Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach (1988, directed by Alan Myerson)

Police Academy 5 starts as so many Police Academy films have started.  Commandant Lassard (George Gaynes) is getting progressively more loopy and Captain Harris (G.W. Bailey) is plotting to take over the Academy.  This time, Harris thinks that he has come up with the perfect plan when he discovers that Lassard has reached the mandatory retirement age.

With retirement looming, Lassard attends one final law enforcement convention in Miami.  At the convention, Lassard is to be honored as “Police Officer of the Decade” because it was apparently a very slow decade.  Lassard decides to bring along his favorite academy graduates so that they can celebrate with him and meet his nephew, Sgt. Nick Lassard (Matt McCoy, who you may recognize as Seinfeld’s Lloyd Braun or maybe as the spokesman for Hartford Insurance).   The commandant invites Sound Effects Guy (Michael Winslow), Tackleberry (David Graf), Hightower (Bubba Smith), Hooks (Marion Ramsey), Callhan (Leslie Easterbrook), and House (Tab Thacker).  Notice who isn’t there?  This was the first Police Academy film without Steve Guttenberg’s Carey Mahoney and Commandant Lassard celebrating his career without inviting his most loyal graduate doesn’t seem right.

Once what is left of the old gang arrives in Miami, they get caught up in the usual Police Academy shenanigans.  Rene Auberjonois plays a jewel thief who accidentally switches bags with the Commandant and who has 24 hours to retrieve the stolen diamonds.  It’s Florida so there are women in bikinis and an Everglades boat chase.  Harris gets humiliated in every way possible.  The jokes are even more juvenile than usual.  Nick Lassard uses sunscreen to permanently label Harris as being a “dork” so everyone on the beach calls Harris a “dork.”  That’s as sophisticated as things get.

Unfortunately, there’s a Steve Guttenberg-shaped hole at the center of Police Academy 5 and not even as formidable a thespian as Matt McCoy can fill it.  Even though Guttenberg always seemed like he was miscast as both a cop and a former juvenile delinquent, Police Academy 5 shows how important he really was to the franchise.  Mahoney was the closest thing that the Police Academy films had to a fully developed character and, without him around, it’s even more obvious how thinly drawn all of the other characters were.  (Guttenberg was filming Three Man And A Baby while Police Academy 5 was in production though, in an A.V. Club interview a few years ago, Guttenberg said the real reason he wasn’t invited to Miami Beach was because the producers couldn’t afford to pay his salary.  “You’ve got to get paid!” Guttenberg explained.)

I will, however, give Police Academy 5 some credit.  Rene Auberjonois does what he can with his bumbling jewel thief and the scene where Tackleberry pulls a gun on a shark made me laugh.  Otherwise, Police Academy 5 is no Police Academy 3.

Tomorrow, it’s time for … you guessed it! …. Police Academy 6!

Shattered Politics #29: Billy Jack (dir by Tom Laughlin)


“Go ahead and hate your neighbor; go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of heaven; you can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowin’ come the judgment day
On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away”

— From One Tin Soldier, the theme song of Billy Jack (1971)

Yesterday, we took a look at The Born Losers, the first film to ever feature the character of future U.S. Senator Billy Jack.  The Born Losers ended with former Green Beret-turned-gun-toting-pacifist Billy Jack (played, of course, by Tom Laughlin) saving the girl, killing the bad guy, and getting shot in the back by the police.  As Born Losers ended, we were left to wonder whether Billy would survive his wounds or would he just be another victim of the establishment.

Well, audiences had to wait five years to find out.

When Laughlin returned to the role in 1971’s Billy Jack, it was revealed that not only had Billy Jack lived but he was now residing in a cave with his wise Native American grandfather.  Billy still had little use for civilization but he would occasionally emerge from his cave.  Sometimes, it was to protect wild mustangs from being hunted the evil Old Man Posner (Bert Freed) and his sociopathic son Bernard (David Roya).  Other times, it was to protect the Freedom School and, even more importantly, the Freedom School’s founder, Jean (played by Laughlin’s wife, Delores Taylor).

The local townspeople viewed the Freedom School with suspicion and whenever the students went into town, they would be harassed by Bernard and his friends.  Fortunately, the students could always count on Billy to show up, say a few angry words, and then lose control. Billy may have been a liberal but he was no pacifist.  Jean, however, fully embraced nonviolence and she always made it clear that she wasn’t comfortable with Billy providing her kids with a violent example.

Finally, both Jean and Billy’s convictions were put to the test.  First off, the bigoted townspeople tried to close the school.  Then, Jean was raped by Bernard.  And finally, Billy found himself barricaded in an old mission, surrounded by police and national guardsmen.  Even as Jean pleaded with Billy to lay down his weapons and to peacefully surrender, Billy made it clear that he was willing to die for his beliefs.

And, as the film ended, you would never guess that Billy Jack would eventually become a member of the U.S. Senate.  But, in just a few years, that’s exactly what would happen in Billy Jack Goes To Washington!

Now, of course, Billy Jack is ultimately a product of its time and that’s both a blessing and a curse.  To be honest, if anything could transform me from being the socially liberal, economically conservative girl that you all know and love into a card-carrying right-wing extremist, it would be having to spend any time with the students at the Freedom School.  They are all so smugly convinced of their own moral superiority that the townspeople almost start to look good by default.  Whether they’re attending improv class or disrupting a meeting at town hall, the majority of the students come across like a bunch of rich kids from the suburbs, playing hippy and slumming by hanging out with poor minorities.  As you watch them, it’s difficult not to suspect that most of them are going to get bored with rebelling after a year or two and eventually end up growing up to be just like their parents.

Fortunately, the film is saved by the pure sincerity of Laughlin and Taylor.  For all the attention that the film gets for the scenes of Billy Jack beating people up, the most compelling scenes are the ones where Jean and Billy Jack debate nonviolence.  There’s an honesty and a passion to these scenes, one that proves that Laughlin and Taylor, as opposed to so many other self-styled counterculture filmmakers, were actually serious about their beliefs.  Billy Jack is an essential film, not only as a time capsule of the era in which it was made but also as one of the few films to actually make a legitimate attempt to explore what it truly means to embrace nonviolence.

Billy Jack is also a historically important film.  When American Independent Pictures withdrew from the production, Laughlin took Billy Jack to 20th Century Fox.  When 20th Century Fox looked at the completed film and did not know how to market it, Laughlin distributed the film himself, without the support of a major studio.  And, despite what all of the naysayers may have predicted, Billy Jack was a huge hit.

And every indie filmmaker since owes a huge debt of gratitude to Tom Laughlin.