Watching Police Academy For the First Time

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The cadets who constitute the leading characters in Police Academy share many characteristics. They all have a lot going against them. They’re underachievers, weirdos, fuck-ups. They break or refuse to accept or are ignorant of most of the rules, and they are each at times obnoxious, incompetent and one-dimensional. But in spite of their many and consistent failures, they smile and struggle and goof around anyway and just barely sort of succeed on their own merits by the end of the movie.

By that measure, Police Academy itself could be a character in its own film.

It’s really adorable, actually. I almost can’t understand how a movie that is so harmlessly bad could have become the household-name franchise it instantly became, spawning six sequels (SIX SEQUELS) and an animated series. But there’s something about Police Academy that makes you fond of it in spite of its glaring ineptitude.

At the top of the infractions list is the premise. The entire film is based on the ridiculous conceits that, first, the mayor has decides to abolish every standard of acceptance imposed on the police academy. This attracts a ragtag group of wacky goof-offs, but somehow doesn’t appeal to criminals looking to kill cops or attain free weapons and live ammunition almost immediately. It also relies on the secondary conceit that our hero Carey Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg) is arrested for wrecking a car (somewhat unlikely) and instead of being given jail time (incredibly unlikely) or a fine (very likely, but not considered), he’s sent to the academy, where he’s not allowed to quit, but it’s fine if he can be thrown out for any reason. But also in addition, the chief of police decides to prohibit the academy from kicking people out for some reason somehow (unless they flip over a car or punch someone apparently). Then there’s the epically ridiculous “riot” at the end, where the entire populace forms into huge groups to loot outdoor flea markets, fight each other over used TVs, and chase one or two police academy cadets at a time down empty streets.

Conventional writing wisdom would dictate that you can get away with exactly one unlikely premise (e.g. time travel is possible/a kid wakes up an adult/Custer did not die at Little Big Horn), but the ambitious (?) creators of Police Academy go for at least 4 or 5. And, honestly, it’s fine. The premise is never more than a vehicle for jokes, so here it rarely matters. But it’s wrong, right?

And then there’s the writing. Like many of its contemporaries, Police Academy feels like a collection of sketches with the same characters in the same environment, tied together by a larger plot. That’s par for the course. But rarely is it taken to such a fragmented extreme, with scenes that are only 30 or 60 seconds long, built around a single joke. Michael Winslow makes a sound, boom, NEXT SCENE. A guy falls down, boom, NEXT SCENE.

The jokes themselves are, for the most part, benign, except for every 20th joke, which is filthy. It feels like this movie was written by a team of kid’s movie writers and, like, one registered sex offender.

Writer 1: “What if the guy is so tall he takes out the front seat and drives from the back seat?”

Writer 2: “Yeah, yeah, and the bullies put smelly gym socks under our hero’s nose while he does pushups.”

Writer 3: “Yeah, and then a whore sucks an old man’s dick while he gives a slideshow.”

(long beat)

Writer 4: “Alright, well how about we have a character that just makes funny noises?”

Writer 5: “And another character who is super shy until the very end?”

Writer 3: “And then the Lieutenant gets his head stuck in a horse’s pussy.”

Writer 2: “Jesus, Lewis.”

Writer 3: “Also one more whore podium blowjob right at the end.”

Is that a dealbreaker for me? No, because I like silly jokes and I like dirty jokes. But does it work? Not really. And is it supposed to work? Definitely not.

The stakes of the film are also laughably low. The idea is that police academy is sort of like boot camp, but in practice Police Academy creates an environment about 10% scarier than a liberal arts college. The only looming threat for these adults, here by choice, are pushups and being yelled at. The Biggest Loser is harder than this. Nobody at the academy gets hurt or is in any danger of getting hurt (even emotionally, for crying out loud), and the only two guys who get thrown out get un-thrown out in time for graduation. Even the villains — the surly Lieutenant and his two cadet goons — are armed only with insults and the occasional handful of mashed potatoes.

But here’s the thing, dear readers: at the end of the day, I don’t really mind. Police Academy is a mess, but it’s a soft, round, affable mess. It’s like yelling at a kid for not knowing to be quiet in a library. Rules are rules, but he’s having such a good time. And who doesn’t like the laughter of a child?

Oh, Police Academy. You little rascal. With your requirement of a nearly impossible extent of suspension of disbelief, lack of stakes and sparsely interspersed nudity and blowjobs between jokes for kindergarteners. How can I stay mad for long?

So does it hold up? Well, it doesn’t have a lot to live up to — it got terrible reviews in 1984, but not bad enough to keep it from grossing $146 million. And who could blame it? Police Academy is the little movie that shouldn’t. It’s bumpy and ugly and harmless and doesn’t try that hard, but it beats the odds and ends up being still sort of funny today, which is probably exactly as funny as it ever was. Well played, Guttenberg.

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.