And still they come–movies that plunder crummy old television series in an effort to appeal to nostalgia-obsessed baby boomers. The latest entry in the apparently endless stream is this exhumation of the musty buddy-cop program that ran on ABC for a few years in the late 1970s. The show was hardly a classic, but even so this insipid remolding doesn’t do it justice. The new “Starsky and Hutch” reeks of mediocrity.
The picture takes what may might be described as a “Charlie’s Angels” approach to the material, though it keeps to the original 1970s setting. It takes a show which was more light-hearted than the norm but still basically serious and turns it into a modern-style adventure-comedy (though in this case the effects budget seems to have been decidedly smaller and so the sets and stunts are appreciably less impressive). That could have been predicted from the casting of the two leads. Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul, who played the duo on the tube, affected a forced hip camaraderie, but they were basically straight actors; by contrast Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are essentially comics who pretend to be actors. The fact is demonstrated mostly clearly in the reversal that their presence requires in the original show’s central relationship. On the series, Glaser’s Starsky was the cooler, looser half of the team, and Hutch the more intense, grave one–though he was still a stud. Here, Stiller’s usual shtick requires Starsky to be turned into an obsessive, nerdy type, endlessly trying to affect a “with-it” image but invariably failing. And Wilson is his customary self, too–the vaguely bad-boy smart-aleck who’s unruffled by any reversal. The two seem to be having a better time hanging together than they ever manage to communicate to the audience, though, because the material provided by scripters John O’Brien, Todd Phillips and Scot Armstrong is almost unrelievedly lame. In fact, the riff Stiller and Wilson did as presenters on this week’s Oscar show was funnier than anything to be found here. After all, what could anybody do with a cruelly extended bit in which the partners turn up as inept mimes at a kid’s birthday party? Or with another that involves the usually staid Starsky going bananas after accidentally ingesting some cocaine? (A disco contest between Starsky and a “Simpsons” Disco Stu type played by a guy called Har Mar Superstar comes off somewhat better, but only just.) Such stuff is characteristic of lazy scriptwriting, which is mostly what we get here, and it’s not helped by direction from Phillips that appears to belong to the laissez faire school, lacking any sense of discipline. The result is pretty limp.
As for the adventure part of the mixture, if anything it’s even worse. Our heroes are teamed up by their predictably volcanic captain (Fred Williamson) and quickly stumble on a corpse that leads them to a cocaine-smuggling ring headed by businessman Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn) and his lackey Kevin (bland Jason Bateman), with an assist from a sort-of moll named Kitty (blander Juliette Lewis). This whole side of the plot seems almost like a completely different movie, largely because Vaughn plays the villain in so crude and mirthless a fashion that it appears he thinks he’s actually featured in a brutal film noir. The imbalance is never righted, leaving “Starsky and Hutch” tonally schizophrenic.
There is, however, one slightly saving grace to all this: the presence of Snoop Dogg in the role of Huggy Bear, the cops’ informant. Taking his cue from Antonio Fargas, Dogg gives the pimpish hustler a slightly goofy, mostly deadpan quality that’s consistently amusing. Sad to say, he pops in all too infrequently. Some may also consider the extended cameo by an unbilled Will Ferrell, as a con with some peculiar sexual preferences, a point in the movie’s favor; but unhappily the former SNL star has left behind his “Elf” naivete in favor of his customary creepiness. Technically the picture is thoroughly pedestrian, never managing to conjure up the period more than perfunctorily (even in the disco sequence) or looking especially fresh.
Sitting through “Starsky and Hutch” isn’t the torture that some of these TV remakes have been–it’s not down to the standard, say, or “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” or quite as frenetic as “I Spy” (in which Wilson, the poor guy, also starred). But its quality is such that if it were available on cable rather than in theatres, you might be inclined to reach for the remote pretty quickly.