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Trigger-Happy

''Naked Gun 2 1/2'' -- See how the latest Leslie Nielsen film stacks up to its predecessors

''Naked Gun 2 1/2''

If I may be frank, and I don't mean Drebin, The Naked Gun 21/2: The Smell of Fear came as a surprise when I first saw it in the movies: It didn't make me laugh very hard. I suppose I was expecting the relentless comic rush of previous films by writer-directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (ZAZ to you, buster) — modern slapstick classics such as Airplane! and the first The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!. Instead, all I got were a handful of decent yucks.

I wasn't sure why, either, until I tried a little home-video experiment by watching the episodes of the original 1982 Police Squad! TV show (they're available on two tapes called Police Squad!: Help Wanted! and More! Police Squad!), followed by the two Naked Gun feature films in sequence. There are worse ways to spend six hours (like watching all three Smokey and the Bandits in a row), and you get to see a comic idea progress from creation through fruition to the inevitable onset of stagnation.

That idea was masterfully simple. ZAZ knew that the cop shows of the '70s — deadpan procedurals like Adam-12 and The Streets of San Francisco — operated an inch away from self-parody. And they knew we knew it. All they needed to do to make the genre screamingly funny was push it a tiny bit into the red zone.

Accordingly, the six half-hour episodes of Police Squad! were crammed with such ZAZ stock-in-trade as blink-and-you'll-miss-them sight gags, campy pop-culture references, and really stupid puns — but everything in the foreground was played straight. The sets were dismally cheap: two chairs, a desk, and some particleboard. The soundtrack was filled with stolid, middle-management narration and that blatting horn music beloved of Jack Webb. And eternal movie-of-the-week stiff Leslie Nielsen got to have it both ways as Lieut. Frank Drebin: He allowed himself to be used as a found object while showing just enough sly poise to let us know he was in on the joke.

If Nielsen had played the part more broadly, Police Squad! might have lasted more than six episodes. He never winked, though, and neither did the show. In the way that some people thought This Is Spinal Tap was about a real heavy-metal band, casual channel hoppers may have seen Police Squad! as just another Mannix knockoff (it didn't help that the show aired opposite Magnum P.I.). ZAZ were walking a thin line to begin with, and some of the flatter episodes, like the Joe Dante-directed ''Ring of Fear,'' are a little too close to actual bad television for comfort.

So what do you do if your idea is ahead of its time? You wait six years for your audience to catch up, then serve it to them again as a feature film. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! isn't just a bigger, better version of the TV show; ZAZ was now parodying cop movies, especially '80s shoot-'em-ups like Lethal Weapon, with their villains bent on global domination and MTV-ready love montages. Naked Gun subverts the shiny hipness of those films by peppering the cast with a whole legion of living pop-cult artifacts — Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson — but still it never overtly winks at us. It's moving too fast, building dizzy visual twists on top of dialogue as silly as ''Can I interest you in a nightcap?'' ''No, thanks, I don't wear one,'' and as inspired as ''She had a full set of curves and the kind of legs you could suck on all day.'' And not only is Nielsen's timing dead-on perfect, he has a new lightness here, as if he were still pinching himself over this deliciously unexpected career turn.

On the surface, Naked Gun 2 1/2 is a gleeful rehash of the first film: Bad guy Ricardo Montalban has been replaced by Robert Goulet, and Barbara Bush subs for Queen Elizabeth as a punching bag; otherwise, it would seem to be funny business as usual. Between the two films, though, ZAZ came unZAZed. Jerry Zucker had hit the big time directing Ghost (which this sequel dutifully parodies), and Jim Abrahams was working on the Top Gun satire Hot Shots!, leaving David Zucker and longtime coconspirator Pat Proft to script 2 1/2 by themselves. And you can sense something missing.

2 1/2's timing is a little pokey, the sight gags are often funnier in theory than in fact, and a few too many bits (''Is this a bust?'') have been lifted straight from the TV series. More distressingly, this movie winks. Where Nielsen and Co. had always underplayed, here they're encouraged to roll their eyes, to call attention to the moldy punch lines and generally announce, ''Hey, we know it's a joke too.'' The long pauses they take for audience laughs are especially cavernous on video, and there's a whiff of smugness that goes against what made Police Squad! a hoot in the first place: its honest love for the junk it was sending up. True, it's hard to hate a movie that disguises its hero as a singing caballero warbling ''Besame Mucho'' at a White House dinner (or, for that matter, that has the cojones to make John Sununu one of the villains), and Naked Gun 2 1/2 definitely has its share of gut laughs. But the wicked brat-boy energy is gone. In the wake of the first film's success, Naked Gun appears to have little left to parody but itself. Police Squad!: Help Wanted! and More! Police Squad!: B+; Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!: A-; Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear: C+

Originally posted Dec 20, 1991 Published in issue #97 Dec 20, 1991 Order article reprints