So, I treated watching the original Police Academy as kind of an experiment. Now, I haven’t seen any Police Academy movie in quite some time – Police Academy IV: Citizens on Patrol was on cable a few months ago and I caught maybe 20 minutes of it – and I certainly hadn’t seen the original film in ages … to the point I couldn’t even remember the plot. But I had been thinking: taken in its own, without its six sequels, is the first Police Academy good? Because when we think of Police Academy, what do we think of? We think of a punchline franchise of never-ending bad movies that, yes, granted, some people like to watch, in some sort of half satisfying, half ironic kind of way.
But … what if only the first Police Academy existed? Would it now be considered some sort of raunchy ‘80s classic? (I don’t want to create too many scenarios, but I think if it had only one sequel, this still applies. People still talk about Airplane! and Revenge of Nerds today and those survived less than great sequels.) Take a movie like Bachelor Party. It’s still remembered fondly as this weird outlier when Tom Hanks was doing comedies with nudity. There’s a whole subset of these kinds of movies – Risky Business, 48 Hours, Stripes – that were “fine” (and, yes, today, they have their “problems”), but they belong to a group cemented as defining for the era. Without the sequels, would Police Academy be on this list?
It’s weird to think of it this way, but the original Police Academy was the sixth highest-grossing movie of 1984. It made more money than Splash. The five movies ahead of it – Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, and The Karate Kid – are all considered canon, as well the movie right below it, Footloose. After rewatching the original Police Academy again for the first time in I don‘t know how long, it makes a lot of sense that, on its own, it belongs on that list.
Directed by Hugh Wilson (his only time helming a Police Academy movie, he would later direct First Wives Club), Police Academy stars Steve Guttenberg as Carey Mahoney (he’d do three more of these movies) and Kim Cattrall as Karen Thompson (she, perhaps wisely, didn’t do anymore). So, I’m going to cut to the chase: Rewatching the first Police Academy it turns out its an actual movie. It doesn’t have near as many dopey jokes and pratfalls that the other movies do, which is probably a big reason people don’t watch this one as much. If a fan of the whole franchise is looking for “something stupid,” this offers the least amount of that. It’s also rated R (the only one of the franchise to have this rating), so it has a couple of raunchy moments, but not as many as I expected. (Though, two separate characters get unexpected oral sex while giving a speech. The movie actually ends with one of these events. I have no memory of this happening, so I’m now convinced I’ve never seen the unedited-for -television version of Police Academy.) Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment is rated PG-13 and it seems like the strategy became, “Well, we can’t do raunchy humor anymore, so instead we will just amp of the pratfalls and character tropes.”
Again, maybe most surprisingly, this is an actual movie. The plot is, basically, the mayor of a city in need (filmed in Toronto, but the city was never named) opens up the ranks of the police force to people who would never have qualified before. The current police force is run by overtly racist and sexist men who don’t like the fact that they now have to train people of color and women. Mahoney (Guttenberg) is facing a jail term unless he enrolls in the academy, a sentence he accepts, but with a clear goal of being kicked out. The formula feels like a mix of Animal House and Stripes, only with the establishment being clearly bad people. (It’s actually shocking how overtly racist the villains of this movie are. Something that was clearly toned down in the other movies.)
Mahoney eventually gets his wish of being kicked out, but has a change of heart when riots hit the city and his fellow cadets are being sent into harm’s way. Police Academy then ends with an action-packed third act shootout that I also do not remember.
Also surprising: the characters aren’t complete caricatures yet. Yes, Jones (Michael Winslow) makes his fun noises, but it doesn’t happen as often as we might think and always seems to serve the plot. There’s actually a payoff at the end when Jones mimics the sound of gunfire over a loudspeaker to stop rioters from attacking a police car. Hightower (Bubba Smith) is fleshed out more, and his character plays a pivotal role after he’s kicked out of the academy for turning over a police car after someone uses (you guessed it) a racist epithet. And Hooks’ (Marion Ramsey) timid voice, turning into a screaming terror, is actually pretty funny in this first movie – as opposed to being something we come to expect in all the subsequent films. And even Tackleberry (David Graf) is played as a human being with some warmth and compassion, in between is action and gun obsession. Again, the biggest surprise about Police Academy is it’s an actual movie with an actual plot with actual characters.
Also a little surprising is how many characters we never see again, who were replaced in the sequels by far more famous characters. Of course, there’s Kim Cattrall’s character, as Cattrall was destined for bigger and better things. Cadet Leslie Barbara is a major character in this film, yet we never see him again. But we don’t meet Zed and Sweetchuck until the second movie. And, yes, it is weird Steve Guttenberg did four of these movies. It’s a franchise that both launched his career and, frankly, probably hampered it, too. I wonder what Guttenberg’s career looks like if he had only done the first film?
According to Wikipedia, sourced to a Chicago Tribune piece that’s not online, Guttenberg is quoted as saying about the second Police Academy film, “I wasn’t too sold on doing the sequel. I didn’t think the script was as good as the first one. But it has been improved, and after I talked with [producer] Paul [Maslansky], I decided to give it another try.” No, those don’t sound like the words of someone completely invested in the project.
So, is it good? I mean, it’s “fine,” like most of the movies like this from that era. But I completely understand why it was as successful as it was in 1984 – and why each sequel saw less and less box office returns. And I also get why it’s maybe the least talked about of the movies. As Police Academy delved more and more into schlock, fans starting expecting the schlock. So, now, the original film is almost too nondescript to be particularly interesting to a rowdy, beer-drinking crew looking for stupid humor. It’s the best movie, but maybe the worst Police Academy movie, if that makes sense. But, on its own, it’s actually a pretty tight comedy with an actual plot. And, yes, I have convinced myself that if there were only one Police Academy movie, it’s would be considered today, and remembered today (with some reservations that any comedy from this era would have), pretty fondly.
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