Dragnet Me to Hell

Dragnet (1987)

I have crystal clear memories of digging out my Dragnet VHS (taped off the telly) and watching it regularly, in a ritual of my own – sat on our living room carpet, sipping milk and nibbling Jaffa Cakes (always two for some reason).

I was aware of Dan Aykroyd from the ’80s kid mega hits, Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, as well as The Great Outdoors, and Tom Hanks from other childhood staples like Turner & Hooch (a buddy cop movie of its own), Big, Splash, and The ‘Burbs, so they were the main draw.

Dragnet was directed by Superman and ’70s Bond screenwriter (not to mention uncredited script doctor on WarGames and Gremlins), Tom Mankiewicz – who appears to have a penchant for snake attacks, as he once penned a short outline for Moonraker, which includes a scene reminiscent of the attempted virgin sacrifice in Dragnet where Drax’s pet python develops a crush on Roger Moore’s 007.

Dragnet was an odd film to watch religiously, but back then the films seemed to choose us. We got whatever was deemed decent enough to air on one of four UK terrestrial channels – usually cut to shreds by censors. The splice-happy BBFC chopped out 14 seconds of nunchucks from Dragnet’s theatrical and video versions and Michelangelo knows how much from the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, not “ninja” underlined, cartoon as the weapon was heavily restricted.

“The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. For example, George Baker is now called Sylvia Wiss.”

Narrator, Dragnet

Dragnet’s prologue highlights the disparities between L.A. natives and immediately showcases the iconic soundtrack with Aykroyd’s eager flathead, Friday’s footsteps stomping assuredly to its dramatic rhythm. The dog in sunglasses representing “race”, Kosher Style Burritos, Best Western mosque motel and quality Donut Hole inserts confidently nail the parodistic tone of what follows – starting with the classic Los Angeles police badge opening titles, now with an added remixed theme.

The Roger Ebert-coined genre term, “Oneza” immediately springs to mind. Uptight Sgt. Joe Friday – namesake nephew of a hero cop uncle, is an anally retentive stickler. Tom Hanks’ Det. Pep Streebeck (greatest character name in cinema history) is the contrasting, hipster freebird – Friday’s lone wolf partner. What follows is buddy cop duo movie playtime. Dragnet has all the noirish, archetypal plot points and ticks every stereotypical trope box of the police procedural, albeit satirical as hell.

There’s the occult secret society gathering resembling Bohemian Grove or a swastika-plastered Nazi rally, incriminating P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness and Normalcy) calling cards left at crime scenes, the car chase joyride complete with a ball-busting interrogation, the polar opposite pairing of Friday and Streebeck going undercover, their long-suffering superior, Capt. Gannon (OG Dragnet’s Harry Morgan) doesn’t believe them of course when they crack the case and subsequently chews them out. There’s a car bomb, a strip club, ethnically stereotypical gang members, a tied-to-a-chair kidnapping, sneaking around, double-crossing, a SWAT team assault, and Friday’s inevitable suspension from the force – meaning he loses his sacred gun and badge – taking our lead protagonist down to his lowest ebb before a triumphant, tank entrance return, set to a powerhouse, Indy-esque score. The spoofy, surreal plane pullover denouement caps it with Friday rescuing the virgin (not for long), Connie Swail, played by Baywatch babe, Alexandra Paul.

Friday: Ma’am, what is the approximate dry weight of the average Madagascan fruit tree bat? Streebeck: You mean you don’t know?

Aykroyd revels in Friday’s loquacious, jargonised monologues as the deadpan, by-the-book sergeant, who vigilantly sticks to federally mandated speed limits, while Hanks practically dances through Dragnet, doing some of his best pre-Oscar noms daft-work. My favourite moments include him recognising every Bait Mate girl at the Playboy Mansion-esque house of lisping, “slut-peddler”, Jerry Caesar, the OTT undercover cover-up laughter, feeding a giant snake hallucinogenic love drugs with his phoney moustache half hanging off, rapping the Miranda rights, performing an impromptu dog puppet show with some goat leggings, and of course, the ensuing goat dance debrief. Finally, the frankly bonkers, Paula Abdul-choreographed Dragnet rap, “City of Crime” feat. MC Hanx and The Notorious D.A.N.’s raucous rhymes. One other standout Hanks line, which I only just got on a recent viewing was his drawling “Highway sixty-oooooone” Bob Dylan reference.

“Kill the good! Kill the good! Kill the good!”

Pagans, Dragnet

Superman II’s Jack O’Halloran is featured as the sinister, ‘tached arsonist and brilliantly named, Emil Muzz, who honestly always gave me the creeps, and to top it off, there’s M.A.M.A.’s (Moral Advance Movement of America) “mental fur-ball” – the goat-masked P.A.G.A.N. high priest, Reverend Jonathan Whirley, played bizarrely and ominously by Spacey-replacer, Christopher Plummer.

Dragnet isn’t exactly a child friendly film. There’s a partially nude striptease, adult lines like “Prepare the virgin!” and thanks to Muzz’s sweary landlady, Kathleen Freeman (another original Dragnet returnee), we’ve got “pencil dicks” and “asswipes” galore, plus gross gems like “goddamn puss-faced little pimp stick”, “useless, scum-lapping shit bag”, “slimy little jizz bucket” and “miserable little bag of puke.”

It’s certainly a rare bird, and despite being pretty funny and impressive at times – unlike Sylvia Wiss’s 43-year-old breasts, Dragnet hardly “borders on the spectacular.” It does, however, play particularly well in a double bill with another forgotten ’80s Aykroyd (and Chevy Chase) peculiarity, Spies Like Us.

Dragnet is seemingly in movie jail, with a Google search favouring the ’50s TV series and its spinoffs over the 1987 movie, but it’s eligible for parole now. So go through your “boxes of smut”, dig out that dusty VHS or DVD, track it down on a streaming service (you’ll be lucky), or grab that Shout! Factory Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, some chewing gum and a Snickers bar, and peer back into the days of the ol’ 4:3 family telly.

Pee-wee’s Big Rewind

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) | Big Top Pee-wee (1988)

Kooky cult comedy antics abound in this ’80s double bill oddity, starring Paul Reubens as his madcap Groundling creation, Pee-wee Herman.

Adorned in a grey suit, white high-heeled shoes (“tequila!”) and a little red bowtie, the petulant, childlike roars and idiosyncratic shenanigans of Reubens’ character were lapped up by an infantile me, endlessly looping a homemade Big Adventure tape.

What was the draw? Firstly, I found it immensely engaging and incredibly funny, but Pee-wee is about as distant from my onscreen heroes like Bond or Indy as you could possibly imagine. A skinny, effeminate, asexual manchild with a penchant for cute dogs, frequenting joke shops, and riding an ostentatious, campy red bicycle. It’s enough to make parents concerned. Whilst my masculine, manly-man quota was jam packed with Michael Knight, The A-Team, and Magnum P.I., Reubens’ alter ego was arguably a yin to their yang – anima indulgence, in the way a northern lad solely watching Rocky and Top Gun could never access.

“It’s like you’re unravelling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting.”

Pee-wee Herman, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

In terms of the comedy, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (scripted by Reubens and a pre-SNL Phil Hartman, drawing on the 1948 Italian neorealist drama, Bicycle Thieves as inspiration) lays it on pretty thick. I’d estimate around 60-70% of it still sticks. Whether that’s a case of the funnies themselves aging, or the fact that Pee-wee split audiences back in the 1980s (and likely always will), I’m uncertain.

The breakfast making machine, bitter interactions with the intolerable “Francis!” (my favourite moment of his has him monstrously destroying model battleships at bathtime in his giant indoor swimming pool) and the escaped convict hitchhiker in Big Adventure all had me chuckling again, but this time around it was Pee-wee’s misunderstood recounting of a dream that really made me howl.

