Airplane II is a comedy so under appreciated people quote lines from it thinking they’re quoting Airplane.
Before reading this review I kindly recommend you go into your kitchen pantry, pull out the Morton’s, open your mouth and down a grain or two of salt. Trust me. My reasoning for why this comedy is amazing will be easier to swallow if you do so.
What’s that you say? You’re trying to cut back on your sodium intake? Very well, allow me to propose a fun alternative. Drive out to your local library and watch every Mel Brooks film from 1967 to 1993. Don’t worry; it won’t take more than a weekend of binging, and you may be surprised to discover (as I know I was) that the legendary comedy filmmaker had only directed 11 films in his illustrious career; a career that has spanned 8 impressive decades. Also, for the sake of time, feel free to skip Mel’s last movie, Dracula: Dead and Loving It. It is not worth your time, it is not funny, and it is derivative of his earlier work. If anyone tells you different they probobably work for Mr. Brooks or have suffered head trauma. In either instance, this is an opinion that should be ignored. When you have completed this task I invite you to continue the reading the review.
Welcome back. Have you finished? Good. Now, that that’s out of the way I encourage you to try this experiment. Go out into the world, bask in the warmth of the sun and interact with humanity. Strike up some conversations and break the ice by asking strangers to choose their favorite Mel Brooks comedy. Almost everyone can pick a favorite. You’ll even discover an interesting contention between Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles; two fantastic films that Brooks filmed and released the same year! Asking random people what their favorite Mel Brooks movie will be sure to make you the life of any party, for reminiscing about humor is nearly as entertaining as experiencing it.
Oh, and if you encounter an individual who can’t name a favorite Mel Brooks film, or worse, doesn’t like his movies you should immediately shut down the interaction, avoid eye contact and promptly walk away. Remember, the lack of a favorite Mel Brooks film indicates an underdeveloped sense of humor which may lead to the suffocating quicksand of tedious conversation.
Now for the final part of the experiment: ask a friend, family member or local barista when they graduated high school. This is a more subtle and trickier way of determining the age of an individual and, therefore, more polite. With that date in mind, ask them what they consider to be Mel Brook’s last GREAT movie. If they tell you Robin Hood: Men in Tights then you’re most likely talking to a Millennial. If you hear Space Balls the individual is probably a member of Generation X. If it’s History of the World: Part I then it’s the holidays and you are having a conversation with your grandparents. However, if your question is answered with the question “who’s Mel Brooks” or “I haven’t graduated” immediately abort the experiment. These are the replies of a person who has no discerning taste and should have their opinion received with a polite smile followed by a confidential rolling of the eyes.
The point I’m intentionally belaboring you with (for word count) is that while comedy is subjective some comedies are more objective than others. Comedy is a difficult hat trick to pull off but it’s an even more difficult maneuver to rationally debate and convince someone of the merits of one comedy over another. It would be as pointless as trying to convince the entire nation of France that they have suffered a collective mass hysteria over the anomaly of Jerry Lewis. What people find funny is a deep, ingrained belief that cannot be dissuaded, shaken or reasoned with. It’s a genre that people rarely agree upon and what is embraced in the moment can change with the times. [see Vince Vaughn 2003-2005]
Keeping reading. I’m almost there . . .
With that in mind, it’s important to appreciate that when a comedy film becomes timeless and universally beloved that’s akin to lightning in a bottle. A good example is, National Lampoon’s Vacation. In its day Vacation was a huge but when you compare its legacy to that of its sequel Christmas Vacation you start to have some idea of what I’m blathering about i.e. dog murder isn’t as funny as it once was but “shitter was full” is forever.
Which brings me to the point of this entire review: appreciating a comedy sequel that was just as good, if not better, than the original—with the extra distinction of it being a comedy sequel written and directed by an entirely different creative team than the original. Tonight’s exhibit: Airplane II: The Sequel.
Thanks for sticking with me.
If Mel Brooks is a comedy mastermind then The Zucker Brothers would be akin to comedy alchemy. Back in the 70s, two brothers from Milwaukee formed a comedy group with their friend Jim Abrahams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Shortly thereafter the trio would go on to make some of the most popular comedies of all time. Each would later find success with individual directing careers but together the consensus was the three together bottled lightning. ZAZ (Zucker Abrahams Zucker) came to perfect the Parody film genre, the likes of which has never been equaled or surpassed*. Airplane!, their first collaboration in 1980, was the fourth highest grossing film of the year and has since been considered one of the greatest comedy films in Hollywood history. In short, ZAZ became the formula for comedy gold.
