The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear at 30
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad, from 1988, is widely considered a beloved comedy classic. Starring Leslie Nielsen as so-bumbling-it-works Los Angeles cop Frank Drebin, the film had a gag-a-minute sensibility that consistently delivered laughs, leading up to the third-act baseball game sequence, one of the greatest sustained comedy set-pieces ever in the movies.
But I’ve always believed that the first sequel, 1991’s The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear, was the equal of the first movie. It’s as funny as the first film while also making its plot a biting parody of corporate influence on the U.S. energy industry. It’s the sort of thing that would come across as smug if a Hollywood comedy did it today, but here, it all works.
The first Naked Gun was an adaptation of the short-lived TV series Police Squad!, which was meant to parody the conventions of 1960s cop shows. The original movie married this sensibility to the gag-a-minute ethos of Airplane, Top Secret!, and other movies from the “ZAZ” team of director David Zucker and writers Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. The three men co-created Police Squad!, while Zucker co-wrote the second film with Pat Proft.
The second film rhymes with the first in lots of ways. Rather than the original film’s summit of anti-American world leaders, the second film begins with a White House state dinner from the first George Bush administration era.
The plot soon kicks in: Oil and gas executives, led by the evil Quentin Hapsberg (Robert Goulet) are seeking to influence the energy policies of President Bush, who has vowed to accept the recommendations of scientist Dr. Meinheimer (Richard Griffiths), who supports the use of renewable energy.
So the bad guys kidnap Meinheimer and replace him with a double (also Griffiths), who will recommend Bush do what the polluters want. It’s not exactly a historically accurate read on the energy policy proclivities of the oil-adjacent Bush family, but I guess we’re meant to go with it.
Enter Frank Drebin, who for some reason has jurisdiction in Washington despite being a cop in Los Angeles. He’s again fighting with the villain over Jane (Priscella Presley), and much like Ricardo Montalban in the original, the bad guy suffers a shockingly gruesome death.
No, there’s nothing in the second movie that’s quite as funny as the baseball sequence in the first film. But the second Naked Gun keeps the energy up for its entire running time.
How do the Naked Gun movies hold up today, following the George Floyd racial reckoning? They’re pretty far away from the realm of realism when it comes to depicting the reality of American policing. However, we do get the sense that Frank Drebin often poses a danger to those around him since we learned in the first movie that Drebin once interrupted a Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar and “killed five actors- good ones!” Of course, even more, loaded about these movies is that O.J. Simpson is in them, as frequently injured sidekick Nordberg.
Of course, the third Naked Gun film, 1994’s Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, is a pretty significant step down from the first two, known primarily as probably the most prominent acting role for Anna Nicole Smith. A few ago, there were rumors of a Naked Gun reboot, possibly with Ed Helms as Drebin, but that never came to fruition.
Endlessly re-watchable on cable, the second Naked Gun was not only another successful deployment of the ZAZ formula, but it had a prescient critique of energy policy, the sort of thing the movies now deal with mostly with earnest documentaries.