Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Leslie Nielsen - the man, the myth, the movies (or: A Dangerous Assignment)

Drebin: A good cop - needlessly cut down by some cowardly hoodlums.
Ed: That's no way for a man to die.
Drebin: No... you're right, Ed. A parachute not opening... that's a way to die. Getting caught in the gears of a combine... having your nuts bit off by a Laplander, that's the way I wanna go!

Last week had about the worst possible beginning as I heard my long-time hero Leslie Nielsen had passed away, aged 84. Goodyear? - No, the worst. But, at least that gives me an excuse to take a look back at some of his earlier films which I hadn't seen and of course remember some of the quotes and classic scenes from his classic films. You can read my appreciation for Forbidden Planet here.


The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Directors: Ronald Neame and Irwin Allen


This one is notable also because its director Neame has also recently passed away. He was in the ripe old age of 99 when he died. The film is about a capsizing cruise liner, as you may well know. Nielsen plays the ship's captain, who has a habit of answering various Bat-phones with blinking red lights around the ship. As a stock character, he is the one official getting worried about a threat, and when he tells some higher officials about it, they in their greed ignore his warnings. Nielsen's deadpan delivery of ridiculous lines would serve him well later on in the ZAZ movie Airplane!

Otherwise, it's the typical 70's catastrophy movie, with a lot of people falling to their deaths for two hours. It also has an ensemble cast worth dying for delivering cheesy lines as hammy as possible. A proper sandwich for a movie, then. As usual, if there is one character one would wish to die painfully and as early as possible, it's the annoying kid. Too little Nielsen, too much of this snot-nosed brat.

The Captain (Nielsen): It... seems to be building up to those shallows. By the way, Happy New Year.

★★ 1/2

Project: Kill (1976)
Director: William Girdler


Amazing title for a movie. This is the sort of film especially the later Nielsen parodies used to spoof, but without any jokes whatsoever. It is played as straight as can be. The hard-as-a-rock sergeant Nielsen escapes from an army base which plans to assassinate assassins or some shit and thus brainwash soldiers to do their bidding. It may seem like a good laugh from the premise, but mostly it's just dull, dull, dull. Still, it did have this scene:



★★

Prom Night (1980)
Director: Paul Lynch

Nielsen was advertized as the lead actor in this cheap Halloween ripoff, yet he is a long way from Donald Pleasance - he only appears in two unimportant scenes! He plays the mourn-stricken father of a long-since dead child and is OK in his role, I guess. Otherwise the film isn't very good at all, even though the opening scene with taunting children is suitably creepy and horrific. The attempts to create a threatening athmosphere just make the long wait for the carnage an even longer one, and for gorehounds there isn't enough tits and blood. The ending saves a little, but not much.

★★

Airplane! (1980)
Directors: Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker

Dr. Rumack (Nielsen): Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can't be serious.
Dr. Rumack: I am serious... and don't call me Shirley.

And thus, Leslie Nielsen reinvents himself. It's funny that some of his most hilarious lines were actually from the film Zero Hour! of which Airplane! was a comedic remake of. Lines, like:

Dr. Rumack: The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner.

The role of Rumack is one of the most serious in Nielsen's comedic career. There are no goofy faces, no embarrasing situations. Just saying the most stupid possible lines with as straight a face as possible. Nielsen is still just a part of an ensemble cast, but as there is in fact no difference in his acting here, and say, The Poseidon Adventure, he stands up well on his own. The fact that he gets some of the most famous lines and funniest skits doesn't hurt, either.



Dr. Rumack: What was it we had for dinner tonight?
Elaine: Well, we had a choice of steak or fish.
Rumack: Yes, yes, I remember, I had lasagna.

Dr. Rumack: You'd better tell the Captain we've got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine: A hospital? What is it?
Dr. Rumack: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.

★★★★

Creepshow (1982)
Director: George A. Romero



A friend of mine always keeps reminding how shocked he was to find that the Nielsen-starring sequence of this film isn't at all funny - at least in the patented ZAZ -way. Nielsen plays a jealous husband set to have his vengeance on his wife and her lover Ted Danson. The smirking sleazebag buries them in sand and watches the videos of them drowning back home. Nielsen may be overplaying, but it's exactly the style which fits this over-the-top tribute to the EC comics of the old days. The fact that his character may make a fan of his comedies uneasy just tells how good he has done both his goofball roles as well as this role here.

★★★ 1/2

Police Squad!, The Naked Gun Trilogy (1982-1994)

As well as Chaplin had with The Tramp and Peter Sellers had with Inspector Clouseau, Nielsen found his signature role in Lt. Frank Drebin. And created one of the greatest comedy characters there has ever been. Like Clouseau before him, Drebin is completely insane and unaware of scale of the destruction he causes around him. Unlike Clouseau, however (and hilariously), the outside world doesn't treat him as the menace he is, save for commissioner Annabelle Bumford.

Bumford: Do you realize that because of you this city has been overrun by baboons?
Drebin: Well... isn't that the fault of the voters?

-
The Naked Gun 2 1/2 - The Smell of Fear

It all started at the Police Squad TV-series which represented the ZAZ comedy at its peak. The serialized police series was as much done to death for being ripe for satirizing as the catastrophy genre before it. And the Zuckers sure had it. The series boasted on inspired running gags, great dialogue ("Sergeant, take her away and book her." "Sergeant Takeheraway, Sergeant Booker.") and the likes of Joe Dante and John Landis directing episodes. But the heart and soul of the series was Nielsen's wonderfully straight-faced cop Frank Drebin. If most of Drebin's hilariousness comes from Nielsen's poker face, the scene where he goes undercover as a stand up comedian is pretty funny itself. Unfortunatelly I couldn't find the clip on YouTube, but suffice to say Drebin adopts a sleazy entertainer-persona and tells the lamest jokes - yet makes everyone in the room howling with laughter. A goofy parodying of the fact undercover cops are always perfect when they have to act their part - or meta-level jokemaking on the fact of how we laugh at Nielsen the straight-faced actor in increasingly loony situations? Can't it be both? Police Squad also gave us things like these:



Drebin: We're sorry to bother you at a time like this, Mrs. Twice. We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn't dead then.

