RIORI Vol 3, Installment 76: Todd Phillips’ “Starsky And Hutch” (2004)



The Players…

Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughan, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg, with Juliette Lewis, Carmen Elektra, Amy Smart, Chris Penn, Matt Walsh, Fred Williamson and Will Farrell.


The Story…

Way too uptight David Starsky and way too laid-back Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson are paired up for the first time as undercover cops. In order to get to the bottom of a cocaine ring in Bay City the new partners must overcome their differences and get to detectin’ rather than bickering over the small stuff.

Like who gets to drive and who has the cooler, non-permed ‘do.


The Rant…

Finally. RIORI is dissecting a classic Hollywood trope: the buddy cop movie!

This formula has been both revered and reviled. The latter sadly more often than the former. Why sadly? ‘Cause the whole buddy cop gimmick invites action, comedy, mystery, the occasional side boob and often lotsa things going ker-boom. These films are usually reserved for the summer season, when audiences brains are too dinged by the heat to make sense of the Fandango app on their iPhones. Me just want ha-ha, boom and boom. Ha-ha.

I’m not bagging on these kinds of dumb fun in the theatre. And no, not that kind; keep it clean for now. I may approach almost serious here, which is kinda dumb considering this week’s installment. But when I think quick dumb fun, some wacky stunts and precious little moral fiber attached to either, gimme a buddy cop flick. Think about it. Summer movie bubblegum? Sex, shooting and snickers. Besides Twizzlers, a bucket of popcorn the size of a Basset hound and soda large enough to swim in, what more could one want for mindless entertainment? Even Skyrim requires thought and planning, so there you go.

So how come such a simple formula goes south more often than barges down the Mississippi? I think it happens when the directors and scenarists try to get too clever. Adding seemingly needless details and twists to a relatively straight line regarding plot, no matter how razor thin. Over arching romantic threads, surprise reveals like the hero is the bad guy and/or political intrigue. Sure, such devices might enhance the plot some, but I feel that the best kind of buddy cop flicks steer relatively clear of such tricks. Keeping in mind my criteria above, we ain’t talking auteur theory here. We mustn’t. Think too much about what you’re watching with a BC flick and it’s game over, man. Twizzler avalanche. Bummer. While you picking up the debris, you missed the side boob.

Too clever, mind you. All things being equal, the sex and shooting alone don’t make a decent, memorable BC movie. And yes, even though most are designed to be disposable entertainment, the real good buddy cops flicks have to have at least one trick that sticks, like that stubborn kernel jammed in your molars. Just keep it simple, be it snappy dialogue (essential, actually), rough and ready heroes who make you laugh (also necessary) and a wild mystery to solve with maverick moves (raison d’etre). That something special, almost ineffable quality that raises dumb fun into really dumb fun. Don’t muddy the waters with…f*cking anything. We wanna hear Axel’s donkey chuckle, thank you very much.

Examples of the decent BC formula are myriad, but also few and far between. A few notable ones include the original Bad Boys, the movie that officially launched Micheal Bay’s directorial career (a dubious honor at best) and Will Smith’s movie career (just as dubious). The goofball Tango & Cash, shameless in its goofballery. 48 Hours, though technically not a buddy cop flick since Eddie Murphy was a con, but the thing followed the paradigm, as did mostly solo Murphy in the manic Beverly Hills Cop (best to remember Taggert and Rosewood now). The sleeper Stakeout featuring Richard Dreyfuss at his most ridiculous and Aidan Quinn at his most scary. The underrated but eventually enjoyable Running Scared with wiseacre detectives Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal (at his most snarky) following the title’s advice regarding the vile druglord Jimmy Smits (his best role IMHO. Fanboy here? Yep. Have a Twizzler) on their tails. There are many other BC goodies hither and yon. Key there is reveling in the funny.

