Film Discussion

The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell Of Fear – Throwback 30

“Frank Drebin is back. Just accept it.”

It seemed an unlikely proposition that a movie based upon a short-lived television series, consisting of just half-a-dozen episodes, would not only be a box office smash, but go on to produce a sequel. After all, the creative team that consisted of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker had bowed out of doing a follow-up to their 1980 hit Airplane!, and one of their previous films – 1984’s Top Secret! – had done only modest numbers, making the studio barely double its rather meagre budget.

However, The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad! – released at the end of 1988 in the United States – proved to be rather a sleeper hit, grossing over $140 million globally, and breaking into the year’s top 20 movies at the box office. When it came time to put together another film, continuing the story of Lieutenant Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), which was adapted from the cancelled Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker 1982 series Police Squad!, the trio had already started to go their separate ways, with Jerry Zucker having directed 1990’s romantic fantasy thriller Ghost.

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However, the Z-A-Z trifecta remained executive producers, with David Zucker deciding to direct by himself this time, as well as bringing in The Naked Gun co-writer Pat Proft (who had also co-created the Police Academy series) to work on a script for this continuation of the original. It led to the movie – which was to be released under the name The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell Of Fear – bearing the typically jokey credit at the start of “Un Film De David Zucker”, having declared that it was still a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker production.

Whereas the original Police Squad! on TV had episodes that were wholly self-contained, what was to ultimately become a trilogy of Naked Gun films carried a running thread which was a love story between Drebin and Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley), and their on-again, off-again relationship. It was a specially-filmed trailer, which was ultimately incorporated into the finished film, that played up this aspect by spoofing the pottery scene from Jerry Zucker’s Ghost, using the pair in the roles played by Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore; it even went as far as referring to The Naked Gun 2½ as being from “the brother of the director of Ghost in a voiceover.

Perhaps unusually for a mainstream Hollywood feature film that era – and even moreso in a comedy – was there being a strong environmental message; this was all down to David Zucker’s creative control over the project, as he could bring to bear some of his long-held green advocacy into the script. In 1988, Zucker became involved in a California-based group known as TreePeople, which is involved with the renewal of depleted landscapes, and building sustainable ecosystems in and around the Los Angeles area; Zucker ended up becoming a board member in 1990, a role he holds to this day.

The then-current President George H.W. Bush – who ended up being lampooned in the film, with John Roarke taking on the role – was still holding office when the Energy Policy Act of 1992 came into effect the year after The Naked Gun 2½ came out; this legislation set goals for encouraging energy efficiency and increasing the use of cleaner, greener energy sources, which was central to the plot of the movie. However progressive and forward-thinking this may have been at the time, it feels disappointing that three decades on, we are still having the same conversations, with a climate emergency on the horizon, and looming closer than ever.

The film’s storyline has President Bush holding a dimmer at the White House, at which he announces the government’s energy policies will be based on the recommendations made by Dr. Albert Meinheimer (Richard Griffiths); the joint heads of the nuclear, oil and coal energy industries are worried over what the outcome of this will mean for them, so Hexagon Oil executive Quentin Hapsburg (Robert Goulet) – who happens to also be Jane’s current boyfriend – sets up a plot involving the kidnapping of Dr. Meinheimer, and replacing him with a lookalike, who will advocate not turning to renewable energy sources.

Goulet already had an association of sorts with Frank Drebin and Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, having appeared as a ‘Special Guest Star’ in the opening titles of the Police Squad! episode ‘The Butler Did It (A Bird In The Hand)’, before he then ended up unceremoniously killed off moments later (a running joke with all the other ‘Special Guest Star’ celebrities, who never made it into an actual episode). Curiously, Goulet also had a link via Priscilla Presley, as while she was married to Elvis, he once shot a television on which Goulet had been performing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ (which Frank Drebin slaughtered in The Naked Gun, posing as singer Enrico Pallazzo).

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As with the first film, The Naked Gun 2½ recycles a number of gags from Police Squad!, but you can easily forgive Zucker for this, as they were so good the first time round they stand up to being repeated on the big screen. Drebin continues his descent from a character played totally straight despite all of the surrounding absurdity, to a far broader, semi-Inspector Clouseau bumbling and pratfalling type instead. The sequel also feels a tad less sharp than the original, maybe suffering a little from Robert Goulet having to be compared to Ricardo Montalbán’s strong, memorable performance as the bad guy in The Naked Gun.

However, it was still good enough to not only outperform its predecessor – taking $192 million worldwide, and ending up as the tenth highest grossing movie of 1991 in the US (with a specially-shot TV spot for The Naked Gun 2½ parodying the year’s #1 film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) – it was able to also take away the top place at the box office in its first week of release from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. As the trailer for the film boldly proclaims: “This is a sequel so big, they had to add another ½. Mind you, that very same trailer also said that “if you only see one movie this year, you ought to get out more often”.

The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell Of Fear was released in the UK on 28th June 1991.

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