Film discussion

Throwback 30 – Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach

I’ve seen Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach more times than Star Wars. This 1988 comedy was recorded off ITV (with ad-breaks) and rewound and watched more times in my family home than most films people call cinematic classics. If I were to count how many times I’d seen Assignment Miami Beach in my young life, I would run out of fingers and toes. In comparison to the likes of say; Back to the Future (1985), I wouldn’t have trouble keeping count on one hand.

When the chance to write about one of the Police Academy movies came up, I leaped at the chance. I am sure people who have followed my writing and know my taste may ask why? This is a franchise which was routinely bad and progressively got worse as the film count increased. My answer to them is simple: Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach is one of the films of my childhood.

The original Police Academy (1984), was a crude and bizarre vehicle. A bizarre fustercluck of sophomoric farce, bad taste gags, and dubious social politics, but it’s success with its audience – going up against the likes of Ghostbusters and Gremlins and still making serious bank – meant that the filmmakers were on to a cash cow. It was a film that strangely connected with an audience despite being poo-pooed by many critics and it was easy to see why.

This low rent, common denominator stuff, with scattershot jokes and a woolly plot, yet it’s no surprise that despite its evident flaws, the knock around charm of the film’s underdog rouges gallery has the kind of endearing quality that can sometimes attach itself to a viewership. It’s one-note characters, while lacking in depth, are pitch at just the right tone for a certain type of easy watch. Jones does noises! Hightower is really strong! Tackleberry loves guns! And of course, one should never estimate the knowing Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg) grin.

By Police Academy 4’s climax, however, Mahoney had hot air ballooned into the sky with Sharon Stone (yes, really), and schedule conflicts had shelved Guttenberg commitments to the then yearly franchise. What were the films to do? Various cadets came and went throughout the first four films, yet Mahoney had been the glue to this oddball amalgamation of Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Stripes (1981) and supposed policing.

Veteran online film writer Outlaw Vern said it best when writing an overview of the series by stating the clear divide between pre and post-Mahoney films. His air balloon ascension to the skies marked a very distinct move away from the bawdiness that marked the first half of the franchise. Assignment Miami Beach highlighted this as it was clear that film moved into even more cartoonish pratfalls, while more of the more grubbier elements were quietly erased. That’s right fans, there’s no Blue Oyster Bar here. To be honest, when you move away from the usual (nameless) city that the film is set in and set most of the action in sunny Miami, it’s difficult to shoehorn your typical gay biker bar running gag. That said, there’s a far more focus on “cheeky” carry-on style hijinks here than Mahony paying a sex worker to give his commanding officer oral sex.

Gone is the mush-mouthed racial commentary (although Jones is still allowed to still take the Michael of badly dubbed Kung Fu films), but what we do get is insults tanned onto people’s chests, cheap fart jokes and a fart in the elevator gag which does little but highlight the desperation of the franchise of the time. Police Academy was base and low grade and yet the sub-par stooging that occurs within this fifth entry highlight the marked problem which affects so many sequels once they get past entry number three: dilution. This a film which holds no direction.

When set within the urban landscape, the series at least had plotlines, that while flimsy, had at least, held themselves together better than here. The film plot, which involves the retirement of borderline senile commandant Eric Lassard, stolen diamonds hidden within a video camera and the mob (?) is barely worth mentioning. It’s merely a chance to showcase some lackluster comedic set pieces that don’t really connect and at times, don’t even make sense. One such example is faithful series stalwart Sgt Tackleberry (the late David Graf) drawing his hand cannon on a Shark which has decided to menace the beach. A weird gag which plays on the idea that the shark knows it’s between threatened by a gun? Ok.

Set adrift with the loss of its main star, the franchise now has Matt McCoy (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle) to take on board the mantle of “substitute Mahoney”. A choice that doesn’t work as McCoy holds neither the cheek or the charm of one Mr. Guttenberg. Granted that Guttenberg’s level of charm he exhibits isn’t particularly high for a film series that’s basically Animal House with the police force, but in watching the McCoy in contrast, there’s certainly a difference.

This is what you get once you get to the fifth entry in a series. The dredges. The cast is now a hodgepodge of seasoned heads (Bubba Smith, Michael Winslow, Leslie Easterbrook et all), add-ons from the fourth film – although no pro skater Tony Hawk or comedian David Spade this time around – and new blood who add little chemistry. The aforementioned McCoy is a bit wet while Janet Jones plays Kate, an object of desire so forgotten about that one isn’t sure that they actually introduce her properly by name in her first scene. More time is spent trying to remember who started in which sequel than engaging with the nonsense occurring on screen. You might miss the aimless sequence in which Hightower (Smith) spikes a volleyball against the other guys because he’s the tallest and strongest, but I feel that might be a risk you’re willing to take.

In re-watching Assignment Miami Beach, I realise that this isn’t even a bad film in the sense of having a kitsch camp quality to its silliness. The film’s not even well-made, suffering from useless plotting, uneven tone, lackluster comic timing and irritating technical issues such as bad ADR. A film series that enjoyed recycling its better parts, even the film’s final everglade climax feels like a laboured riff on the third film’s governors ball finale. There’s a feeling that the series had already jumped the shark by the time way before it reached this point. Hightower wrestling an alligator, merely confirms things.

So why was this such a consistent watch by myself as a youth? Because Police Academy is top tier candy for a kid who didn’t grow up watching all the typical iconic movies but enjoyed irrelevance. Its farcical nature and cartoony characters are perfect for a child who doesn’t know better. Fart humour and pratfalls go a long way when you’re an ignorant kid. However, this re-watch of one of the most tired comedies the 80’s may have thrown up is quite telling for those whose viewing nature is wrapped up in doe-eyed nostalgic comfort viewing of childhood call-backs.

Sometimes forgotten is better.

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