Who put the drag in "Dragnet" (selected theaters)? Not the actors, heaven knows. Dan Aykroyd's been off, perfecting a heavy-bodied, officious, splayfooted walk, the better to play the nephew of Joe Friday. Tom Hanks has been polishing up his throwaway ironic delivery, the better to play Friday's foil, while Dabney Coleman has whipped up a prissy-perverse accent that the kids probably will have down pat by Saturday night.
But somewhere it was decreed that this beloved cop caper needed a band of hedonistic zealots in goatskin leggings, the PAGANS--People Against Goodness and Normalcy--to hold bacchanalian sacrifices as the centerpiece of its plot.
Cri-min-net-ly, Joe. Doesn't anyone in Hollywood learn from anyone else's mistakes? "Young Sherlock Holmes" was a perfectly proportioned charmer until, out of nowhere, up popped 3,000 chanting priests making ritual sacrifices under the streets of London, and everything was knocked out of whack.
Whatever the "Dragnet" radio and television shows were, they were close to the fabric of Los Angeles, which didn't, as memory serves, include virgin sacrifices and pagan ritual. The Black Dahlia was bad enough.
It's a shame, because there's real affection for the old show knocking around in this car-chase disaster movie, and there are patches of bright dialogue in the script by Aykroyd, Alan Zweibel and the movie's director, Tom Mankiewicz. It makes the film seem absolutely schizophrenic.
The plot sets the new Joe Friday, still methodical, still so square you could put photo-mount corners on him, against new partner Pep Streebek (Hanks). (Actually, with that unaccustomed weight, Aykroyd looks a lot closer to Jack Webb's TV partner, Ben Alexander, than to Webb himself.)
Political and operational polar opposites, the two make a lovely non-couple, Friday sniffing in scorn at anyone looser than George Bush; Streebek the '80s incarnation of the '60s free spirit.
In the course of tracking down these pesky PAGANS, on the orders of their boss, Capt. Bill Gannon (still Harry Morgan, thank goodness), the partners come up against the ruler of a Playboy-like magazine and empire (Dabney Coleman), an unctuous TV minister (Christopher Plummer) and the Police Commissioner of Los Angeles (Elizabeth Ashley playing it like Cruella DeVil).
There are individual moments to remember with affection, like Hanks, offhandedly making his goat leggings behave like a pair of Yorkshire terriers in heat. Or Plummer, who does everything to make Streebek's description of him as "a mental fur ball" seem right on target. Then pagan ritual intersects with careening car chases, and those pages of delicious banter (like Friday, looking askance at roaming punks, "Smack dab in the same city where they recorded 'We Are the World' ") go right out the squad car window.
Oh, Friday finds a soul mate, a dollface he refers to as The Virgin--Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul) who lives in an Orange County house with pink shutters and neon hearts. And Streebek gets to practice safe sex--congratulations!--with a rotating series of luscious fellow officers. (The plug for Trojans is only slightly more noticeable than the plugs for the different brands of cars they wreck.)
But the plot has miles to go before we sleep. And the fun is gone, left on the highway somewhere with the transmission of that Yugo (Plug).
A Universal Studios release of an Applied Action/Bernie Brillstein production. Producers David Permut, Robert K. Weiss. Executive producer Brillstein. Director Tom Mankiewicz. Screenplay Dan Aykroyd, Alan Zweibel, Mankiewicz. Camera Matthew F. Leonetti. Editors Richard Halsey, William D. Gordean. Music Ira Newborn. Costumes Taryn DeChellis. Art director Frank Richwood, set decorator Arthur Jeph Parker. Sound Willie Burton. With Dan Aykroyd, Tom Hanks, Christopher Plummer, Dabney Coleman, Harry Morgan, Alexandra Paul, Elizabeth Ashley, Jack O'Halloran.
Running time: 1 hours, 46 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned to give special guidance for attendance of children younger than 13).