Aykroyd plays Joe Friday (nephew of the original series star) while Hanks plays Pep Streebek, his new partner. Harry Morgan reprises his role from the television series as Bill Gannon, now a captain and Friday and Streebek's boss.
LAPD Sgt. Joe Friday's nephew and namesake (Aykroyd), whose anachronistic views reflect those of his late uncle, is involuntarily assigned a smart-alecky, streetwise new partner, Pep Streebek (Hanks). Their contrasting styles clash at first, with Friday disapproving of Streebek's attitude, hairstyle, and wardrobe. However, they start to bond during their investigation of a series of bizarre thefts. One of the stolen items is the entire print run of Bait, a pornographic magazine published by Jerry Caesar (Dabney Coleman). Reverend Jonathan Whirley (Christopher Plummer) has been leading a moral crusade against Caesar's business.
The trail leads Friday and Streebek to a cult calling itself P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness and Normalcy), and they focus on member Emil Muzz (Jack O'Halloran), who also works as Caesar's limousine driver. Under interrogation, Muzz reveals the time and place of a secret ceremony. Friday and Streebek sneak in, disguised as members, and witness a masked leader using several of the stolen items in a ritual leading up to a virgin sacrifice.
The leader throws the victim, Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul), into a pit of water with an anaconda. Friday and Streebek disrupt the ritual, saving Connie and subduing the snake, and report the incident to Captain Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan). However, when Gannon and Police Commissioner Jane Kirkpatrick (Elizabeth Ashley) visit the site with them the next day, no evidence of the ritual can be found. Kirkpatrick removes Friday and Streebek from the case.
Streebek gets a tip on the whereabouts of a load of chemicals stolen by P.A.G.A.N. that can be used to mass-produce a toxic gas. He and Friday lead a SWAT team to raid the location, which proves to be an ordinary milk factory; the chemicals and gas-making equipment are actually hidden next door. With no further leads to follow, Streebek tags along on a birthday dinner for Friday and his grandmother, and Connie soon joins them at Friday's invitation.
During dinner, Connie identifies Whirley (at another table with Gannon and Kirkpatrick) as the P.A.G.A.N. leader. Friday attempts to arrest Whirley, but Kirkpatrick overrules him and relieves him of duty. Gannon takes Friday's badge and gun and orders Streebek to stay away from Whirley.
As Friday takes Connie home, they are captured by Muzz and taken to the Griffith Observatory, where Whirley reveals to them his plan to kill Caesar at a reunion party for the models of Bait. He has his men take Connie to his private jet and prepares to kill Friday, but Streebek arrives just in time, having forced Muzz to reveal Friday's whereabouts at gunpoint.
Streebek infiltrates Caesar's mansion and disrupts the P.A.G.A.N. plans to release the gas made from the stolen chemicals, and Friday leads a SWAT team raid. Whirley sets fire to the stolen magazines and later escapes in the confusion. Gannon reinstates Friday and returns his badge so he can pursue Whirley.
At the airport, Whirley meets Kirkpatrick, who has been secretly working with him, and then abandons her and takes off with Connie as his prisoner. The following morning, Friday catches up to him in a police jet and forces him to land. Whirley is convicted on multiple charges, and Friday continues his partnership with Streebek and begins dating Connie.Dan Aykroyd as Sgt. Joe Friday
Tom Hanks as Det. Pep Streebek
Christopher Plummer as Reverend Jonathan Whirley
Harry Morgan as Capt. Bill Gannon
Alexandra Paul as Connie Swail
Jack O'Halloran as Emil Muzz
Elizabeth Ashley as Commissioner Jane Kirkpatrick
Dabney Coleman as Jerry Caesar
Kathleen Freeman as Enid Borden
Bruce Gray as Mayor Peter Parvin
Lenka Peterson as Granny Mundy
Juliana Donald as the Zookeeper
Nina Arvesen as Lady Motor Cop
The script for Dragnet was written by Dan Aykroyd and Alan Zweibel, who had worked together during Aykroyd's tenure on Saturday Night Live. Aykroyd had in fact starred as Friday in a Saturday Night Live parody of Dragnet in 1976. Tom Mankiewicz, best known for his work on Superman and the James Bond series, had a deal at Universal and was brought in to work on the film script with them. Ted Kotcheff was originally attached to direct but did not like the draft the three writers had come up with, so Frank Price at Universal suggested Mankiewicz himself direct. Aykroyd originally wanted Jim Belushi to play the role of Friday's partner Pep Streebek, but Belushi was unavailable and Tom Hanks was cast instead.
British electronic group Art of Noise produced an update of the series' original theme music for the title credits. They set the Dragnet theme against an electronic breakbeat and added soundbites from the film, such as Friday's "Just the facts, ma'am," timed to the music. The theme won the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
The soundtrack includes an original song called "City of Crime," a rock/hip-hop hybrid collaboration performed by Aykroyd and Hanks with bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes and guitarist Pat Thrall. The track is played over the film's closing credits and had a promotional music video that featured Aykroyd and Hanks.
The film received mixed reviews from critics according to Rotten Tomatoes, as Dragnet has a 50% composite score based on 30 reviews with the consensus: "While it's sporadically funny and certainly well-cast, Dragnet is too clumsy and inconsistent to honor its classic source material".
Dragnet received favorable reviews from renowned critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on their program Siskel and Ebert and the Movies. Siskel lavished praised on Aykroyd's performance in particular, going so far as to say he deserved an Academy Award nomination. Ebert extended this praise to the ensemble cast, although he lamented the lack of stylized camera shots from the original television show and criticized the use of contemporary pop music. Siskel concluded that "they didn't have enough confidence in the material that they had to try and hook kids in with some disco thing."
In his written review, Ebert gave the movie three out of four stars, concluding that "it is great for an hour, good for about 25 minutes and then heads doggedly for the Standard 1980s High Tech Hollywood Ending, which means an expensive chase scene and a shootout." He also added that he felt the film would have been more effective in black and white.
Dragnet performed well at the box office, grossing $57.4 million domestically with an additional $9.3 million internationally, for a total of $66.7 million worldwide.