Home Video Hovel: Dragnet, by David Bax
Before 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie, before 2004’s Starsky & Hutch, before 2012’s 21 Jump Street, Dan Aykroyd wrote and starred in another mocking but loving send-up disguised as an adaptation of a beloved television series. In Dragnet, directed by Tom Mankiewicz and co-starring Tom Hanks as the new partner of Aykroyd’s Joe Friday (the nephew of Jack Webb’s original Joe Friday), the ode to dedicated police work and the unrelenting disdain for criminals is updated to 1987. While some changes are garish, like the theme song’s remix or the end credits song in which Aykroyd and Hanks rap about Miranda rights in character (it’s awful yet fascinating in its commitment), there are also touches of obvious affection, like having Harry Morgan reprise his character from the 60s/70s Dragnet revival, now promoted to the role of Friday’s and Streebek’s (Hanks) captain. While ultimately too short on jokes for a supposed comedy, this Dragnet is well-suited to those who love the series. And that’s part of the problem.
Instead of the lowlifes and dumb hippies Webb faced off against, noted weirdo Aykroyd has the detectives doing battle with a massive pagan cult—complete with virgin sacrifices—which turns out to a front for a cooperative embezzlement scam between the city and a local priest (Christopher Plummer, clearly having a ball). Like I said, weird. The PG-13 movie is also raunchy in a way that original recipe Joe Friday wouldn’t have approved of, though that’s clearly the point.
But none of that oddness is what gives Dragnet its unpleasant taste. Despite being an ostensible parody, the movie eagerly embraces the same reactionary, nearly fascistic politics of its source material. Webb’s Friday was the defender of a status quo that only existed in his conservative mind, a fraud the movie perpetuates by implying that life and crime have only grown worse and less moral in the intervening decades. The movie is enamored by the idea of a militarized police force; this version of the LAPD doesn’t just have armored tanks, they also have a fighter jet (that part’s pretty funny, at least). More troubling is the tone deafness of having Friday and Streebek confront a parade of nonwhite thugs, including an Asian man who, of course, attacks Friday with a pair of nunchuks, and finally having Streebek go undercover as a Latino gangbanger, complete with an offensive Chicano accent.
At least the true bad guys turn out to be the rich white folks who run the city’s institutions, even if that lends a sour note to Friday’s hilarious but respectable sense of civic pride. Of course, that irony is just as much a carryover from the series; both, for instance, feature reverent establishing shots of Parker Center, the police headquarters that is inextricably associated with the department’s history of racism and corruption scandals. Still, even if the movie uses a matte to lie to viewers that you can just drive right up to the bottom of the Hollywood Sign, the Angeleno in me will always puff out his chest a little when I hear that first line of narration, “This is the city…” For me, that makes it worth watching once. As with unpredictable Los Angeles traffic, though, your mileage may vary.
Shout!’s Blu-ray isn’t a restoration but, for a generation like mine that probably only remembers this movie from standard definition, pan and scan television airings, it looks quite nice in HD, especially in the many nighttime scenes. The stereo audio is good and loud, too, in case you really wanna bump that embarrassing rap song.
In addition to a promo Aykrod and Hanks made for the film’s initial release, special features on this “Collector’s Edition” include a new commentary with pop culture historian Russell Dyball and an interview with Alexandra Paul, who played Friday’s love interest, “the virgin Connie Swail.”