Posts Tagged ‘Steve Guttenberg’

Looking back on it now, there’s something very odd about the fact that I and my family decided to watch Hugh Wilson’s Police Academy on its British TV premiere back in 1986 (the film came out a couple of years earlier), and – with the benefit of hindsight – perhaps also something odd about the fact we enjoyed it so much. It was the TV equivalent of an impulse buy: I distinctly recall that I was on the way to bed when the commercial advertising it came on. I laughed, my sister laughed, our father laughed: then, to my amazement he asked ‘Shall we tape that?’ It was, quite properly, showing well after our bedtime, as neither of us was even a teenager at the time. I said yes, not quite able to believe what was happening (I had a similar experience over twenty years later when he suddenly went out and bought a Wii). We found a spare video tape, and…

Well, you know, the Police Academy films have taken a lot of stick for being crass and repetitive and (most damningly) not funny, but the first film is… well, it’s better than all the others, at least. At the time it had a definite frisson around it, the product of the knowledge that I was watching something a bit too old for me (this was an R rated film in the States, almost certainly a 15 in the UK). This many years on, however, revisiting it with my pretend-critic’s hat on was… interesting.

The set-up is straightforward enough, and was apparently inspired by reality: the mayor of an unnamed US city (this coyness may have something to do with the fact the film was actually made in Canada) decides to remove all barriers on who is allowed to become a police officer, leading to a vast influx of screwballs, flakes, and nutcases applying to the titular institution.

Prominent amongst their number is Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), a pathological trouble-maker who the audience is clearly intended to find roguishly charming, along with Thompson, a rich girl looking to challenge herself (an early role for Kim Cattrall, before she became a Romulan traitor and moved to New York), a giant florist (Bubba Smith), a mild-mannered overweight guy (Donovan Scott), and many others. Mahoney is here as part of a deal to keep him out of prison and can’t quit; instructor Lieutenant Harris (G. W. Bailey) is under orders to make the training process as gruelling as possible to ensure as many ‘unsuitable’ cadets walk out as he can manage. Chaos threatens to engulf the training programme as Mahoney attempts to get himself thrown out by carrying out various outrageous pranks; the personalities of many of his fellow trainees result in much oddness as well.

It is, as you can probably tell, not so much a plot as a receptacle – the temptation to say ‘dustbin’ is very strong – for throwing various gags into; much of the film has an episodic quality, a little bit like the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker films in the way it keeps the jokes coming – the principle presumably being that if one joke fails to land, the next one inevitably will. It’s not quite as relentless as Airplane! or one of the Naked Gun films, but on this occasion it just about works.

British viewers of a certain age will find it very reminiscent of one of the early Carry On films, particularly Carry On Sergeant; the premise is virtually identical, though this movie is less essentially kind-hearted. Any resemblance is most likely a trick of the light, anyway: it seems the making of Police Academy was characterised by a dogged struggle between the director and the writers and producers; Wilson trying to make the film less crass and sleazy, all the others (to quote one of them) trying to ‘keep the flatulence in’. (This is why some scenes, such as the one where Lt Harris gets his head rammed up a horse’s backside, are unexpectedly coy.) Wilson himself recalls trying to make the obligatory T&A scenes, amongst others, ‘as artistic as possible.’ There is not much sign of him having succeeded, but the film at least feels a bit more restrained than similar films of the same era like Porky’s or Bachelor Party (interesting to speculate on the direction of the parallel worlds where Tom Hanks or Bruce Willis played Mahoney; both of them were considered for the role).

This is still a very hit-or-miss film which probably derives too many of its jokes from casual racism or homophobia, and it’s very obvious that many of the characters are one-dimensional, one-joke cartoon characters. Not that it doesn’t still have its moments – David Graf’s swivel-eyed gun-nut Tackleberry is consistently amusing, and the sequence in which the academy’s commandant (a magnificently vague George Gaynes) is obliged to deliver a speech while receiving the oral attentions of a call-girl someone has concealed in his lectern manages to be funnier than it is filthy (chalk one up to Wilson’s desire to leave as much as possible implied). We can probably thank the director for the fact that some of the characters are just a little bit better drawn than you might expect, providing the occasional moment which is genuinely poignant or affirmatory.

On the other hand, some of the ensemble are just saddled with very thin material; you can see why Kim Cattrall didn’t come back, and why they got shot of counterfeit lothario George Martin (Andrew Rubin), too. However, the film’s structure may not be innovative, but it is sturdy, and the switch to a more action-plot-focused climax provides a surprisingly satisfying conclusion to the story.

Much of Police Academy is still very funny, provided you’re okay with the extremely broad humour and rather dated attitudes on display; some of it is not, of course, but the film is pacy and likeable enough to keep most viewers on board (I would have thought). The fact that it inaugurated a franchise which made over $500 million despite being largely awful (at the time of writing, half the films enjoy the uncoveted 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) is not its fault.

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Every now and then one comes across something which is a coincidence, or a sign that there are things going on in the world which one would not have expected: to wit, someone in the scheduling department at a high-numbers TV channel having either a fairly black sense of humour or fringe political views. These are the only two possible explanations for the decision to show Franklin J Schaffner’s 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil on April 20th; for this is a movie about Nazism and the date is the most significant one on any observant Nazi’s calendar. I enjoy a dubious gag as much as anyone, and probably more than most, but I find I am still crossing my fingers and hoping this was a coincidence.

Based on one of Ira Levin’s pulpy shockers, The Boys from Brazil is Lew Grade and ITC Entertainment’s answer to The Omen, which came out a couple of years earlier. One should add the important proviso that in this case the answer is close but not quite right, but at least the film-makers’ working-out is fairly obvious: take a somewhat ludicrous conspiracy thriller, prominently featuring ominous children, add Gregory Peck, various other distinguished actors, and a lavish budget, season with a little spectacular gore here and there, and away you go.

