‘The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear’ couldn’t match the original in laughs — Ultimate Movie Year

Leslie Nielsen goes back on the case in 1991’s “The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear.” (Paramount Pictures/MovieStillsDB.com)

Nobody’s coming to these movies for the gripping story. It’s for the jokes, and, well … we’ve all seen better.

“The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear”
Released June 28, 1991
Directed by David Zucker
Where to Watch

For a while there, there were few things as hilarious as the ZAZ films. Short for the team of Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, the cinematic funnymen created an entire film genre by taking the piss out of other movies while stuffing them with jokes at a pace unseen since the heyday of the Marx Brothers. While the quality of the movie spoof genre has circled the bottom of the drain for decades now, the ZAZ movies of the 80s — “Airplane!,” “Top Secret,” and “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” — ended the decade as the funniest trio of flicks.

And with actor Leslie Nielsen, the ZAZ team found the De Niro to their Scorsese. Nielsen revived his career with his straight man, scene-stealing role in the original “Airplane!” He was promoted to a lead star when he reunited with the ZAZ team for “Police Squad!,” a short-lived television series that debuted the character of Lt. Frank Drebin and parodied many of the formulaic cop dramas of the day. As played by Nielsen, Frank was a supremely confident and authoritative cop who was also sloppy and often bad at his job to protect and serve the public — a take that has aged pretty, pretty well. “Police Squad!” only produced six episodes before it was canceled in 1982, but the creators, characters, and premise returned for the 1988 film comedy, “The Naked Gun.” As did many of the best jokes.

Unlike the television series, “The Naked Gun” movie was a resounding success with audiences, who made it one of the top-grossing movies of that year (only $5 million shy of the original “Die Hard” total). The financial success of “The Naked Gun” opened the door to a sequel. However, the entire ZAZ team would not return for it. While David Zucker would sign on to write and direct the movie, Abrahams and Jerry Zucker would only serve as executive producers and not actively involved.

Not unlike the time when the original ZAZ team did not return for 1982’s “Airplane II: The Sequel,” “The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear” suffers for it. In many ways, “The Smell of Fear’s” story mirrors that of the first movie: Frank suspects a wealthy, influential man (an oil executive, here played by Wayne Newton) is behind a secret conspiracy to kneecap the renewable energy movement in favor of gas and oil. Newton’s character is involved with Frank’s old girlfriend Jane (Priscilla Presley), who eventually resumes his relationship with Frank to uncover the conspiracy. There are also twin scientists and multiple scenes with a President George H.W. Bush impersonator, but let’s face it, nobody’s coming to these movies for the gripping story. It’s for the jokes, and, well … we’ve all seen better.

The movie certainly has some excellent and hilarious scenes, the kind of moments where you felt the creators had a great idea they were looking to use someplace, and just kept rewriting joke after joke into the sketch until it was the right time to execute. But there are also significant chunks of “The Smell of Fear” where everybody just feels exhausted from the pace and pushing out the first drafts of bits in the final cut before moving on to the parts that excite them.

So it’s hard to recommend sitting through the entirety of “The Smell of Fear” to find the diamonds in the rough. If there was only some way we can highlight specific clips from the movie to show audiences the best parts, preferably in a digital platform that can be viewed on any device.

Ah, there we go.

The Blue Note sequence in “The Smell of Fear” is a contender for one of the ZAZ crew’s best individual scenes. It has all of their brilliant layering of gags throughout, including verbal punchlines, sight gags, and background twists you only notice on multiple viewings. The first interior shot here pans across the club, establishing that this is a place where the sad and lonely go to be sad and lonely together, but rather than be depressing, there are several sight gags and silent punchlines that keep us engaged until we finally see Frank in the club. It’s a well-thought-out scene that you can’t just create out of thin air by the actors improving on the set.

Working out the beats of these movies must take enormous foresight. When “The Smell of Fear” was released, David Zucker wrote about his rules for comedy in The Chicago Tribune (several of which he breaks, as comedy rules are made to be broken.

“1. Joke on a joke: We never try to do two jokes at the same time,” Zucker wrote. “When Leslie Nielsen … delivers a punch line, he always does it straight; he never tries to be funny on top of it. Likewise, if there is something funny going on in the background, the foreground action must be straight and vice versa. An example in politics: Dukakis and Quayle on the same ticket.