Which brings me to the perfectly titled sequel, Airplane II: The Sequel. Released two years after the original, the follow-up under performed at the box office, received mix reviews and has since been angrily disavowed by the original filmmakers. The Zucker Brothers have been known to condemn fans** who confuse it for their own work and are quick to point out that they had no involvement in its development. This is a shame for the sequel completely honors the ZAZ style while brilliantly crafting new bits inspired by their formula. It would be like Ridley Scott holding a grudge against James Cameron for making Aliens. It seems to me that the lack of distinction in the minds of some fans means the sequel is remembered for being just as sharp as the original. Sure the Zuckers can be annoyed but they should give the sequel some credit. It’s not terrible like Caddyshack II. Airplane II so devoted to ZAZ’s style it can’t help but be funny and for that reason the movie deserves more recognition.
The man responsible for writing and directing Airplane II: The Sequel was Ken Finkleman, a young Canadian comedy writer fresh off the boat from Winnipeg. Because Airplane II is so good, for years, I was convinced that Finkleman was a pseudonym the Zucker Brothers invented. The reality is, he was simply a fresh talent who was assigned the unenviable task of following up the biggest comedy of all time***. What impresses me about what Finkleman was able to achieve is that in the decades since the last ZAZ parody no one except Finkleman has been able to replicate that style with such perfection. Of course, Airplane II has an advantage of reusing a tried premise and the same performers as the first film, but the ability of Finkleman to go beyond the original and make a worthy sequel is kind of extraordinary. Good sequels are hard to come by, but good comedy sequels are as elusive as subtle Nicolas Cage performances. Not even Michael Ritchie could replicate the brilliance of Fletch with Fletch Lives.
Good comedy sequels are like Moon landings, the follow ups just aren’t as exciting as the first one. So what makes a good sequel? Some say the formula for a good sequel is the expansion of the original premise + surprises x staying true to the characters. In this regard, there is no doubt that Finkleman knocked it out of the park with Airplane II.
Let’s look at an example. Here is a famous exchange from the original Airplane!
Rumack: You’d better tell the Captain we’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine Dickinson: A hospital? What is it?
Rumack: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.
Now compare it to this similar joke from Airplane II.
[Jimmy, a young boy holding a large piece of cake, sits next to hero Ted Striker and starts a conversation.]
Striker: Be careful with that food.
Jimmy: I’ll be careful. Can I ask you a question?
Striker: What is it?
Jimmy: It’s an interrogative statement, used to test knowledge. But that’s not important now, mister. Is my dog Scraps gonna make it through this okay? I’m scared mister. Somebody has to do something.
Striker: Scraps is going to be fine son. You’ll both, be just fine.
[Striker, stands up, puts his hand on the back of Jimmy’s seat, and walks away as the seat folds down and forces Jimmy’s face into the icing of his cake]
I know, I know. Explaining a joke is the fastest way to kill it, but what do you want from me? You’re reading this cause I’m not on YouTube. The point is, Finkleman took one of the most classic ZAZ jokes (i.e. a literal response to a general question) and didn’t just rehash it. “The cockpit? What is it?” // “It’s the little room at the front of the plane where the pilots sit, but that’s not important right now.” Finkleman actually raised the bar by taking the joke to the next illogical extreme: literally explaining what a question was and then adding a dash of slapstick (toward a child, no less) for good measure, effectively doubling down of the comedy of the scene.
And that’s one good way to craft a great sequel. You double down. Aliens had more aliens than Alien. Godfather II had more godfather’s than Godfather. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged me cloned Dr. Evil and gave us Mini Me. Finkleman not only included a larger joke-to-scene ratio but brilliantly raised the stakes of his film by embellished the setting and placing the sequel in THE FUTURE! The preposterousness of this jump in time loosely justified the possibility of space travel and thereby created more opportunities for ridiculous situations and references to cultural touchstones like Star Wars, Star Trek and 2001. Airplane II even delivers a cameo by the sci-fi legend, Captain James T. Kirk himself, William Shatner—who had coincidentally just appeared in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Shatner filled in for Robert Stack, as the only man who can help talk Ted Striker land a malfunctioning space shuttle, and he steals the movie with a sidesplitting bravado that pokes fun at his own personality. That alone should be reason enough to take a ride on Airplane II.
And while it’s disappointing that Leslie Nielsen and Robert Stack were missing from the cast there is a bright side in that most of the primary actors returned. Reprising their roles from the original Airplane! are Robert Hays (Ted Striker), Julie Hagerty (Elaine), Peter Graves (Captain Over), and Lloyd Bridges (McCroskey). All of the actors have great chemistry with one another and their performances are on par with the original film. The entire cast seems happy to back and none more so than Stephen Stucker as the the unforgettable, FAA employee Johnny Jacobs (“Auntie Em! Auntie Em! Grab Toto! It’s a twister, it’s a twister!”) who delivers even more quotable lines with gusto.
