Should I Watch..? Dragnet
What's the big deal?
Dragnet is an action comedy film released in 1987 which is both a parody and homage to the original Dragnet TV and radio series. Co-written by star Dan Ackroyd, the film marks the directorial debut of co-writer Tom Mankiewicz who is mostly known as a 'script fixer' in Hollywood after working on the likes of Live And Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun and Superman, among others. The project was a labour of love for Ackroyd who became obsessed with the star of the original show, Jack Webb, and often attempted to include complex and rapidly delivered dialogue in his movies in much the same way Webb used to. The film received mixed reviews on release but would go on to make a small profit.
What's it about?
LAPD detective Joe Friday, who shares the same out-of-date ideas and mannerisms as his uncle Joe, is paired up with a new more modern, streetwise partner Pep Streebeck.Their first case together is a real tester and not because of their personalities clashing - a number of petty robberies has struck the city with seemingly no link between them. There isn't any pattern to the items stolen either which include a lion's mane, a tanker full of chemicals, an anaconda snake, a wedding dress and a month's worth of pornographic magazines belonging to porn baron Jerry Caesar.
They quickly discover that Caesar's personal driver, a thug named Emil Muzz, has links to a shadowy group called PAGAN who plan on sacrificing the beautiful virgin Connie Swail in an elaborate ceremony which Friday and Streebeck interrupt. Rescuing Connie at the expense of blowing the whole investigation, the pair are running out of leads until Connie is able to identify the mysteriously masked PAGAN leader - none other than wholesome TV evangelist Reverend Jonathon Whirley...
Sgt. Joe Friday
Det. Pep Streebeck
Rev. Jonathon Whirley
Capt. Bill Gannon
Dan Ackroyd, Alan Zweibel & Tom Mankiewicz *
21st August, 1987
Action, Comedy, Crime
What's to like?
Dragnet is one of those movies in that despite its numerous flaws, you can still enjoy it much like Beverly Hills Cop II - you can watch it any number of times without getting bored of it. It has to be said that Hanks and Ackroyd save the film from tanking completely - their chemistry is good and Ackroyd's performance perfectly imitates that of his hero, Jack Webb. The story has the common sense to not just focus on the case but the lives of the two main characters who provide the majority of laughs.
But it's isn't just goofy behaviour and slapstick violence - the narration provided by both characters is a great way to illustrate how different (and how similar) they are from each other. Plummer is clearly having fun as the demented evangelist who, you wonder, possibly takes his cues from a number of other real-life personas. Of course that's mere speculation and as the film says, I should just stick to the facts. Morgan's cameo as his former character on the show is a welcome addition to the cast as is the always enjoyable Kathleen Freeman as a victim of burglary. But the film belongs to Ackroyd - he has the best lines, the best speeches and delivers the best performance.
- The TV watch that Streebeck has was a genuine article, created by Seiko in 1983. It required a separate battery-pack about the size of a Sony Walkman and could display monochrome images only.
- The house where the virgin Connie Swail lived was later used as Susan Mayer's house in the TV series Desperate Housewives. It was also used by Tom Hanks later in his movie The Burbs.
- One of many nods to the original series can be seen on Friday's desk where a pack of Chesterfield cigarettes can be seen atop a newspaper. Chesterfield was a sponsor of the original radio show and Jack Webb (the original Joe Friday) used to perform ads for them during the show.
What's not to like?
A shame, then, that his script is a poor one. There is little element of mystery to the plot besides what exactly is going on and how easily the film resolves itself. The story involves such wild caricatures that are barely recognisable, meaning that you simply don't invest in the film as much as you might. And aside from the two leads and Plummer, the rest of the cast is pretty forgettable - Paul demonstrates exactly why she would end up as just another swimsuit in Baywatch a few years later while Coleman isn't on screen long enough to make an impression. Even Hanks gets annoying after a while. The soundtrack has also been butchered by excessive synthesizer input and horrible mid-80's rapping by Ackroyd and Hanks so only the famously dramatic opening chords remain intact.
I wanted to like it more but it never feels like a quality product. Nobody gives the impression that they are giving the film their all - besides Ackroyd - so it comes across as a limp, buddy-cop movie with little cohesion and disappointing action scenes. It isn't even that funny, at least not consistently funny like Ghostbusters was. I think it should have stuck closer to the original by maintaining a documentary feel to it - imagine if Ackroyd had the foresight to write this movie in a similar fashion to something like The Office where the characters don't realise the comedy of their situation. Now that would have been something...
Should I watch it?
Fans of the original (assuming they're still alive, of course) might get a kick out of Ackroyd's spot-on impression of Webb but generally speaking, Dragnet is a fairly average effort with little to make it stand out. It's enjoyable if you switch your brain off but then, the plot will vanish before your eyes and you'll find yourself wondering what's going on and why Hanks and Ackroyd are wearing goat leggings...
Great For: fans of the original Dragnet, 80's theme nights, Dan Ackroyd
Not So Good For: buddy-cop films in general, comedy fans
What else should I watch?
There is no shortage of buddy-cop films out there - in fact, there are hundreds from the 80's alone! I've already mentioned Beverly Hills Cop although it's best to stick to the first two films. But how about Lethal Weapon which adds much more action without sacrificing the strong comedic element mismatched cops always bring to the party. Another option is actually another Eddie Murphy role, this time alongside Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs. which sees Murphy's fast-talking con temporarily released to help Nolte track down perps.
Of course, revivals of old shows rarely work on a big screen. The wretched Car 54, Where Are You? starring John C. McGinley has been a perennial entry on IMDb's Bottom 100 for many years and the less said about the Disney live-action version of Inspector Gadget, the better.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox