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.