New to the cast are Chad Everett, Chuck Connors, Sonny Bono, Raymond Burr, a young(ish) Rip Torn (Dodgeball) and a dog named Scraps. All the newcomers fit right in with the ensemble. In a delightful performance against type, John Vernon (the mean Dean from Animal House) plays a cheerful psychiatrist who couldn’t possibly give you an impression of Ted Striker’s mental condition because he doesn’t do impressions. His training is in psychiatry. It’s funny wordplay like this, so sly and seamless, that makes you appreciate the care that went into keeping the sequel as faithful to the original as possible. Finkleman’s script often catches you off guard with its witticisms and snappy repartee.
And that’s one of the most impressive aspects of Airplane II. The pacing of the humor is fast! The movie begins and the jokes start flying, in rapid succession, without ever letting up. A mixture of puns, sight gags, wordplay, physical comedy, satire, pop culture references, and absurdity keep the laughter coming with nary a lull. This isn’t to say that Airplane! was slow or had parts that dragged but ZAZ definitely had a more casual pacing between setup and punch line.
Take the famous voiceovers that open the original. The scene starts off with a series of normal airport announcements “The White Zone is for immediate loading and unloading” that gradually turn into contradictions “No, the Red Zone is for loading and unloading” before blossoming into a punch line of framing the announcers as a bickering couple “Listen Betty, don’t start in with your ‘White Zone’ sh*t again.” This is a joke, over the course of several minutes, which builds to a hilarious payoff.
In contrast, Finkleman introduces his film with a similar airport introduction but delivers a half a dozen sight gags instead of repeating the formula of the first film. The passengers we will come to know are introduced in a series of bits that include: a woman keeping her carry-on but checking her baby, an Information Desk that answers inappropriate trivia, and a futuristic TSA machine that eerily predicted the evasive scanners we see today. Neither approach is necessarily funnier but they both effectively set the tone for the film. This isn’t an argument of quantity over quality but rather an observation I had.The original is a classic but the Airplane II is highly rewatchable because of its pacing. The Sequel has a brisk, light feeling that makes for a more ticklish experience.
So “what’s your point?” you may be thinking? Or maybe you’re thinking, “why does Adobe Reader need to update so much?” I don’t know. Some mysteries can never be explained but what I can say, I’ve just written over 2,500 on a dumb comedy from the 80s because I believe it hasn’t gotten its due. I am passionate about things that make me laugh and so I’m spreading the word.
If you like Airplane! you owe it to yourself to watch Airplane II. If you watched it years ago but haven’t watched it recently, treat yourself and watch it again. If you’ve already seen it, didn’t like it, and want to tell me so, don’t. You may as well move to France and and join La Société de Film de Jerry Lewis Appréciation for though comedy is subjective there are some certainties in this world. Airplane II is one of those certainties. It is a forgotten classic and here’s the final proof:
Witness: Striker was the squadron leader. He brought us in real low. But he couldn’t handle it.
Prosecutor: Buddy couldn’t handle it? Was Buddy one of your crew?
Witness: Right. Buddy was the bombardier. But it was Striker who couldn’t handle it, and he went to pieces.
Prosecutor: *Andy* went to pieces?
Witness: No. Andy was the navigator. He was all right. Buddy went to pieces. It was awful how he came unglued.
Prosecutor: *Howie* came unglued?
Witness: Oh, no. Howie was a rock, the best tail gunner in the outfit. Buddy came unglued.
Prosecutor: And he bailed out?
Witness: No. Andy hung tough. Buddy bailed out. How he survived, it was a miracle.
Prosecutor: Then Howie survived?
Witness: No, ‘fraid not. We lost Howie the next day.
Prosecutor: Over Macho Grande?
Witness: No, I don’t think I’ll ever get over Macho Grande. Those wounds run pretty deep.
Reelization: Airplane II is a comedy of its time. Do not watch if you are easily offended. There are many jokes that take aim at race, gender, sexuality, age, nationality, politics, religion, the media, the legal system, mental health, terrorism and impotence. There are also some brief moments that feature nudity, foul language, drugs, alcohol, and smoking. Admittedly there are one or two jokes that haven’t aged well but they can be quickly overlooked.
*Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer may have blackmail on somebody powerful in Hollywood to explain their IMDb résumé.
** The Zucker Brothers reprimand a fan during an audience attended Nerdist podcast for confusing a scene with the sequel as one from the original Airplane! Lloyd Bridges says the hero’s name, “Striker? Striker? Striker!” only to have it misinterpreted as an order to “Strike her!” and a woman in the background is punched.
*** Ghostbusters would break Airplane’s box office record.