3.5 out of 5 stars

When I first heard ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards), I thought straight away, ‘Even RoboCop?’ My next question was, ‘Even Police Academy?’ People say you couldn’t possibly make Police Academy today. Those people would also moan if modern, liberal Hollywood remade Police Academy with a mayor literally called Mary Sue who freaks out the police establishment by scrapping discrimination based on “height, weight, sex, education, or physical strength” for recruits, to better reflect the community they serve. Sounds pretty woke to me, but that’s the premise of Police Academy.

Producer Paul Maslansky was scouting locations for The Right Stuff (1983) when he witnessed a scene that perfectly encapsulated his new film pitch: “a bunch of ludicrous-looking police cadets being dressed down by a frustrated sergeant.” He had to enquire about this “Unbelievable bunch” and the sergeant explained, “The mayor had ordered the department to accept a broad spectrum for the academy.” The obvious undesirables had to be tolerated and eventually weeded out from the genuine prospects. Having seen the success of counterculture ensemble comedies like Animal House (1978), Meatballs (1979), and Stripes (1981), Maslansky recognised this as a fresh goldmine and sold the idea to The Ladd Company.

They had wanted Dom DeLuise to direct, as Maslansky had produced his cop comedy Hot Stuff (1978). However, busy schedules meant they ended up hiring Hugh Wilson, who had created, written, and directed the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati (1978–1982). This was his feature film directorial debut.

When Wilson read the screenplay, written by television writers Neal Israel and Pat Proft, he discovered it was just another juvenile comedy. He rewrote the film, removing the “four or five block comedy scenes” that Israel had guaranteed would guarantee “you have a hit.” The Ladd Company almost shelved Police Academy altogether.

After reverting to the original draft and wrapping production, the producers remained worried that the film still lacked enough “fart jokes or sexual content.”

There’s a plot to Police Academy, however loose it may be. Chief Hurst (George R. Robertson) abhors the mayor’s new recruitment initiative and wants nothing but upstanding white men back on the force, opining “Back then, there were johnsons as far as the eye can see” to scatterbrained Comdt. Lassard (George Gaynes), who wistfully responds “And what a lovely sight it was.” The closest and sanest they get to that ideal is Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), who only signs up for the full 14 weeks to avoid prison. A laid-back anarchist at heart, Mahoney’s initial thought is to get himself thrown out, but the academy won’t allow it. Instead, he develops a bond with the motley crew of recruits and stands up to the vindictive Lieutenant Harris (G.W Bailey) so they might all graduate together.

Throughout the film, we follow these assorted recruits until their training is put to the test during a third-act riot. However, the synopsis is misleading. Mahoney doesn’t act as a rallying figure but rather appears sporadically throughout some loosely connected comedic sequences. If there were four or five major comedic scenes, there are even fewer story beats.

Guttenberg became a Hollywood star thanks to Police Academy and he’s certainly the lead, but he’s not the first character introduced. Mahoney is just part of a montage of disassociated underdogs, one character in a large ensemble, which has to periodically remind us he’s the only one here against his will. Video essayist Patrick Willems made the crucial point that for an ensemble movie, the only uniting factor is the Academy. None of them are friends. They’re friendly sure, but there are scant moments of genuine friendship to be found.

The few scenes of Mahoney bonding with people are genuinely sweet. He helps fellow criminal Jones (Michael Winslow) out of jail as part of his plea bargain, before later stealing a car for Hightower (Bubba Smith) to practise his driving for a test. But this element of ‘we’re all in this together’ camaraderie at the end falls flat when everyone is doing their own thing. It’s worth noting the initial pairing of Mahoney and Jones, arriving at the Academy in peak ’80s style with a ‘one in the oven’ crop top and a boombox blasting Frankie Goes to Hollywood. They seem thick as thieves, and yet after their introduction, they share only four lines throughout the rest of the film!

This issue only hinders the potential of what we could have had compared to stronger comedies of the decade. However, the cast here is charming and funny enough to carry the thin plotting along just fine.

Among the likes of Judge Reinhold, Michael Keaton, Tom Hanks, and Bruce Willis, another fresh-faced upstart, Guttenberg, impressed producer Maslansky with his easy-going charm. Winslow was discovered performing before jazz legend Count Basie and was persuaded to join based on his skills as the ‘Man of 10,000 Sound Effects’. Even David Graf, the strait-laced gun nut Tackleberry, got to add some flair to his character with his saxophone talents. Police Academy succeeds by letting the actors shine in character-driven scenarios, making the comedy far more memorable.

“I realise that you can carry grossness, rudeness, and crudeness just so far before the audience finds it terribly repetitive and not so funny. After the enormous success of Police Academy, I no longer believe that you have to show the female breast or make cruel ethnic jokes, not to mention the rampant sexism. And you don’t have to reproduce the sounds that an overfed body makes.”

— Hugh Wilson (director)

Whether due to Wilson’s insistence or the surviving original material, Police Academy avoids cancellation by modern society rather well. All the expected prejudices are still present, but the minority groups in question often have the last laugh. Racism is handled quite progressively. An offhand complaint of “There sure are a lot of [black people] here” is met with a shot panning up to Bubba Smith towering over them, his stern glare earning a mumbled “—which I think is good!” This is even followed by the film’s most emotional moment when the same cadet racially insults another and Hightower not only scares them into a squad car but flips the entire vehicle upside down with his bare hands.