Speaking of Running Scared one could regard that movie as a dry run for the ur-buddy cop flick Lethal Weapon. Maybe you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, you’ve never heard of the 1980s either. You might have missed something. If that’s the case, let me enlighten you dear reader and perhaps the curious reading the anti-art of the BC flick. It follows the classic formula. Some may argue it defined it. I do.

For the uniformed part of y’all—those born post-1990, when BC films started to creep towards respectability (I’m looking at you, The Hard Way)—the first installment of the seemingly endless Lethal Weapon franchise (no word of a reboot barring the TV show yet, but after the recent RoboCop travesty hold on hope) set the blueprint for all BC movies, past and future. Our mismatched heroes were played by the unhinged, manic Mel Gibson (a full two decades before the real unhinged, manic Gibson surfaced) paired against serious, family man Danny Glover (no signs of mania there. Or now). The plotting of their case is straightforward: busting a drug ring. Classic, reliable, now often over/misused. Beverly Hills Cop covered this, as did Running Scared and even the warped sci-fi BC pastiche Alien Nation, featuring Fredo and Inigo Montoya. Really. Wasn’t bad either.

Weapon‘s basic premise laid the plans for and eventually established how a good, satisfying BC movie should tick. Namely, that snappy dialogue, kooky stunts, car chases, a tough case to crack, quotable quips (“I’m too old for this sh*t”) and a scary villain (Gary Busey at his most menacing). All killer, no filler. So to speak. And it’s been ripped off for decades, including its sequels of diminishing returns.

But it worked. Despite all its overall mundanity Weapon worked. Even with its first sequel somewhat, that set up a rule about action sequels: bigger, faster, more. More laughs, more ker-booms, upping isolated troubles to correct to aiming overseas; apartheid was a hot topic when the second film emerged, so why not make the evil money launderers baddies arrogant, white Afrikaaners? Hey, let’s toss Joe Pesci into the mix as the motormouthed comic relief. Why not? We don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Why?

Complacency. BC flicks for the past whenever have been color by numbers, connect the dots, and getting way too old for this kind of sh*t. There have been some bright spots. The first Rush Hour. The 21st Century take on 21 Jump Street (I know, an adapt, but good is good, and I’ll take what I can get). The hilarious Hot Fuzz; parody at its best. The Other Guys, wacky and turning the genre on its ear. These worked in the wake of the BC Golden Age 80s.

Then there’s the diaspora, which aimed to ruin the genre. And often did.

I’ll play it fast and loose for ya, cuz I think I’m losing you, enough to resort to semi-ironic mispellings a la a Slade playlist. Now please open the door before the obscurity police break it down and drag me away. Quit clapping.

Turner & Hooch, the response to Tom Hanks Oscar nom for BigShowtime, too meta for anyone’s good.   White Chicks? Um, we can always go too far. Cop And A Half? The less said about that.

You get it.

There’s dumb fun and then there’s just dumb. The above besmirched the good time stupid that BC movies culled. Again, don’t make me think too much. I have my Kurosawa collection for that purpose. And which I why I adore Running Scared. No samurai, but still.

Now we come to this week’s chopping block. Be warned. First, it’s a remake. Second, it’s a remake of a dopey 70s police procedural. On TV, no less. You’ve already heard my carps about that device. It does work sometimes (eg: 21 Jump Street), but more often such trickery falls flat (further eg: Dragnet). In the endgame, it’s all about keeping it fast enough and having the just right amount of dumb to fly. It’s the mantra to chant when approaching such a beast.

So to paraphrase Steve Martin (think Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), let’s get dumb.

Boom…


We got trouble. Right here in Bay City. Which starts with C and that rhymes with sea and that stands for: cocaine.

This kind of malfeasance really chafes the upstanding detective David Starsky (Stiller). He’s a model cop. Some may claim too model. Guy can’t let anything go. Every case is bamboo under the thumbnails. Every crime spreads feces all across his beloved city. Worst of all the Force won’t get off him for his perfect hair. It’s not a perm!