Did I say distinguished actors? One of the first well-known faces to make an appearance is that of Steve Guttenberg, who was still a semi-serious actor at this point in time (he was only 20). Guttenberg plays Barry Kohler, a young Jewish Nazi-hunter who as the story starts is monitoring the activities of various war criminals in Paraguay (James Mason and various character actors play the roles of the Nazis; Portugal plays the role of Paraguay). Who should turn up to preside over the get-together but Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck), Auschwitz’s own Angel of Death? (Yeah, yeah, I know; we’re going to talk about this, I promise.) Mengele is here to launch the next stage of a project which has been long in the works, and dispatches a squad of ruthless Nazi killers to assassinate 94 men across Europe and America; all of them are 65-year-old civil servants of different kinds (and, based on the ones we see, most of them are other well-known character actors: there’s Michael Gough, not to mention Richard Marner from Allo Allo! and Alternative 3).

Well, it turns out that Steve Guttenberg is not yet old or famous enough to make it out of the opening section of the film in one piece, and so he passes on his notes to a more distinguished Nazi hunter who provides the necessary investigating and moral outrage for the rest of the film. Yes, it’s Lord Olivier, not exactly underplaying it as relentless sleuth Ezra Lieberman (Larry seems to be practising for his Razzie Award-winning turn in The Jazz Singer), who persuades an old friend in the media (Denholm Elliott, another of those cameos that these ITC movies tend to be stuffed with) to send him details of any 65-year-old men who meet an untimely death in Europe or America. Verily, the mind doth boggle, but I suppose things were like that in the days before search engines. Credulity is stretched to its absolute limit as this actually leads Olivier to the families of three of Peck’s victims, who seem to have little in common beyond their ages, jobs, much younger wives, and freakishly identical adopted teenage sons – hang on just a cotton-picking minute here…!

There’s probably a productive discussion to be had about which is in more dubious taste, The Omen or The Boys from Brazil – I suppose it depends on whether you’re more prone to be offended by theological horror or real-world extremism. Beyond-hope materialist that I am, I’m always inclined to dismiss the various Omen films as knockabout camp of varying quality, whereas this one, for all that I do find it rather enjoyable, is arguably well over the border and into the realms of the deeply questionable. I’ve written in the past about the mini-boom in the mid-to-late 1970s for films and TV episodes concerning some kind of Nazi revival, usually centred on a resuscitated Hitler, and on that level there’s nothing particularly unusual about Boys from Brazil‘s scheme to bring back the Fuhrer. What really topples the film over into the realms of the arguably suspect is the decision to make the antagonist Mengele himself. Mengele, it is worth considering, was a real historical figure, responsible for appalling atrocities carried out in the name of science, and – and here it is only right to switch into italics – he was still alive when this movie was made. He could potentially have seen this film; God knows what he would have made of it. Regardless, turning him into a supervillain for a slightly cartoony thriller is arguably a horrible misstep, regardless of what kind of performance Gregory Peck gives (suffice to say that Peck, like Olivier, appears to have carved himself off a thick slice of ham).

The odd thing is that for an arguably nasty schlock horror-thriller, The Boys from Brazil has got some interesting ideas going on under the surface. Whatever else you want to say about it, this was one of the first mainstream movies to be based on the premise of human cloning, which may be why the sequence explaining what cloning – or ‘mononuclear reproduction’ – is goes into such detail. (It is perhaps slightly ironic that the role of the scientist who has to explain the origin of the film’s legion of cloned Hitlers is given to Bruno Ganz, who later played the dictator in Downfall.) The film even has some interesting notions about the whole nature versus nurture debate: the plot is predicated on the idea that the second-generation Hitlers won’t automatically grow up with the same sparkling personality and interesting political views as their progenitor, and so Mengele is attempting to recreate the circumstances of Hitler’s own life and family background. It makes marginally more sense than your typical SF film about clones, I suppose, as duplicates normally grow up indistinguishable from the original without any intervention whatsoever (that, or they’re irredeemably evil) – but how exactly is this going to work? How is Mengele going to give the Hitler clones the experience of fighting in and losing the First World War when they hit their late twenties? What’s the objective here? Wouldn’t it be easier just to have a dozen or so young Hitlers and have them specially educated – indoctrinated, if you like – in secret, for whatever role Mengele and his associates have in mind? Unless the idea is for a crop of new young extremist demagogues from ordinary backgrounds to appear and revolutionise the politics of the west in the early 21st century? Won’t people notice they all look the same? Especially if any of them decides that a moustache would be a good look…

Of course, this is not the only Levin tale with a plot that doesn’t really stand up to serious scrutiny, and as usual the film keeps it together, mainly thanks to the febrile outrageousness of its ideas, put across with a mostly straight face. This is a preposterous story, not just because of the cloning idea but also the contrivances required to make it function, but Peck and Olivier really go for it. One could regret the fact that the film doesn’t explore some of the more intriguing ideas arising from its premise as much as it could – are the clones really destined to become as monstrously evil as their forebear? To what extent can they be held morally culpable for the original Hitler’s actions? – and there is no genuine doubt that this is a Bad Movie, and a bad movie in really suspect taste, too. But nevertheless, I kind of enjoy it for its sheer demented conviction, the fact it makes so many barely-credible errors of judgement, and – more seriously – the way it does manage to smuggle high-concept SF ideas into an apparently mainstream thriller. This film is surely a guilty pleasure at best, but the pleasure is as genuine as the guilt.

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