Movie Review – Dragnet

Dragnet (1987)
Written by Dan Aykroyd, Alan Zweibel, and Tom Mankiewicz
Directed by Tom Mankiewicz

In the 1960s, just a couple decades into television’s public rollout in the United States, studios began producing movies based on shows. One of the most common methods of making these films was to edit and repackage episodes of the show as a movie. There were original stories, though. The Batman movie in 1966 was created in response to the first season’s explosive success. In the United Kingdom, Doctor Who was spun off into two films that completely reimagined the program’s concept and centered it around the Daleks. As soon as The Munsters wrapped filming of the series, Munsters Go Home went into production for theatrical release. The 1980s was when Baby Boomers had gotten into positions of power within Hollywood and were ready to greenlight some of their favorite shows as feature films. Sometimes this was done with great reverence to the source material, while others were extremely tongue in cheek. I’ll be looking at just a few of these movies, a mix of ones I’ve seen and some new ones. I’ll be reviewing them not just as movies but also in how well they stayed true to the conceit of the original series and if that was the right choice.

Dragnet has been an extremely popular police procedural that arguably invented the genre. It began as a radio series on NBC and ran from 1949 to 1957. With the popularity of television, a show was produced and ran from 1951 to 1959. There was a revival from 1967 to 1970, proving that’s always happening in television. This isn’t even the first movie. In 1954 a Dragnet film was released with an original long-form story. In 1969, a made-for-TV movie aired, initially filmed in 1966, to herald the reboot. It was delayed and released three years later.

It was created by producer & actor Jack Webb, who plays Sgt. Joe Friday, the show’s protagonist. Webb played Friday with the most deadpan delivery, known for his catchphrase of “Just the facts, ma’am” when interviewing witnesses. Webb was an extreme reactionary, and Dragnet reflected his values. The police were an infallible institution combating moral degeneracy in the culture. When the counterculture movement of the 1960s became popular, episodes were devoted to depicting them as slothful drug addicts. Dragnet was also a virulently anticommunist program, linking that moral decrepitude with left-wing politics.

Friday had a rotating series of partners in the show’s original run, but the most memorable came in the 1960s revival. Harry Morgan played Bill Gannon, whose sardonic observations slightly counter Friday’s no-nonsense approach. If you have seen Star Trek: The Next Generation, imagine Data as desiring to be less human and the rest of the crew still acting with humor at mannerisms. That’s basically the relationship going on between Friday and Gannon.

In the 1970s, Dan Akroyd made a name for himself on Saturday Night Live and, in one skit, played Joe Friday as part of a parody. Akroyd has always had a penchant for nailing fast-talking, stern character, so Friday was a cinch for him. In the early 1980s, there was interest in developing Dragnet as a feature film with a humorous bent. It seemed impossible to present the show as earnestly as it once had been, so Akroyd was brought on to write with former SNL head writer Alan Zwiebel. They collaborated with the movie’s director Tom Mankiewicz. If that last name sounds familiar, it’s because Tom was the son of the great filmmaker Joseph Mankiewicz (The Philadelphia Story, All About Eve) and the nephew of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane). Tom had made a big name for himself, having done rewrites on Superman: The Movie and being a creative force behind tv’s Hart to Hart. It sounds like a solid team to produce an unconventional take on a beloved television classic, right?

The 1987 movie sees Akroyd playing Joe Friday, Jr., the nephew of Webb’s character. Junior holds the same views as his reactionary conservative uncle, which is played for laughs juxtaposed to the hedonism of the 1980s. Like his uncle, Joe has an ever-rotating series of partners, and the film sees him teamed with Pep Streebeck (Tom Hanks). Pep is the exact opposite of Joe, a party guy who doesn’t see any need to play things by the book. It’s a pretty standard clash of personalities, and the movie doesn’t do anything that you haven’t seen done before. In fact, Hanks is completely wasted in this undeveloped role. The script clearly wants the focus to be on Joe, but when you have Hanks in a supporting role, the expectation is that you’ll see more from him. It’s easy to forget, but in the 1980s, Hanks wasn’t a massive star. He’d been in Bosom Buddies for a few seasons and had moderate success in comedies like Bachelor Party and The Money Pit, but he wasn’t a significant name yet.

Joe & Pep are sent to investigate a series of bizarre robberies. In one instance, all that was stolen was the entire print run for the month of Bait magazine, a pornographic periodical. The two question publisher Jerry Caesar (Dabney Coleman), who is doing the most inexplicable Southern accent with a speech impediment. I couldn’t tell if Coleman intended to reference a public figure like Larry Flynt; it was just very odd and distracting. Caesar shares that he’s been having a public spat with televangelist Reverend Jonathan Whirley (Christopher Plummer), who is a personal favorite of Joe’s. Our detective duo eventually crashes a gathering of PAGAN (People Against Goodness and Normalcy), a cult that was about to sacrifice Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul). They rescue Connie, but when Joe & Pep bring in back-up the following day, there is zero sign of any event happening at the location.

It’s very obvious who the villain will be even before the movie gives it away during the sacrifice scene, and you’d have to be paying zero attention to not have figured it out before then. As Joe Junior, Akroyd is giving his all, and he’s probably the best thing about the film. Akroyd & Hanks aren’t a bad pair on paper, they just are working with a script that focuses much more on one than the other, so I couldn’t say this qualifies as a buddy cop picture.

For the first third of the film, it is clearly trying to recreate the rhythms of the original series and does okay. Then the plot devolves into the most generic 1980s action-comedy without real momentum. There were scenes I thought were keying up a car chase sequence only to just jump to the following location. But then, later, we got an overly long car chase that had me checking how much of the runtime was left. Plummer is a great actor wholly wasted in this role, not given enough screen time to develop the reverend beyond just a maniacal religious figure. The same goes for Coleman, who I typically enjoy. The character doesn’t amount to much between his inexplicable accent and lack of screentime. If Dragnet is a childhood favorite of yours, then, by all means, keep enjoying it; I certainly have movies I know aren’t great that I enjoy for nostalgic reasons. However, if you haven’t seen the movie, I can’t imagine you will get much out of this one.

One thought on “Movie Review – Dragnet”

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