There’s this feeling that lingers throughout Tom Mankiewicz’s satirical approach to the hit television series, Dragnet. The feeling is that there should be more laughs. With Dan Aykroyd playing a straight-edged police officer unable to fit into the modern society, and Tom Hanks as his hip, loose-living partner, this has the capability to be comedic dynamite. But the end result comes up way short of being great.
There are some laughs, but they are few and far between. The bright spot of this rather dull comedy is Aykroyd’s performance as Sergeant Joe Friday, the nephew of the original show’s character. He bears the same name as his uncle, and he has the same approach to cases as well. A traditional man who does everything by the book, and is prepped and ready to recite any California penal code verbatim, Joe is partnered with a more free spirit detective named Pep Streebeck (Hanks). The two consistently butt heads over their drastically opposite ways of living and handling cases.
During the '80s, Hanks seemed to be one of the go-to guys for comedies, and he has proven before that he has impeccable timing if given the right type of material. With Dragnet, though, it almost seems like Hanks is struggling to keep up with Aykroyd. He gets a few good zingers in, but Aykroyd’s deadpan humor trumps almost everything Hanks says or does.
The duo is sent to investigate a string of bizarre robberies committed by a cult group calling themselves P.A.G.A.N (People Against Good and Normal). Not only do Friday and Streebeck get their cruiser stolen, but all the printed copies of a pornographic magazine called Bait have been hijacked and destroyed. The magazine’s publisher, Jerry Caesar (Dabney Coleman), has also recently come under attack by popular Christian leader, Reverend Jonathan Whaley (Christopher Plummer).
Dragnet does attempt both being a satire of police procedural dramas and homage to the long-running program on which it was based. There’s the original theme song that plays in the beginning before being cut short for a more upbeat version. The original does get some more play time throughout, though, just to remind fans that, yes, this is Dragnet. Or, at least, it’s supposed to be.
Some other nods to the original series pop up here and there, such as a picture of the star of the original show, Jack Webb, on Aykroyd’s desk. Aykroyd narrates most of the film in the same fashion Webb did for the series, only here, it’s laced with humor. And, of course, Aykroyd tells the people he interviews that he wants “just the facts.”
The script by Aykroyd, Mankiewicz, and Alan Zweibel is woefully unbalanced. It switches from spoof to more action-heavy storytelling, weighing down the interest in the viewer as it progresses. A lot of the jokes fall flat from the beginning, only to be reused at other times. One example is in the opening narration, when the narrator says “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Again, another nod to the original show. But then it follows up with, “For example, George Baker is now ‘Sylvia Wiss.’” Later on, we meet an actual character named Sylvia Wiss, who happens to be a Playboy-type model.
Another joke that constantly gets brought up is the fact that one of the people rescued from the P.A.G.A.N. group is “the virgin” Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul). It wasn’t funny when it was first said, and it wasn’t funny any other time after that.
For the fans of Dragnet, Shout! Factory has released the film to Blu-ray for the first time through its Shout Select lineup. It comes in a new 4K restoration that looks pristine, and has no sound issues worth noting. The collector’s edition comes with a new interview with Alexandra Paul, as well as a new audio commentary from pop-culture historian Russell Dyball. The archive features include “Just the Facts,” a promotional piece for the film that aired on television with Hanks and Aykroyd discussing it and how they updated it for the 80s. There are also the film’s original trailers and TV spots and a photo gallery.
Taking a dramatic television show and turning it into a comedy is a formula that hardly works. Dragnet is just one of the many examples of that. Aykroyd gives his all, and it truly is a terrific performance. But the rest of the script can’t match what he brings to the film. And those are just the facts.