December 5, 2012

dragnetDan Aykroyd, always a trifle uneasy playing normal characters on the big screen, finds his groove in Dragnet. That’s because Aykroyd spends the entire film doing an outrageously good impersonation of Jack Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday.

The original television series, which had a couple of long runs on network TV (and eternal life via reruns), was Webb’s creation, and it all centered on the terse, rock-skulled, supersquare Joe Friday, who was perhaps the most rigorously stylized character in the history of series television.

Aykroyd has a field day mimicking Webb’s grave assessment of the gone-to-pot modern world, particularly those breath-defying speeches that would dart from Webb’s mouth and invariably begin with, “Listen, Mister, let me tell you something….”

At one point Friday arrests a thug at the ocean and barks, “Surf’s up, beach boy, but not for you—you’ll be hanging ten downtown.” That’s a perfect approximation of Webb’s dialogue, including the hopelessly square “mod” slang. As funny as Aykroyd is, this performance is affectionate, not mean.

The movie is like that, too. All the series’ running routines are here, form the music to the “This is the city” narration to the final glimpse of the criminal in prison blues, all rendered good-naturedly.

The movie does depart from the series aesthetic in an important way, however. Webb kept the show tight, clipped, and simple. The film falls prey to the more-is-better philosophy that seems to pervade so many comedies these days. It’s way overextended, with a plot too big for its oen good.

Of course, this is a movie, not a TV show, and the story needs puffing up. But not this much. Joe Friday, a nephew of Webb’s character, finds a new partner in the unorthodox Pep Streebeck (Tom Hanks). Streebeck’s swinging ways draw out some healthy outrage from the uptight Friday (Streebeck calls him a “petrified monolith of legal propriety”), and the film gets some laughs from their clash of styles. Their boss is played by Harry Morgan, who reprises his role as Bill Gannon from the TV series.

The big case they have to crack involves a televangelist with a frozen smile (played by Christopher Plummer as a cross between Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson) and a police commissioner (Elizabeth Ashley) who have created a nefarious organization called PAGAN (People Against Goodness and Normalcy), for reasons too complicated to explain.

This leads into pagan rituals, an attempted virgin sacrifice, and a big shoot-’em-up climax. Director Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote the script with Aykroyd and Alan Zweibel, doesn’t have enough style to dovetail the action stuff into the funny Aykroyd/Hanks banter, though he comes close at times.

As a summer movie, it’s not a bad two hours. Aykroyd’s performance, which may go over the heads of audiences not familiar with the series, is very easy to enjoy. With his locked jaw and crewcut at constant attention, he pulls the film into some funny places.

First published in the Herald, June 27, 1989

Playing to Aykroyd’s strengths for impersonation here, a wise move for an actor with a narrow but effective gauge. I always wondered why Hanks did this picture, and I always wondered why his character name was Pep Streebeck.