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Summer of ‘87: Dragnet: Not Just the Facts, Ma’am

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Summer of ‘87: Dragnet: Not Just the Facts, Ma’am

Dragnet’s screenplay is a veritable cornucopia of “what the fuck?” moments disguised as a big screen adaptation of a TV series. The ’50s police procedural created by Jack Webb is now a cop buddy movie overflowing with genre-skipping ’80s excess. It’s a parody, a mystery, a crime caper, a chase film, a satire and a horror movie featuring human sacrifice to an anaconda. It’s also a love story whose female component is referred to as “the virgin Connie Swail.” Dragnet winks at its source material often, but besides a committed lead performance by Dan Aykroyd and the return of Webb’s partner, Harry Morgan, little remains of the original show. This ain’t your grandmother’s Dragnet; it’s your deranged drunk uncle’s Dragnet.

Our first clue that something new has been added comes during the credits. The familiar Dragnet theme (dunnnn-da-dun-dun!) suddenly morphs into—I don’t know—some kind of horrible ’80s pseudo-techno remix. If Hell has elevator music, it will sound like Ira Newborn’s hopelessly dated score. I’m a child of the ’80s whose tolerance for that decade’s music is astonishingly high. So when I tell you it’s horrible, it’s probably torture for you. Newborn’s interminable noise segues into another nod to the series, its famous opening disclaimer: “The story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Dragnet the movie adds “For example: George Baker is now called “Sylvia Wiss.” I laughed, thinking this was just a cheap throwaway line. Then Sylvia Wiss showed up in the movie, sporting a pair of breasts one character refers to as “bordering on spectacular.” George Baker never had it so good.

Neither has Sgt. Joe Friday (Dan Aykroyd). The nephew of Jack Webb’s original Joe, Friday has inherited Webb’s no-nonsense style and rapid fire delivery. Friday reports to Uncle Joe’s partner Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan, reprising his role from the TV series) at the same precinct in the city of Los Angeles. Friday is extremely content with his lifestyle of chili dogs, a partner he can trust and a love of the law. All this changes shortly after we meet Friday: his partner quits to run a goat farm and the new guy is a rule-bending undercover narc who violates the dress code. This ’80s archetype invades Friday’s neat ’50s world, and Aykroyd reacts the way Jack Webb would have. In a fit of rapid-fire narration that’s perfect mimicry of his predecessor, Friday proceeds to dress down his new partner, citing the actual Los Angeles police rule codes the new guy is violating.

The new guy, Pep Streebeck, has a name fished from balled up typewriter paper in Spike Lee’s garbage can. Pep is played by the star of Bachelor Party, Tom Hanks. The standard issue dynamics ensue, with both parties getting on each other’s nerves before banding together to save the day. Aykroyd’s Friday does some things Webb’s Friday wouldn’t have considered, but Webb never had to face a criminal like Reverend Whirley (Christopher Plummer). Whirley, in addition being Friday’s favorite spiritual advisor, runs P.A.G.A.N, a snake worshipping cult whose sole purpose is to get the chief of police, Jane Kirkpatrick (Elizabeth Ashley) elected mayor. In their spare time, they rob dangerous chemicals, bats, anacondas, wedding dresses from ballsy, foul-mouthed old ladies, and the entire month’s printing of a porn magazine run by Mr. 1980’s sleazeball himself, Dabney Coleman.

What P.A.G.A.N. plans to do with all this I’ll reveal shortly. (You’ll need to discover for yourself what the acronym means.) Let’s stay with Coleman, whose porn magnate Jerry Caesar has one hell of a lisp and the moral outrage of Reverend Whirley. Friday and Pep are called to Caesar’s Mansion to investigate the theft of his latest issue. The dialogue that comes out of the intercom at Caesar’s Mansion perfectly encapsulates the level of humor on which Dragnet will operate. After buzzing the gate bell for entry, an exasperated female voice immediately responds: “OH THANK GOD, VIBRATOR REPAIR?”

I won’t lie. I rewound this about 17 times.

Friday doesn’t fix any joy buzzers but he does run into the aforementioned George Baker’s boobs. Sylvia Wyss tries to seduce him, and when Pep tries to do the wingman thing, Friday doesn’t catch on. Pep and the audience conclude that Friday is a virgin, which Friday acknowledges. This is important because, on the other side of town, P.A.G.A.N. is about to sacrifice a virgin using all the stuff they stole before this scene. Using unconventional police measures (i.e., slamming P.A.G.A.N.’s lead henchman’s balls in a drawer), Pep discovers the location of the P.A.G.A.N. ritual, which they infiltrate in time to save Alexandra Paul from getting the Conan the Barbarian snake treatment. How they do this is one of Dragnet’s many absurd pleasures.

Paul’s Connie Swail tells them she was kidnapped “because they needed a virgin.” This causes Friday to refer to her as “the virgin Connie Swail” for the rest of the picture. He also falls in love, or perhaps lust, with her, which must be a new emotion for him. Friday becomes as confused as Dragnet’s plot. When Friday musters up enough courage to take the virgin C.S. out to dinner, he brings his grandmother.

Back at screenplay central, we discover the good Reverend is in cahoots with the bad pornographer. They carry on a fake public feud and will equally collect and spend the money of their followers. Additionally, the duo plot to have Kirkpatrick’s mayoral candidate competitor photographed at Caesar’s Mansion in a compromising position so she can easily win the election. Kirkpatrick’s original plan to scare Los Angelenos with cult crimes failed to register because it felt like business as usual in L.A. Now the woman’s desperate!

You can figure out the rest of this based on your knowledge of ’80s police movies. Pep loosens up Friday, who eventually gets fired when he can’t prove why he’s done something outlandish. The fired cop goes rogue, the loose cop becomes more disciplined, the truth will out and an arched eyebrow and a dropped adjective say more than the PG-13 rating will allow. It’s all tied up, not with a neat little bow, but with what is easily the worst rap song ever recorded. Hanks and Aykroyd rap, in character, about the “City of Crime.” Hanks in particular outranks Rex Harrison and Vanilla Ice in the “Whitest Rapper Ever” contest, which makes this song a must-hear.

At one point, Coleman tells Plummer “you have balls as big as church bells.” So do the makers of Dragnet. Directed by Joe’s son Tom Mankiewicz and written by Aykroyd, Alan Zwiebel and others, Dragnet clearly knows how crazy it is, and how far away it is straying from the original TV show despite keeping Friday consistent with his past. In many ways, this is the template for all the TV show adaptations that followed Dragnet.

Maybe it’s because the ’80s are my coming-of-age decade, but I’ve gotten a kick out of Dragnet since the first Premiere magazine I received appeared in my mailbox. Friday and Pep were on the cover. I still have it. Maybe it’s time to let go of some of that ’80s love.

The Odienator will give you “Just the facts, Ma’am” at Roger Ebert’s Demanders Blog, Tales of Odienary Madness and Big Media Vandalism. His name has been changed to protect the guilty.