Sexism isn’t handled quite as skilfully. Sergeant Callahan (Leslie Easterbrook) takes literal command of her scenes as the dominant coach with a physique every man volunteers to be pinned beneath. Haverbrook is gifted at owning the role despite having very few jokes in her dialogue, and she and Wilson avoid straying into exploitation. Callahan never allows men to take advantage of her, she never dresses inappropriately, and she does her job well. Admittedly, she does have sex with one of her students, but the punchline is then dominating the polyamorous lothario into a monogamous boyfriend.

Kim Cattrall is short-changed in her involvement. Thompson is introduced as the clear chalk-and-cheese love interest for Mahoney, then appears in less than half the film. Her first scene establishes conflict with her high-class mother over joining the force, but this theme isn’t revisited and Cattrall has no noteworthy jokes. In their meet-cute, Mahoney barks orders with a line like “Now let’s see those thighs!”—and, of course, the ’80s female lead is inexplicably charmed. She even performs well in the rigorous physical tests, earning her place in the academy. However, in the climax, Thompson is wounded by gunfire and relegated to a damsel-in-distress for Mahoney to save, despite him already proving himself by rescuing both Harris and Lassard!

And then there’s the Blue Oyster bar. It’s so cartoonishly homophobic that it swings right around to becoming camp. Sending Harris’s two henchmen to a gay bar whose patrons block the exits absolutely infers the intimidation of homosexual rape. The hilarious reality is that the leather-clad men simply want to dance the night away. The catchy tune of “El Bimbo” goes a long way in selling the scene. Harris also calls a dog “queer”, which is a throwaway joke that happens.

The most iconic gag of the original film is the blowjob under the podium. Some would quibble that non-consensual sex acts aren’t comedy. Agreed. The lead-up does do a lot of heavy lifting to handwave away all this: Mahoney heroically tries to hide a prostitute planted to get a cadet expelled. He convinces her to go under the podium by telling her he’s into unusual things. However, Mahoney looks away unaware that Lassard has arrived at the podium, and the prostitute mistakenly believes him to be her client.

The real punchline is Lassard shambling off before glancing back, only to see Mahoney peek out with a smirk. Fair play to Mahoney for being okay with being presumed to be gay. Of course, Lassard is clued into the joke when Mahoney gets blown at the graduation ceremony as payback. And Kim Cattrall is there to emphasise that Mahoney is most certainly not gay.

Former US President Bill Clinton has brought up Police Academy more than once and has told Guttenberg it’s one of his favourite films, and that watching it helped him through a “difficult time.” There’s no conceivable reason why I bring this up now.

Wilson was right about the bawdy nature. Despite the success of Police Academy, which raked in an impressive $150M on a $4.5M budget, the six sequels toned down to PG ratings in an attempt to capitalise on the younger audience they’d attracted. Furthermore, a short-lived animated series aimed at children was produced (1988-89), followed by an equally short-lived live-action series (1997-98). Having rushed every sequel through production in a bid to chase profits, the Police Academy brand had been well and truly tarnished.

Following year-on-year releases, there was a short but eventful hiatus after Police Academy 6: City Under Siege (1989). In the intervening period, the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by police officers sparked the very real 1992 Los Angeles riots. The disenfranchised were no longer enthusiastic about joining the police force! The seventh entry, Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (1994), grossed a measly $126,247. Releasing another Police Academy film at that time seems incredibly tone-deaf. As I write this, events at Columbia University are still developing. Discussing a 40-year-old comedy feels ill-timed. How could a film studio ever risk producing a new feel-good copaganda rehash of an intellectual property right without reality turning their marketing into a distasteful joke?

Times haven’t changed, but nostalgia is a hell of a drug. In 2003, Winslow revealed he was in negotiations for an eighth Police Academy film, and later in 2006 both Marion Ramsey and Leslie Easterbrook confirmed their involvement. Maslasnky promised a release target of 2007, although by 2010 he’d considered a “new class” of cadets with fresh talent. New Line Cinema announced Scott Zabielski to direct, who then departed the project in 2016. Most promisingly, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key were once attached to produce a new movie, riding high off their sketch show success Key and Peele. Radio chatter has since gone silent, but with each new hit film from Peele, one can only assume he’s gearing himself up for Police Academy 8

The woke leftists might well reject a new Police Academy, but not for the reasons you’d expect. This film has a vigilant lieutenant fighting to uphold the integrity of the police, who’s rewarded with a bike crash propelling his head into a horse’s ass. A few simple tweaks and the original could have today’s radical youths cheering and chanting in cinemas like the Animal House fraternity. Police Academy doesn’t back the blue; it backs the people. The problem is, there’s no sign or indication at the end that any meaningful change will occur now our heroes are in uniform.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement coming to the fore just a few years ago, light-hearted cop shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013-2021) felt a responsibility to reflect the realities of their audience. Benefiting from portraying the police, casts and crews of B99, Monk (2002-09), Law & Order: SVU, Medical Police, and even The Simpsons donated to the Emergency Response Fund. Now, faced with the current Columbia ordeal, who would our Police Academy underdogs be serving and protecting?

Hollywood can afford to alienate the far-right but not the liberals who also appease the establishment. People on both sides would rather see lone troublemaker Mahoney carted off to jail and allow Harris to uphold the cherished status quo. They were right when they spoke of simpler times; we can laugh at Police Academy, mistakenly believing it was that easy to dismantle the system.

USA | 1984 | 96 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Hugh Wilson.
writers: Neal Israel, Pat Proft & Hugh Wilson (story by Neal Israel & Pat Proft).
starring: Steve Guttenberg, Kim Cattrall, Bubba Smith, George Gaynes, Michael Winslow, David Graf, Donovan Scott, Andrew Rubin, Bruce Mahler, Marion Ramsey, G.W Bailey, Leslie Easterbrook, George R. Robertson & Scott Thompson.