Simone: Do you have any dreams? Pee-wee Herman: Yeah, I’m all alone. I’m rolling a big doughnut and this snake wearing a vest…

The Pee-wee films are not without a big scoop of nostalgia for me. I remember them fondly for all their delirious exploits and the early directorial flourishes of Tim Burton, whose movies like Batman, Batman Returns (where Reubens played The Penguin’s monocled father), and Beetlejuice were also on regular VHS rotation. Upon the latest rewatch, Francis’ gothic, striped towel stood out like a Burton-shaped sore thumb, and what says Tim Burton more than a snake in a vest? This being his first live action feature film, it’s an early insight into Burton’s bizzaro outsider protagonists of choice, and it evidently paved the stripey black and white road for later incarnations of oddness ahead.

My memory of falling in love with Valeria Golino as Gina Piccolapupula in the sequel, Big Top Pee-wee is vivid, perhaps partially due to her other sultry roles at the time in Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux.

Randal Kleiser (director of Grease, Flight of the Navigator, and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid) toes the line in terms of Reubens’ and Burton’s already established aesthetics. There’s the welcome inclusion of Vance – the chatty, anthropomorphised pig, and some further underlying absurdity, particularly noticeable in the freaky, Tod Browning-esque circus folk, featuring a human pretzel, a hermaphrodite, a tiny pixie wife, conjoined twins, a mermaid in a bath, Kevin Peter Hall as Big John, and a brief film debut by Benicio del Toro as Duke, the Dog-Faced Boy.

Big Top also boasts a hearty, dignified performance from Kris Kristofferson as circus ringmaster, Mace Montana – a befitting counterweight to Herman. He’s as close to a dad as the fatherless Pee-wee gets.

“You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”

Pee-wee Herman, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

The sexuality of Herman, although something which never dawned on me as a child, is thought provoking. There’s not a hint of it in Big Adventure. In fact, Pee-wee actively dodges a drive-in date with his admirer, Dottie (until the end) and seemingly has little interest in women, even as he’s entwined in his 007 fantasies, but by the time Big Top rolled around, so did Pee-wee, literally, on a picnic blanket with schoolteacher and reluctant girlfriend, Winnie.

Although the infamous South Trail Cinema incident looms large in Pee-wee lore, the “victimless occurrence”, as Pee-wee’s Playhouse collaborator and buddy Cyndi Lauper put it, perhaps shouldn’t, and personally doesn’t alter my view or enjoyment of the films. The movies have enough in the bank with me, but for some, it did shatter the sexual ambiguity of Pee-wee, albeit via Reubens, who notably, to indulge the illusion that Pee-wee is real, prefers to be credited as the titular character – an error in judgment in retrospect perhaps, as it never allowed a line to be drawn between Paul and his Pee-wee persona.

We don’t know Pee-wee’s age, he has no job we’re aware of, yet puzzlingly resides in a playhouse packed with gadgets “Doc” Brown would flip over. It’s all fantasy. The type that indulges the mind of a child and throws a monkey wrench into the brain of an adult. I had to put my childhood eyes back in to experience Pee-wee like before, but once I was acclimated, it took me back like time travel in a way that only a handful of films can.

Amid the madness, there is the pointed, poignant message to misfits that “it’s okay to be different.” Pee-wee exemplifies this and let’s face it, there are far worse sentiments you could impart to the kids of the world.

For me, both films are akin to looking back at photographs of simpler, happier times with a life yet to be lived. They’re tinged with a sliver of sadness. A melancholy. Perhaps it’s the image of a man completely in tune with himself but so out of whack with others. Although in these movies, Pee-wee is predominantly embraced by people and it’s his own peculiarities that alienate him.

There’s still something off-kilter about it all: the histrionic performances, quirky art direction and design, Danny Elfman’s urgent score music – yes. But also on an unintentional level. Something outside the filmmakers’ control, like Lynchian creepy crawlies lurking beneath a white picket fence. Not depravity or lewdness. Something harder to pin down.

There’s palpable discomfort when Pee-wee peers into the lens, bids us good morning and whispers, “I’m here!” It’s weird enough to disturb, saccharine enough to churn the stomach a little, and artful and intriguing enough to justify a big rewind.

“Be sure an’ tell ’em Large Marge sent ya!”