“There’s a pretty good chance this is gonna get ugly,” one character sagely observes a bit over an hour into this updating of the old CBS series. Had he made the comment when the studio logo hit the screen, it would have been even more appropriate.
The TV version of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which ran from 1979 to 1985, was an amiable action comedy, set in the rural southeast, about a couple of handsome, good-natured cousins, Bo and Luke (John Schneider and Tom Wopat), who played local Robin Hoods against their slapstick nemeses, corrupt pol Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke) and inept Sheriff Roscoe Coltrane (James Best). The boys, ex-cons who evaded capture by tooling around the county in a souped-up car called the General Lee kept in tip-top condition by mechanic Cooter (Ben Jones), were aided in their adventures by their cantankerous Uncle Jesse (Denver Pyle) and beautiful cousin Daisy (Catherine Bach), who worked at Hogg’s Boar’s Head honkytonk as a waitress and was best known for her short shorts and long legs. Despite an abundance of car chases and “yahoos!” it was a surprisingly laid-back, easygoing program in which the jeopardy was never serious, the mayhem always had a comic-book feel, and the suggestiveness was exceptionally mild. Most importantly, it was an affectionate show, even toward its perpetually inept villains. And the Duke family, in particular, were a likable bunch of high-minded rogues.
The fundamental problem with this remake, written by John O’Brien (“Starsky and Hutch”) and directed by Jay Chandrasekhar (“Storm Troopers” and “Club Dread”), isn’t that the plot–in which Boss Hogg plans to turn Hazzard County into one big strip mine, somehow using a big car race to bring his scheme off–is utter nonsense. That’s to be taken for granted. It’s that though the movie retains a lot of the series’ trademarks–elbow-in-the-ribs narration (though delivered without Waylon Jennings’ dead-pan panache) and freeze-frames at cliff-hanger moments (which makes one almost wish for commercial interruptions), it utterly fails to capture the goofy backwoods charm of the original. The movie is crass and obnoxious where the show was affable and even rather sweet-natured. So while Luke used to be a bemused, stern-jawed hero, now as played by Johnny Knoxville he’s a leering lech. And Bo, who was a Dudley Do-Right type, has become (in the person of Seann William Scott) a grubby dunce whose fetish for the General Lee is at times positively creepy. As reincarnated by Willie Nelson, Uncle Jesse is a light-headed moonshiner who, for some reason, spends most of his time telling chains jokes, ost of the slightly smutty variety. And Daisy, who used to be a sort of blissful innocent, is, as embodied–just the right word–by Jessica Simpson, is all too cognizant of her assets, and strips down as far as PG-13 will allow each and every time she needs to save her cousins from danger. The biggest miscalculation in terms of what might charitably be called characterization, however, comes on the villainous side. Boss Hogg and Sheriff Roscoe, who used to be bumbling oafs, are played much straighter and nastier by Burt Reynolds and M.C. Gainey (both badly miscast); together they raise nary a snicker. Everything has been made bigger and sleazier, too. Thus O’Brien has concocted a detour that takes the boys to Atlanta (Hazzard is now in Georgia, though the state was left ambiguous in the original), where they can not only ogle bevies of undressed coeds in a college dorm (most looking a lot older than real students) but engage in massive chases with the inevitable scores of police cars just waiting to be wrecked. (It also allows for a couple of scenes where the boys’ redneck ways are challenged by more PC urban types, as well as for two totally arbitrary gay-themed bits. It does, however, allow for the one really clever bit, when a cop car strikes a parked vehicle. It last about ten seconds.) Nor did we need the added character of a local survivalist nut named Sheev (Kevin Heffernan), who (along with David Koechner’s Cooter) aids the Dukes when trouble arises–a fellow who’s a tiresome cliche every time he makes an appearance. (Lynda Carter is also around in a throwaway role as another Duke relative.) From a technical perspective the picture’s been put together well enough, though the gruesomely loud, pulsating modern tunes played as background to the car chases is a sad replacement for the country stuff that accompanied them in the old shows. If you stay around for the closing credits, there’s a collection of out-takes, many showing the varied ways in which members of the General Lee fleet bit the dust during shooting, that are more entertaining than the movie itself. And Willie gets to sing the old theme song as part of that closing mix.
It’s easy to imagine “The Dukes of Hazzard” being even worse than it is. But saying that a movie isn’t as awful as it might have been can’t be said to constitute a ringing endorsement.