Dragnet (1987) / Comedy-Action

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief nudity, violence, a drug reference, and language
Running time: 83 min.

Cast: Dan Aykroyd, Tom Hanks, Christopher Plummer, Harry Morgan, Dabney Coleman, Alexandra Paul, Jack O'Halloran, Elizabeth Ashley, Kathleen Freeman, Bruce Gray
Cameo: Shannon Tweed

Director: Tom Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Dan Aykroyd, Alan Zweibel, Tom Mankiewicz
Review published May 31, 2009

As with so many movies that would be written and starring SNL alums, Dragnet is a case of a very funny sketch comedy idea dragged out beyond its ability to truly entertain in a feature film.  It's an updating of the classic, and quite serious, television show from the 1950s (also a radio show prior to that), starring Jack Webb, of whom Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters, Trading Places) is doing a spot-on caricature of throughout.  The entire premise is carried only by the comic performance of its star, and a colorful supporting cast. 

It's funny in spots, but not enough to keep it all together the entire way, as the ridiculous plot and unappealing sitcom-y direction by first-timer Tom Mankiewicz (Delirious, "Hart to Hart") keep the film in the realm of bland at best and awful at worst.  The movie isn't so much a spoof of the old television show as it is a one-joke premise of how funny it might be if the Jack Webb character of the TV show were to be fighting crime in a cop film akin to the ones seen in modern cop flicks like Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon, with all of the smut, vice, and depravity that goes along with it.

Aykroyd isn't playing Webb's character, Joe Friday, in this film, but rather, his nephew, with the same name and personality.  He's assigned a roguish new partner named Pep Streebeck (Hanks, Splash) with which to fight crime with, though he's of a new breed of police officer, not really respecting the rule of law that Sergeant Friday does to his core. 

Their first case together sees them trying to crack a slew of recent murders in Los Angeles, ostensibly done by a mysterious cult known simply as P.A.G.A.N., (People Against Goodness and Normalcy) as the calling cars they leave behind at the scenes of their crimes suggest.  Signs begin to point in the direction of a smarmy TV evangelist named Rev. Jonathan Whirley (Plummer, Dreamscape) and a smarmy smut merchant named Jerry Caesar (Coleman, Cloak & Dagger).  Friday and Streebeck rescue a sacrificial virgin, Connie Swail (Paul, American Flyers), at one of the P.A.G.A.N. gatherings, and for the first time in his life, Sgt. Friday has found someone wholesome enough to consider as his girlfriend, though he has now become too involved to think clearly -- or play things by the book when the heart is involved.

Aykroyd delivers one of his best comic portrayals in Dragnet, which on first glance seems like a superficial impression, but once you follow Joe Friday for a bit, you begin to appreciate the subtle ways that Aykroyd manages to get in laughs through such a deadpan delivery.  A raising of an eyebrow, a lengthy stare -- Aykroyd manages to convey something more inside Friday's head than just an adherence to the law, and the result is some good chuckles along the way, mostly at his expense.

Tom Hanks plays a rare second fiddle, offering a geniality and modernity to counter the antiquated demeanor of Friday.  He's a little miscast, as Hanks has always seemed rather clean cut himself as an actor, and even if our first impression of him is of a skuzzy slob, it's not easy to buy him in the role, especially as he becomes so wholesome looking for the remainder of the movie.  However, he's also gracious enough to let Aykroyd hog the spotlight, as he plays the setup man for Friday's increasing digressions into silliness.

Dragnet is at its best when Joe Friday engages in dialogue, whether with his partner, questioning a witness, interrogating a suspect, or briefing his boss, Captain Gannon (played by Harry Morgan ("M*A*S*H"), who appeared on the television show).  It loses most of its appeal when Friday is off of the screen, or when the film devolves into extended chase/action sequences that feel padded to please action fans.  It adheres to a standard buddy cop formula, including a scene at a strip club that feels oddly out of place for the demographic of the film, and though it is comical, it's not nearly as funny as you'd think it should be for long stretches at a time.  The soundtrack, especially its modernized electro-hip hop version of the "Dragnet" theme song, is atrocious.  

Aykroyd fans will like this more than most, and perhaps those a little nostalgic for the old-time police drama.  However, with the exception of Aykroyd finding laughs at the ever-serious Joe Friday's expense, the facts are that this is standard to substandard stuff in most other categories. 

 Qwipster's rating:

©2009 Vince Leo