the plot, for instance, but how can you help it? The Russian mafia is distributing a Game Boy and PC game, that’s taking over the world. And for reasons known only to the people who wrote the script, Christopher Lee ends up asking for five recruits from the Police Academy to get on a plane and find out what’s happening. Of all the people he could have called in the world?
Even as a piece of internal logic, it’s challenging. Naturally enough though, it’s a Police Academy sequel, and a later one at that. Thus, finding a laugh is the equivalent to picking up a very tough Where’s Wally book. Even funny noise man seems to be running out of funny noises, although I’m still a fan.
Anyway, the Academy’s finest end up being Sgt Jones (of the aforementioned noises), Sgt Tackleberry (of the guns), Cmdt Lassard (of the Commandant’s office), Capt Callahan (of the ass-kicking) and Capt Harris (of the hang on now he’s a surveillance expert). The team is rounded out by Charlie Schaltter, introduced as Cadet Connors. Or: he’s the replacement for the man (Matt McCoy) who replaced Steve Guttenberg. Telling, that.
The film wastes little time, getting the team to Russia quicker than A Good Day To Die Hard managed to get Bruce Willis to Moscow. Unfortunately, the two films have more than that in common, as both managed to make around an hour and a half feel like a whole lot longer. Christopher Nolan, if he wanted to try and explain the theory of relativity again, could do worse than pick up a few copies of the two movies on DVD.
It’s no surprise that I’m going to conclude that Mission To Moscow is not a good film, but then conversely, I can’t ever say I was outright bored. Also, I still reckon that Assignment Miami Beach is as bad as the Police Academy films got. At least in Mission To Moscow there are things to keep an eye out for.
There’s Ron Perlman pulling this face for a start….
Plus, the late, great Christopher Lee does indeed prove that even in a bad movie, he’s always watchable. He doesn’t get much screentime, but along with Perlman, he’s worth waiting for.
And then an early role for Claire Forlani, doing a Russian accent that I suspect she may be better at now.
But also, there’s a fascinating mishmash of ambition in the production, married up to the harsh budget realities of needing to shoot most of the film in interiors that look like they were set up in a pokey warehouse.
When the movie does make use of its Russian setting, it’s better. But even so, utilising the Bolshoi Ballet for a cringe-inducing comedy sequence that sees Captain Harris dressed as a ballerina is not a good move. Ballet is ripe for comedy lampooning – just look at the peerless Top Secret! for evidence – but here, it’s tired within seconds of the sequence beginning.
Furthermore – appreciating I’m double-bagging the point – The Game, and its planned sequel, Boris Bear, is clearly awful. I remember once upon a time saving up some tokens from Weetabix boxes, and sending off for a special Weetabix ZX Spectrum game. It was a crappy Space Invaders clone called Weetabix Vs The Titchies, and I remember the disappointment that my tokens hadn’t gone towards something better. But even so, I reckon it could take The Game. It really does feel as though 90 percent of the effort here went into 10 percent of the film.
Director Alan Metter – who takes an “A Film By” credit at the start of Mission To Moscow, just so we can recognize his style – disowned the film by the time it was released. His argument was that Paul Maslansky, reportedly a very hands-on producer, meddled too much with the final cut, and insisted on more slapstick humour. Metter, however, was looking to make a film that focused more on the cultural differences between America and Russia. Neither got what they wanted.
Is it a disaster though? Not really. In our recent interview with Chris Weitz, the Cinderella and Star Wars: Rogue One screenwriter argued that “it’s really hard to make a film that people hate,” and he’s right. Too many underwhelming films are just that: movies that fall down a hole, to be forgotten for all time. Ironically, by this being a Police Academy film, it’s likely to be seen more, that an association with a poor franchise is better than nothing at all.
Furthermore: I still think Michael Winslow, he of the funny noises, is a genius. I wouldn’t necessarily pay for him to read the phonebook, but I’d happily listen to his rendition of someone throwing said phonebook through a window, it in turn causing a bus to swerve, which then sets off a water sprinkler, which then sets off a bevy of car alarms.
But it’s just flat. In fact, Homer Simpson pretty much nails it in far fewer words than I’ve used…
Police Academy: Mission To Moscow would send the series into a near-permanent hibernation, save for irregular stories of a full-on reboot that’d bring back the original cast. But still: even if the story of it in front of the camera is hardly compelling, behind the scenes makes for a far more intriguing one…