You see, because it’s the second one, but they put a 1/2 on there so it doesn’t make sense. Because why would it be 1/2 unless it was a DVD release with added scenes but they didn’t have DVDs back then. That’s why it’s funny.
June 28, 1991
The Summer of 1991 was a big time for sequels, especially part 2s, so now I will attempt to write something about THE NAKED GUN 2 1/2: THE SMELL OF FEAR. The first sequel to 1988’s smash hit TV-spinoff-from-the-makers-of-AIRPLANE! NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD! is another irreverent overload of tongue-in-cheek cop drama silliness where there’s no reason to take anything about the plot (police try to foil a scheme by big oil to replace a scientist pushing a solar energy plan) seriously, and nobody wants to read me just listing some of the jokes that are funny (I like when Jane [Priscilla Presley, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE] is singing “The Way We Were” to herself in the shower and the assassin creeping up on her [Anthony James, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER] is moved to tears and starts to sing along). But maybe for this retrospective we can look at it as a time capsule of some of the things that were thought of and joked about at that period in time.
At this point, luckily, the novelty of Leslie Nielsen applying his hard-earned character actor skills to playing a clueless buffoon was still strong. Neither he nor these filmmakers had yet worn out their comedy cred on the sort of slapdash, random-selection-of-instantly-dated-references shit they would soon become associated with. And it had the advantage of being more focused than later “spoof” movies that just tried to smoosh together 7 or 8 recent unrelated movies into a vaguely humor-shaped booger ball. With the exception of a love scene directly parodying the then-famous pottery wheel scene from GHOST (which was directed by director David Zucker’s brother Jerry, also executive producer here), 2 1/2 is wise enough to hang its parade of sight gags, puns and non-sequiturs on a police procedural type of story. Or I guess kind of a spy movie. But it stays basically on topic.
In a certain way, though, the parody was already way out of date. The little-watched show that spawned it, Police Squad!, was almost ten years old, and the shows it was parodying were 25-30 years old. So here we have a movie that’s not a period piece – it’s set very specifically during the presidency of George H.W. Bush – yet it uses that trope of the gray haired, hard-boiled-narrating detective in a suit and tie, set to big band music. That year “cop movie” meant SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, ONE GOOD COP, NEW JACK CITY and OUT FOR JUSTICE. But I guess we didn’t necessarily want to see Leslie Nielsen wearing a beret and beating a guy with a pool stick.
(Incidentally, this movie is actually pretty prophetic about Steven Seagal’s life; there’s a scene where Frank insists on driving a tank as part of a raid, and he runs over a dog house, among other things. 20 years later, Seagal would ram a tank into the house of a suspected cockfighter, allegedly killing a puppy in the process, while filming the final season of Steven Seagal: Lawman with pardoned-by-Trump-human-rights-abuser Sheriff Joe Arpaio.)
The movie opens with Nielsen’s Frank Drebin attending a state dinner with President Bush. It’s to announce the new environmental policy masterminded by Dr. Meinheimer (Richard Griffiths, GREYSTOKE), but Frank was invited in honor of his “1,000th drug dealer kill,” which he humbly admits includes two people he backed over by accident who luckily turned out to be drug dealers.
Frank enters confidently swinging a door right into the face of Barbara Bush (Margery Jane Ross, “Barbara Bush Look A-Like,” HERO) – neither he or anyone else around notice, which becomes a running gag throughout the movie as he keeps knocking her over, off of and into things. It’s all very stupid and nonsensical and also I can’t help but laugh at the slapstick perfection of Frank eyeing an attractive woman and pulling a chair out for her just as the First Lady tries to sit in the chair, falls on her ass and instinctively grips the tablecloth, yanking it and everything on top of it off the table. Also: the way the White House staff instantly appears to replace all of the items.
President Bush is played by John Roarke, a guy from the sketch comedy show Fridays and the puppet show D.C. Follies who had played Nixon on American Dreamer and a Reagan impersonator on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and would play Bush in THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS, “The President” in COURAGE UNDER FIRE and Kenan & Kel, Clint Eastwood on The Weird Al Show and clones of Phil Donahue, Sam Donaldson, Alan Dershowitz, Ted Koppel and Larry King in S.F.W. He does Bush pretty similar to how Dana Carvey did on SNL, but with elaborate makeup, and it’s in that old tradition of “political humor” where you’re just caricaturing their voice and mannerism and not saying anything about them at all. He could easily be replaced with a generic fictional president.
The one political area they try to dig into is making fun of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis’s overwhelming loss in the presidential campaign against Bush, an event that had happened more than 2 1/2 years before the release of this movie. In a disaster themed restaurant, a portrait of Dukakis hangs beside photos of the Hindenberg, the Titanic, etc. An old relationship is described as, “Ancient history, like the Democratic party.” Much later an inspirational speech mentions dreaming of a world “where the Democrats will put up somebody worth voting for.”
