Classic Movie Review: The Naked Gun

I must have watched The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult about a hundred times as a kid.

The third entry in the Naked Gun trilogy came out when I was thirteen years old, so it was obviously pretty much targeted directly at me. Juvenile jokes and Anna Nicole Smith in lingerie; what more could a kid want? I’m relatively sure I’d never even seen the original–and I’m positive I’d never seen The Naked Gun 2 1/2 at that point–but man, I loved that third flick. I had it on VHS and just watched the absolute shit out of it.

When I think of it now, you know what sticks with me the most? The unfortunate transphobic joke that resolves the movie’s Anna Nicole Smith romance subplot. I mean, I know it was 1994 and this series was never meant to be the most highbrow of humor, but still… I wish that a flick I loved that much as an early teen didn’t leave me feeling so guilty about it as an adult.

(Didn’t the original Ace Ventura, released that same year, have pretty much the exact same joke now that I think about it?)

Anyway, how does the original–a film I’ve seen substantially fewer times in my life–hold up? Would I be filled with regret after watching that, too? Or does it maintain its spot as a comedy classic?

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In regards to that idea, let’s get the elephant right out of the room: I’d long since forgotten this trilogy co-stars OJ Simpson (and the aforementioned third movie I loved so much came out just months before the death of Nicole Brown). But the movies cleverly hide his inability to effectively act by repeatedly writing him out of the plots, so at least you’re not dealing that much with him.

The Naked Gun is based off of a short-lived television series called Police Squad!, and I’ll cop to never having seen that. Apparently it lasted all of six episodes, so it should be a breeze to blast through if I can find it anywhere, at least! The simple premise is a squad of bumbling detectives attempt to solve crimes.

That carries through to the movie, which sees Lt. Frank Drebin trying to solve the case of who attempted to murder fellow cop Norberg… only to get entangled in an assassination plan against Queen Elizabeth. Along the way, he meets the lovely Jane, and the two begin a relationship that carries on throughout the trilogy.

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I’m pretty sure this is from the sequel, but… it’s a great scene.

This is a movie that is not afraid to just throw every single joke at a wall and just hope more sticks than not. The Naked Gun barely takes a breath between jokes; it’s pretty much a never-ending stream of them. You have to appreciate the audacity of it all.

But yeah, that does mean that some of what makes the final cut (ohhhh… that reminds me*) isn’t exactly gold. An opening non-sequitor bit sees Frank infiltrate a meeting between the Iranian Ayatollah, Mikhail Gorbachev, Muamar Gadaffi, and others. It’s… very 1980’s, and I imagine a lot of people watching it today would have no idea what is going on. Drebin rubs the mole off of Gorbachev’s head! Not exactly timeless humor, you know?

Similarly, a later scene has Frank pratfalling into accidentally destroying all of the villain’s priceless artifacts in his penthouse, and it goes on a bit too long for my taste. It’s not entirely humorless, but it just feels like the writers thought if it just kept going, they could browbeat us into chuckling along.

Luckily, the flick gets better as it goes. And by the time our hero infiltrates a baseball playoff game to stop the assassination attempt, a stride is definitely hit. The entire climactic act of The Naked Gun is a riot. I’m genuinely not sure I stopped laughing from the moment Frank Drebin arrived at the stadium.

Ultimately, the movie lives and dies with Leslie Nielson, who is flawlessly cast as the movie’s lead. His timing, his voice, his facial expressions… everything about him fits this flick like a cozy full-body condom. This is the role he was born to play. Depending on the scene, he can either lead the silliness or be the straight man who is caught up in everything going on. Even in the acts where The Naked Gun is trying to find its groove, Nielson makes the fumbling worthwhile. And when everything is hitting in the third act, he is utter genius.

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*Okay, here’s what bothered me as I watched this! I have somehow accidentally seen a different cut of this movie on television once! So when I rewatched the movie for this review… a few things were different!

Most notably, an early joke has Frank and an informant passing $20 bills back and forth in a “maybe THIS will jog your memory” kind of way. It’s a great scene for the movie, and I still laughed.


I distinctly recall that moment going on longer than it did here. I definitely remember it ending with the informant off-handedly mentioning his mother has passed away. Drebin says he was unaware of that and offers his sympathy, whereupon the man slips him the $20 back and says something like, “Are you sure you didn’t know?”, and the detective says “Ohhh yeah, she is dead”.

I have no idea how you cut that joke. It KILLED me the first time I saw it on TV. I thought it was the best moment of the whole piece.

Frustratingly, I can’t even find this scene on YouTube. Did I… am I going crazy? Did this never actually happen?

(Don’t worry too much about me, some Googling told me this DID happen, but it’s a cut that only ever made TV and isn’t even available on DVD or Blu-Ray releases)

When absurdist comedy is done well, I usually love it. And it’s done extremely well here. Nielson got his rep as a comedic legend relatively late in life, but boy was it well earned. When the humor is as rapid fire as it is here, not every joke can land, but the ones that do will have you in a fit.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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