Lords of the roust
Starsky & Hutch
Director Todd Phillips moves fluidly from the neo-cracker-barrel camaraderie and toasted brains of last year’s Old School to the reluctant partnering and burnt rubber of old-school TV cop shows with a slight but amusing spoof of Starsky & Hutch. Phillips and his co-writers transform the characters created by producer William Blinn in the 1970s from hip-bachelor crime fighters into a comic odd couple of law enforcement. Considering the inherent easy targets that populate the disco era and cop-buddy action-dramas in general, this is not much of a stretch. But the film is as clever as it is silly, more warmhearted than sentimental and just as irreverent as it is nostalgic.Hollywood studios long have gazed down upon the television shows of the 1960s and 1970s as a mother lode of product ready to repackage and market. The game plan is to dust off a once-popular series that will lure baby boomers away from their home-entertainment centers, inject it with stars and sensibilities embraced by the large popcorn-permeated teen audience and retool it in the name of fresh entertainment.
Impressive examples of these resuscitated and cross-pollinated relics are rare. Most of the comedies, such as the better-than-average clone The Addams Family, are hit-and-miss affairs. Most of the cop/spy shows are either stillborn (The Avengers and The Mod Squad) or a monstrous mess (Charlie’s Angels and Mission Impossible). The Fugitive was one rare, exhilarating commercial and critical success, but the relentless gleaning of past network hits has spawned many more big-screen wieners than winners.
Starsky & Hutch made the Nielsen rating’s Top 20 list when it debuted in 1975 (the year current contemporary Charlie’s Angel Drew Barrymore was born) above such strong incumbents as Kojak, Baretta and even The Streets of San Francisco. It never made the Top 20 again, but stars Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul—all hunky and heroic in tight jeans and their pavement-chewing Ford Gran Torino—stalked and chased urban bad guys for three more seasons before being put out to pasture.
Phillips and company have approached the original characters and material, which were all about clothes, hair, cars and the hustle of the street, as a goofy homage. Though the film misses several chances to really bust loose, it nonetheless provides a steady stream of grins.
Starsky & Hutch the movie is the back story that the series never provided. It begins with an introduction to the two very different but ultimately complementary cops and then segues into their coupling and first assignment. A dead body (a “floater”) turns up in the coastal city’s bay, and the two find time to date a couple of cheerleaders while tracking down a businessman turned drug peddler who sells cocaine that tastes and looks like artificial sweetener and has no smell.
Ben Stiller is all sun-glassed bravado and perm as the intense, by-the-book plainclothes detective Dave Starsky, who has gone through 12 partners in his four years behind the shield and lives in the shadow of his cop mother, a legend on the force. His mantra: “In Bay City, when you cross the line, your nuts are mine.” There are no misdemeanors too small for punishment to this crusader. There is just the law. Owen Wilson is more soft-spoken and politely larcenous as the laconic Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson, who picks up pocket cash by robbing bookies. The two actors have been paired often before (including in Zoolander, Meet the Parents and The Royal Tenenbaums), and their repartee feels very organic.
The cast includes former blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson as Capt. Doby, Snoop Dogg (real name: Calvin Broadus) playing more himself than the original snitch-pimp Huggy Bear (“I lay it out; you play it out,” he tells the cops) and Vince Vaughn as a smug dope kingpin. There’s no Old School streaking, but Will Ferrell makes an appearance as a hairnet-capped convict with a peculiar fetish.
Starsky & Hutch is about cops who wrap themselves in hand towels rather than full-length towels in the locker room, who may like each other much more than their superiors would approve of, who masquerade as Easy Rider look-alikes and who participate in a disco-dancing showdown. If the film makes any point at all, it is that sometimes poking fun at the past is better than playing it straight. At least the laughs and groans this film produces are all intentional.