Police Academy Vs. Fast and Furious, A Case of Character

I’ve only seen one of the Fast and Furious movies.  It was Tokyo Drift, and it wasn’t bad.  It’s a movie about racing cars.  So they race cars.  And while I can’t say a whole heck about the plot beyond that, I can say that if a car racing movie has cars racing, I really can’t complain.  It’s like watching a kung fu movie for the story.  Why would you do that?

Not that car racing / kung fu movies can’t have plots.  Kung Fu Panda has a great story AND great kung fu.  So it’s not impossible, but it’s not a deal breaker if the story’s a bit uninspired.

Not being a fan of the Fast and Furious films, I really don’t know quite what to make of them.  I get that they’re car chase / stunt movies, and that the formula is simple.  Good looking people driving around in cool cars.  But I am frankly amazed that there are now five of these films, and that there is no reason to believe more won’t be coming.  It’s like Police Academy.  A fine film, but you wouldn’t expect it to have spawned as many sequels as it did.  It’s inexplicable, but you can’t argue with reality. 

But really, the Police Academy films make more sense to me than Fast and Furious.  Because the Police Academy films have personality.

It’s easy to bash Police Academy.  But when I think about the film series now, I realize that a big part of its appeal was the characters.  Yes, they’re broad.  Nuance wasn’t their thing.  And as the sequels progressed, the silliness rose exponentially.  The same thing could probably be said for F&F, where our heroes have now progressed to robbing banks via car stunts.  Which is kind of like counterfeiting via swordfighting.  I’m sure a clever writer could make it work, but you have to admit it’s not the most natural fit.

But what’s understimated about Police Academy is that there’s some very strong character work here.  Simple, yes.  But like most things in writing, I find the direct approach is greatly undervalued.  Yet when you think of characters and ideas that stick with you, they tend to be simple ones.  The characters and concepts that stand the test of time can usually be summarized effortlessly.  It’s part of their appeal.

It’s like comparing the original Star Wars films to the prequels.  The characters and story in the originals are all obvious and easily consumable.  The prequels . . . not so much.  This is why the prequels will always remain less memorable.  Everyone remembers that fight on Jaba’s floating barge over the Sarlak pit.  Even if you haven’t seen it, it’s instantly recognizable.  Heck, the whole reason anyone originally thought Boba Fett was cool was because he had a cool costume that you knew on sight.  And even though Fett goes out like a chump, he still managed to leave a huge impression on the fans and non-fans.

(Yeah, yeah.  I know that he escaped the Sarlac and that the expanded universe explains blah blah blah.  Don’t care.  If it isn’t in the films, it doesn’t count.  Rather, it counts for superfans, but not for regular, everyday fans, which is kind of the basis for what this post is all about.)

Even when we think in terms of negative reaction to a character or story, it tends to be built on a very obvious element.  Jar Jar Binks is annoying because he’s so one-dimensional, but he is also, for better or worse, one of the most memorable characters in all the prequels.  And Skids and Mudflap from Transformers 2 might be obnoxious and irritating, but you can at least define their personalities versus almost every other Transformer and human in the film.

(And, yes, I also know about the possible racism leveled at Jar Jar, Skids, and Mudflap, but I’ve always felt it had less to do with intentional racism and more with the broad nature of their personalities.  Stereotypes are always broad, after all.  So is Jar Jar annoying and dumb because he’s a racist caricature?  Or are racist caricatures annoying and dumb and easy to apply to any character that is annoying and dumb and NOT obviously an established ethnicity?  Skids and Mudflaps, for example, seem to me to have more in common with white kids who try to immitate a culture they find cool rather than minstrel throwbacks.  They are robots from outer space, after all, and you can’t get much more non-ethnic and cultural outsider than that.  But this is threatening to throw this post in a whole different direction, so let’s get back to what I was here to originally talk about.)

The Police Academy characters work because they are easy to grasp.  Almost intuitively, you need only a single defining moment with them to understand them. 

Mahoney: Good-natured smart ass

Hightower: Tower of stoicism and strength

Tackleberry: Overeager gun nut.

Callahan: No nonsense badass with a hidden softer side.

Jones: Goofy, creative sound FX guy.

Granted, these are not characters that you will write a major thesis on.  But they work.  And you can tell they work because even if you don’t know the names, you can probably still imagine them.  And if you’ve seen the films, even if only in passing, you can probably remember them.

In comparison, take a look at the Star Wars prequels.  Can a casual viewer identify any particular Jedi without referring to the actor who played him?  And isn’t Anakin Skywalker always going to be “The guy who grows up to be Darth Vader” because, well, Anakin is dull and uninteresting while Vader is pretty well-defined.  Sorry.  Not trying to bash the prequels.  Just using them for comparison.

The F&F films suffer from this lack of character even worse than the prequels.  In the theatrical trailer for the new movie, it ends with a shot of all the characters walking toward the camera.  And I am at an absolute blank to describe any of them in any interesting way.  I couldn’t tell you their character names or anything about their personalities.  If I was stuck in a casual conversation about the F&F films, I’d inevitably have to refer to them by their actors’ names.

In this way, the original Star Wars films show their real strength.  Harrison Ford went on to become one of the biggest actors in the world.  But it’s rare for anyone to refer to Han Solo by Ford’s name.  Because Han Solo is such a strong and well-known character.  Just as we also know that James Earl Jones is the voice of Darth Vader, but somehow, when he’s on the screen, we immediately forget it.

I’m not suggesting that the Police Academy characters are as strong or as interesting as Han Solo or Princess Leia.  But then again, they did manage to become a big part of pop culture.  Robot Chicken even did an inspired parody of the Academy characters.  And considering that the original film was over twenty years ago, that’s worth noting.

And there are probably plenty of parodies of F&F, but they’re built on the car chases and the actors, never on the characters that populate the film.

So this is a long post, and as usual, I’m not sure what my original point was.  Other than to say that characters and stories need not be complex to be memorable and that, while car chases can be cool, it’d be nice to have some interesting characters in those cars.  Which is why, even with a lack of high speed chases, I’ll take Police Academy over Fast and the Furious anyday.

Unless they add robot dinosaurs to the F&F movies.  In which case, I’d have to rconsider.  But then again, Michael Bay managed to destroy my love of robot movies so much that even with the possibility of a dinobot in the new film, I’ll probably skip it.

Falls to his knees.  Shakes fist at indifferent heavens.


Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted April 28, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m very, very, very glad to know another Police Academy fan 🙂

    I hadn’t really thought about it before but you’re right–when the characters don’t stand out in any way, I do tend to refer to them by the actor…especially if the “character” is essentially just the character-type that the actor has played over and over again (Vin Diesel, for example…excepting Pitch Black, which I did like).

  2. Posted May 2, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    From the reviews I’ve read this is the very best Fast and Furious film and it is for the reasons you imply. It appears to be about the characters, even dragging in all the memorable characters from previous Fast and Furious films. You might try this latest one at a matinee. If I have room in my schedule for anything besides Thor I will try to fit it in.

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