Pop Rocks: The (2nd) Greatest Summer of Movies Continues with Dragnet

At this point, Hanks's Oscar chances seemed slim.
At this point, Hanks's Oscar chances seemed slim.

1982 may have been the Greatest Summer of Movies Ever, according to the Alamo Drafthouse, but 1987 was a close second.

It may be hard to believe, in this age of Bubba Gump Shrimp Companies on every corner, but Tom Hanks used to not be taken very seriously as an actor. Don't get me wrong, I've always had a soft spot for the guy, from Bosom Buddies to Bachelor Party to Joe Versus the Volcano. Sure, the pre-Philadelphia years featured some clunkers (Nothing in Common? The Bonfire of the Vanities?), but where would the '80s have been without "A little vino would be keen-o?" Or the cautionary horrors of Rona Jaffe's Mazes and Monsters?

No one can really answer that question, but I bet the Berlin Wall would still be up, is all I'm saying.

Dragnet was released when Hollywood still had a modicum of shame. The venerable cop show was an old property even in 1987, and Universal was actually respectful enough to include the original Bill Gannon -- Harry Morgan -- as the captain. The phenomenon was novel enough 25 years ago that even though the movie wasn't critically well-received, it was spared the apoplectic spluttering that now greets even the faintest rumor of a cinematic "reimagining." Is it perfect? Hell no, but it was perfectly adequate for a summer flick, and promoted safe sex besides. Take that, Three Men and a Baby.

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A sinister organization is going around Los Angeles committing bizarre crimes (stealing a lion's mane and a wedding dress from sweet old lady Enid Borden). Tasked with the investigation are buttoned-down, by-the-number detective Joe Friday (Dan Aykroyd), involuntarily partnered with younger (and ostensibly "hipper") cop Pep Streebeck (Hanks). Together the two follow the leads to a cult calling itself "P.A.G.A.N." (People Against Goodness And Normalcy) and one of their key members, the "miserable bag of puke" Emil Muzz (Jack O'Halloran).

Infiltrating a P.A.G.A.N. gathering, the detectives rescue The Virgin Connie Swail (Baywatch's Alexandra Paul) from sacrifice to a giant snake. In the ensuing mayhem, the cult leader escapes, but not before we recognize him as the Reverend Jonathan Whirley (Christopher Plummer), a respected champion of community morals with the ear of the police commissioner (Elizabeth Ashley). Apparently -- and I'd have to look it up to explain further -- Whirley's plan is to create a poison gas in order to kill porn magazine magnate Jerry Caesar (Dabney Coleman) and set up P.A.G.A.N. as the entity simultaneously controlling the output of smut and taking city resources to fight it.

As Caesar tells Whirley at one point, "Reverend, you got balls big as church bells." Only, more Coleman-y.

I've seen Dragnet (or Dragnet '87 as it's sometimes called) referred to as a parody, and I don't buy it. There's real affection between now Captain Gannon and Friday (the nephew of the character originally played by Jack Webb), and Aykroyd's entire portrayal, as accomplished a tribute as Jim Carrey's take on Andy Kaufman or Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles impersonation, ought to be viewed as a loving homage. 

That said, we shouldn't get too bogged down in sentimentality. The studio gots to get paid, after all, and this was best accomplished in 1987 through slapstick, the occasional car chase, and PG-13-rated drug and sex humor. I'm not going to claim everything works, but there are more laughs than not. I'm especially fond of Friday and Streebeck's meeting with Caesar and his Bait-mates at Caesar's mansion:

Alas, he missed his opportunity to pump Sylvia Wiss for information.

I miss Dabney Coleman. The guy was as reliable a scumbag as you could get during the late '70s and '80s, and he's all but disappeared. Jerry Caesar is an especially oily caricature, with the lisp pushing it just to the top though not over it. Who do we have now? Jeremy Piven? Mark Strong? Jason Isaacs? Actually, he's pretty good.

Plummer should be singled out as well, if only because this might have been the first time I recognized him in something that wasn't The Sound of Music (Baitmate April's favorite movie) or Starcrash, and I only vaguely recall him from the latter, thanks to Caroline Munro's bosoms being permanently etched onto my cerebral cortex. The Whirley character was a timely one, as America was in the middle of several scandals involving formerly respected religious figures. Whirley, at least, aimed higher than hotel trysts. Unfortunately for him, he would never get to know Connie Swail like Joe Friday.

Dragnet was directed by Tom Mankiewicz (who also co-wrote with Aykroyd and fellow SNL alum Alan Zweibel). If that name sounds familiar, it's because his dad, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, directed a few minor films like All About Eve and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I'll bet family reunions were awkward.

Did I mentioned it was 1987? With the Rodney King riots still several years away, a little police brutality always lightened the mood.

For the curious, O'Halloran is the same guy who played the escaped Kryptonian criminal Non in Superman II.

Look, nobody's going to put Dragnet on their Sight & Sound list, or insist upon its preservation by the Library of Congress, I get that. Perhaps nostalgia combined with the loss of tens of millions of brain cells in the last two and a half decades has negatively affected my critical faculties.

Or perhaps it is you who have not yet sipped the Nectar of Shai-Tan.

On a final note, my friend Brian and I actually spent 30 whole minutes of the summer after our senior year of high school to learn the dance to this:

That's dedication, homes.

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