Drebin: Ed and I drove around for hours for no particular reason. We came up empty.

Veronica: Say, that was nice work. You took a big chance doing that.
Drebin: Well, you take a chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street, or sticking your face in a fan.

Ratings-wise the show was somehow a complete bomb, which is a shame because the world was gifted a mere six episodes. Yet the world of Police Squad! with its bumbling policemen and moronic cop-show logic was so perfectly formed that it could be transferred straight to cinema screens.



I still don't think I've ever laughed as much as when I first saw The Naked Gun. I was a small kid who had never seen a comedy with raunchy humour. And here was an old uncle-like policeman who forgot to take off his microphone and farted in the bathroom. The instant love for Nielsen as well as the whole ZAZ humour was sealed by one scene, which I still think is the funniest in the whole motion picture history:



Ludwig: Drebin!
Jane: Frank!
Drebin: You're both right.

Drebin: I've finally found someone I can love - a good, clean love... without utensils.


Drebin: The attempt on Nordberg's life left me shaken and disturbed, and all the questions kept coming up over and over again, like bubbles in a case of club soda. Who was this character in the hospital? And why was he trying to kill Nordberg? And for whom? Did Ludwig lie to me? I didn't have any proof, but somehow, I didn't entirely trust him either. Why was the 'I Luv You' not listed in Ludwig's records? And if it was, did he know about it? And if he didn't, who did? And where the hell was I?

The first Naked Gun is the most plot-heavy of the trilogy, taking about the most clich├ęd cop-movie plot there is and turning it to a gag-parade. It just wouldn't work without Nielsen's perfect delivery of stupid lines, aside from the moronic faces he occasionally makes. See the scene where he first meets the queen for details. The second one is nearly as good, but it also contains a bitter political analysis of the era of the first Bush in the White House.

Baggett: What's that smell?
Drebin: Oh, that would be me. I've been swimming in raw sewage. I love it!

Drebin: Oh, it's all right. I'm sure that we can handle this situation maturely, just like the responsible adults that we are. Isn't that right, Mr... Poopy Pants?

Drebin: I'm sorry I can't be more optimistic, Doctor, but we've got a long road ahead of us. It's like having sex. It's a painstaking and arduous task that seems to go on and on forever, and just when you think things are going your way, nothing happens.

...and of course there are plenty of poop-jokes and below-the-navel-gazing. The last one in the trilogy has its moments, which at best are still brilliant (the opening scene with the disgrunteled mailmen and the film parodies at the Oscar gala), but it depends a little too much in movie-parodying and celebrity cameos to be a coherent one. In fact, it is starting to resemble the parody films of the Naughties. Nielsen's delivery, however, is still pretty much perfect.



Police Squad: ★★★★★
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! ★★★★★
The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear ★★★★
The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult ★★★

Wrongfully Accused
(1998)
Director: Pat Proft



The best of the parody films Nielsen made without Zuckers. Director-writer Pat Proft of course has been an asset to numerous films by the ZAZ team, so no worries there. This one targets mostly films like The Fugitive and The Usual Suspects - a fact of which I was not aware of when I first saw this as a preteen. Although the movie-parodies carry the plot, there are still plenty of good lines and silly slapstick to make it an enjoyable experience. I would've liked to say the same about Spy Hard, but after rewatching it recently and finding out that the Dynamic Duo of the Death of All Comedy are writers behind it (I'm not going to name any names. Look them up at IMDb if you must), some good will towards that movie is gone. Even if it has the I <3 style="font-style: italic;">Ryan Harrison (Nielsen): Your dog sure has a surprised look on his face.
Lauren: That's because you're looking at his butt.
Harrison: Uh, then he's certainly not going to enjoy that treat I just fed to him.

Harrison: Don't move. I've got a gun. Not here, but I got one.

Harrison: Your lies are like bananas. They come in big yellow bunches.

Wrongfully Accused: ★★★ 1/2
Spy Hard: ★★ 1/2

Scary Movie 3 & 4 (2003, 2006)
Director: David Zucker



I'm almost ashamed to say this, but I like the two latest Scary Movie sequels. It's largely thanks to David Zucker, taking over from the unfunny and talentless Wayans brothers. The films are not exactly subtle, and contain many bad, bad, groan-worthy jokes (Charlie Sheen's Viagra scene, anyone?), but hell, they have Nielsen playing the president of the United States and they make fun of the inexplinably popular Signs movie so I have no beef with them.

President Harris (Nielsen): These men died for their country. Send flowers to their bitches and hos.

President Harris: You're excited? You should feel my nipples.

President Harris: I just don't get kids. Remind me to sign that abortion bill.

Scary Movie 3: ★★★
Scary Movie 4: ★★★

I didn't dare to touch on any of the films he made after the Scary Movies. Let's just give salute for Leslie Nielsen. He was a true one-of-a-kind legend. As Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges are also now dead, at least. But seriously, I will Shirley miss Nielsen and will continue to rewatch Naked Guns whenever I'm feeling particularly blue. Let's guve the last words for Leslie himself. What has he to say over his career longer than 50 years?

Drebin: Oh, and by the way: I faked every orgasm!

OK, how about what message would he leave for us mere mortals over our mundane lives?

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