Of course, making jokes about a specific losing candidate was guaranteed to date the movie, even if the Democrats hadn’t been about to “put up somebody” who would overwhelmingly win the next two elections.
Much later, in 2008, director David Zucker would become one of those “it’s hard to be a conservative in Hollywood” guys and direct AN AMERICAN CAROL, starring Chris Farley’s brother as a Michael Moore stand-in who the movie blames for 9-11. But back in ’91 I think he saw himself as a disaffected Democrat and/or reasonable centrist. They also throw in a joke about a bad guy being a “former arts consultant to Jesse Helms.”
(Explanation for young people/non-Americans: Helms was a notorious Republican senator from North Carolina who at that time was largely associated with his fight against the National Endowment of the Arts for having sponsored some photographs with homoerotic and [in his interpretation] anti-religious themes. He was also a despicable homophobe and old timey racist who had been around long enough to oppose busing, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, which he called “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.” In 1983 he mounted a 16-day filibuster [you had to actually stand up and talk to filibuster back then] to block the passage of the Martin Luther King holiday, passed out pamphlets connecting King to communists and Marxism, and tried to get Reagan to release FBI recordings to show King had cheated on his wife. In 1993 he told another asshole senator “Watch me make her cry,” and sang the pro-slavery song “Dixie” to the first Black woman senator, Carol Moseley Braun, while she was trapped in an elevator with him. In the ‘90s he was considered one of the last “Old South” senators [in other words a backwards old kook], but unfortunately most of that is mainstream Republican orthodoxy all these years later.)
Speaking of homophobes, this being a 1991 comedy with rapid fire jokes, you better believe there are some about LGBT lifestyles that wouldn’t cut the mustard today. But they’re on the mild side. They’re mostly of the “it’s wacky to mention cross dressing or gender change” variety – like, under the set dressers on the end credits there are fake listings for “cross dressers,” and they mention a Geraldo episode about “transsexual satan worshippers.” I wouldn’t go to bat for it but I did laugh at Frank saying “Let’s get that other artist. The one who never dates, lives with those two guys,” since the joke is that their current sketch artist is drawing super-horny pictures of Jane.
I was more bothered by the aforementioned speech including a line about being able to “go to a 7-11 without an interpreter,” a cliche anti-immigrant sentiment I think is meant to be relatable. These guys from other countries, what a hassle for me, am I right?
There’s also a running Zucker brothers gag that the worst thing in the world is to get on a bus and then see its destination is Detroit. THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE is also filled with “Detroit is a hellhole” jokes. I don’t know specifically what they mean by that, but I got a guess. Sorry, Detroit friends.
But if I’m going to be dissecting the politics of the thing I definitely have to give them credit for making the biggest theme in the movie an environmental one. But I shouldn’t fall for calling that political either – it’s easy to forget that at the time caring about the environment did not fall to one side of the political spectrum. To his credit, Zucker does seem to be an actual environmentalist even after his conversion, being an early advocate of electric cars and a board member of a group called TreePeople.
Though I’ve picked out some of the no-longer-cool jokes (I didn’t mention the boy scout leader one), the overall feeling is not mean-spirited, but a pretty infectious silliness. It’s certainly diminished returns after the first NAKED GUN, but I was laughing in spite of myself. I just enjoy gags like when there are a bunch of establishing shots of famous Washington DC landmarks, and then the White House, and then the late addition of a subtitle saying “THE WHITE HOUSE,” and then an additional one saying “WASHINGTON D.C.,” just to be sure we know. And the police station having “POLICE STATION (WASHINGTON D.C.)” carved into its exterior. Stuff like that.
Unlike other movies this summer, I don’t think there’s a specific line about it being the ‘90s or a reference to The Terminator/Arnold Schwarzenegger, unless you count the funny gag where during the love scene an oiled-up body builder fills in for Nielsen’s chest closeups.
NAKED GUN 2 1/2: THE SMELL OF FEAR may not be discussed much today, but it was inarguably a hit. It opened at #1, knocking ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES to #2, and would end up #9 at the U.S. box office for the year. That’s well above movies people still care about today like BOYZ N THE HOOD and POINT BREAK.
But in less than a week we would see a better part 2, the one that (to me) defines the summer.
References of the era: A cameo by Zsa Zsa Gabor (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS), who slaps a traffic cop, since it was considered the height of hilarity that in 1989 the Hungarian-accented famous-mostly-for-being-famous actress had slapped a traffic cop. Some line about the actress Martha Raye and her ads for Poli-Grip denture cream. A rare sincere line in the end credits saying “welcome home” to Iraq War I General Norman Schwarzkopf.
References older than the era: There’s an as-far-as-I-can-tell random re-enactment of the famous twist ending to the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man.”