Clifford Skridlow (Dan Aykroyd) is a university lecturer in Chicago who likes to commence the morning with a six mile power walk, although the looks he gets are far from admiring. Take this limo full of a pimp, Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman) and his four prostitutes, when they catch sight of Clifford they are bemused then derisive, but something about him sticks in their mind which is significant later on. Walker owes a lot of money to a gang boss known only as Mom (Kate Murtagh), and she is keen to get it, and soon - but how does Clifford fit into this problem?
The fact that he just happened to be spotted by Walker and company, including the sassy chauffeur Diavolo (T.K. Carter), is an instance of chance which the script then proceeds to accept without question, for as with most of this everything that happened was utterly in the moment, all in service of a plot which was hardly well thought out on this evidence. Rather more soberly, it was the first starring role for Dan Aykroyd without his usual comedy partner John Belushi who had sadly died a while before, and as it was not a hit in any shape or form must have been a dark time for the comedian.
But there was a light on the horizon, and that was the double whammy of Trading Places and Ghostbusters, establishing him as a screen presence in his own right and not simply that guy off Saturday Night Live. In the meantime, there was Doctor Detroit to get through, such a flop that it was barely released outside of the United States, and then often straight to video to gather dust on the rental shelves. However, in some places it showed up on television and for viewers wanting an undemanding comedy with a dash of sauce it seemed to be just the thing to satisfy them. It still wasn't any good, but so relentlessly daft and goodnatured with it that you began to feel a grudging respect towards it.
The Doctor Detroit of the title is a concoction of Walker who makes him up on the spot when faced down by Mom and her goons - called Johnny and Carson to give you some idea of the incredible eighties-ness of the production. The Doctor, he claims, has taken all his money so he cannot pay her, which leaves her incensed that anyone could be muscling in on her patch and unfortunately for Clifford, determined to see him off with aggressive means. Why unfortunate for Clifford? That's down to Walker framing him as the non-existent Doctor, and the idea that this meek, nerdy professor could be a superpimp was where the script somewhat optimistically set up the laughs.
Except in the transition from the page to the screen the lack of actual jokes, they having been replaced by would-be wacky situations, was blatant. It wasn't enough for Aykroyd to don a ridiculous and garish costume (replete with metal gauntlet) as he threw himself into his new role, indeed the whole look of Doctor Detroit was indicative of the problems with the film around him in that it was a bunch of daring elements in search of genuine humour. Not that at any time was it possible to regard the proceedings with any gravity as befitting the grim criminal underworld of Chicago's pimps and whores, it wasn't even on nodding terms with anything approaching reality, but as it appeared to be operating in a foolish fantasyland it was very difficult to see it as anything other than a laboured aim for the funnybone with the frisson of prostitutes as characters, though they don't even take their clothes off. Then again, when James Brown shows up to incorporate the Doc into his stage routine, this does have a cluelessly ludicrous appeal. Music by Lalo Schifrin.