Another notable scene from “The Smell of Fear” is meta-satire. Jerry Zucker directed his first foray into romantic drama, “Ghost,” which became one of the biggest hits in the previous year. The iconic scene from “Ghost” involves the lovers played by Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore sculpting pottery together while “Unchained Melody” from the Righteous Brothers plays on a jukebox, and it quickly becomes sensual. In “The Smell of Fear,” David Zucker directs Nielsen and Presley in one of the first prominent parodies of the scene. The ZAZ team was known for making direct references to other movies in their previous efforts, but this is the first time they riff on one of their own. Years before the Internet and memes would dramatically shorten the half-lives of cultural jokes, “The Smell of Fear” scene was so of the moment it was prominent in the marketing of the movie.

Beyond those two scenes, you’re not missing much else by skipping “The Smell of Fear.” Like a middle-aged athlete, the movie lacks the speed and energy of the previous ZAZ efforts, giving most scenes a sense of forced wackiness. The running joke of Nordberg finding ways to extend his streak of accidental injuries returns here, but it has the same punchline and goes on much longer (plus Nordberg is played by O.J. Simpson, so the less we have to deal with any of that, the better). The verbal double-entendres are hammier, and the double-take reactions after them go on a beat longer than they should. The performances are by and large pretty painful, too, possibly because a significant portion of the cast are people who are known for careers that are not acting or comedy.

“Zucker, who collaborated with his brother Jerry and Jim Abrahams on such comedies as ‘Airplane!’ and ‘Ruthless People,’ is working solo here,” Rita Kempley wrote for The Washington Post. “And aside from a flat patch midway through, he delivers as faithfully as Domino’s pizza. In the limbo of comedy, few can go lower than Zucker without visibly straining. And the movie has a message: ‘Love is like the ozone layer; you never miss it until it’s gone.’ Kinda gets you right here.

Critics and audiences were pretty mixed on “The Smell of Fear” — it currently holds 56 percent and 65 percent approval ratings, respectively, from both groups on Rotten Tomatoes — but it still did very well at the box office. “The Smell of Fear” opened in first place, and while it would only stay there one week before “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” absorbed all the oxygen in the room, it was a solid performer all summer. “The Smell of Fear” finished its run with an $86.9 million haul, outperforming the original movie and good enough to make the top 10 of ticket sales in 1991.

A third Naked Gun movie was released in 1994, but it wasn’t as financially or critically successful. The honeymoon was over; in addition to the ZAZ team going their own ways, several other parody movies like “Hot Shots!” (directed by Abrahams) and “Loaded Weapon 1” entered the marketplace. A decade later, cheap parody movies turned into a mini-industry, tossing in as many timely cultural references as they could, regardless if it had anything to do with the plot. These days the genre is often considered one of the lowest forms of movie entertainment there is.

But when all the pieces align, the genre can still produce hilarious cinema. When it comes to “The Smell of Fear,” we’re lucky YouTube helps us forget the crappier bits.

At the Box Office: If “The Smell of Fear” was successful at one thing, it was dethroning “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” from its seat at the top of the box office charts. “The Smell of Fear” debuted with a $20.8 million weekend, while “Prince of Thieves” fell to second place with $13 million.

In third place was “City Slickers,” continuing a solid run as the year’s most successful comedy by adding $8.9 million to its $61.2 million domestic total. “The Rocketeer” stayed in fourth place with $7.2 million, and “Dying Young” rounded out the top five with $4.7 million in its second week.

In the News: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice in the nation’s history, announces his retirement. With President Bush serving in the White House, Justice Marshall’s retirement allows the president to further push the Court to the right, as he would eventually nominate Clarence Thomas to the bench; Nelson Mandela addresses the United States Congress to reinforce the themes of democracy, free speech, and the rule of law; Martina Navratilova breaks a Wimbledon record with her 100th singles match win in the first round; As “Prince of Thieves” cleans up at the box office, its romantic pop ballad by Bryan Adams, “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” makes its debut at #53 on the Billboard Hot 100. Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” continues to hold on to the top spot;

Next Week: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on June 25, 2021.

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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

Movie enthusiast. Follow and subscribe for exclusive content!

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