On the other side of town, loose cannon detective Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson (Wilson) takes the crime of drug dealing way too casually. He’s a happy grass eater, pleased as punch to accidentally foil any crime boss’ plans. Accountability? Spell that please. Just doin’ the job, Captain.

This kind of offhand attitude regarding how the cops handle drug trade in Bay City offers all sorts of opportunities. Drug kingpin Reese Feldmen (Vaughn) has a plan. The scuzzier elements of Bay City want their fix, but the narco squad with their crack K9 unit won’t let this be. Money is to be made, if only there was a trick to the trade.

Feldman’s toady Kevin (Bateman) figured out where the rabbit hid. A new strain of coke, scentless, throwing the sniffers of any trail. Drug dogs can’t smell it, the China white. Feldmen is made.

Not quite. Dedicated cop Starsky and laid back Hutch are paired up to bring down the drug ring. Neither have ever had a partner before, and both are fast to piss one another off. But there’s the dire case to consider. And who can figure out who has the better haircut.

Actually, both need some straight dope, so to speak…


There’s a trick here to flicks like Starsky & Hutch, and I ain’t talkin’ about the buddy cop thing. That’ll come later. Always does whatever it is; you’ve been up this alley before. Welcome to my dead end.

The trick is this, and what was attempted, more often failed that succeeded what making the transition from small screen to big screen back in the day. By back in the day I mean the 90s. This’ll most likely be a retread 0f some knuckle-headed theory I spouted prior here at RIORI. Shaddap, it’s relevant, rest assured. Now wake up.

Back in the Slick Willie years Hollywood got a yen to adapt classic TV shows into big budget spectacles. The Fugitive, Lost In Space, even the freakin’ Flintstones got screen time. Boomer nostalgia running high then a great deal of these movies raked in the cash and made for passable movie entertainment. In that order. But for every Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables or The Fugitive (which even got an Oscar nod, before God) we got sh*t over shovel. But for every   we got The Beverly Hillbillies, Car 54 Where Are You?  and Dragnet (tho’ I admit I have a soft spot for that one. I blame that on maybe Tom Hanks’ character being named Pep. Sometimes I like slumming). Kinda funny Hollywood once felt threatened by the medium of TV. Divide and conquer, I guess. Pagans.

Ahem. Back to now. The trick is this: any TV adaptation to film’s make or break is laying on just the right amount of period cheeze without crumbling the cracker. Our above positive examples incorporated the right amount of nostalgia fuel (sometimes making that just wallpaper). MI with the disguises, international espionage and cool gadgets a la Tom Cruise just barely hanging over that computer lab. Heck, that one teeters on an iconic scene. Hard to screw up The Fugitive‘s story; played out not even like a TV remake (“I don’t care!” Couldn’t resist). Hell, even though Wayne’s World was a short bus period piece, and only culled from an SNL skit series, it caught a slice of pre-Web zeitgeist that was winning, even inviting a less than inviting sequel. All had touchstones that complemented the movie version, not overshadow it.

This theory seems pretty heavy-handed regarding a dopey buddy cop TV show from the 70s and therefore translated into a dopey buddy cop movie in the 00s. Either director Phillips didn’t get the message about how TV adapts are passé or he just tore up the note, ground the flecks under his heel, declared pishaw and barreled forth, dismayed haircuts be damned.

So yeah, Hutch is rife with winking period cheeze. It is not subtle. It is not refined as refined as TV police procedurals went during the Gerry Ford administration. The whole flick stinks of wallpaper paste. And it exists in a bubble. Again, seems Phillips did not give any sh*t, and maybe that was the point. A big winking joke, which was actually mildly funny.

Going without speaking, let’s jump into it. Our leads are it, the pinion on which this period 8-track clicks. Stiller and Wilson have an awkward chemistry and like Phillips’ direction it’s hard to tell if it’s on purpose. Regardless of my suspicions, Stiller and Wilson were a stitch throughout. The flick was smart to let the guys demonstrate—more like run riot—their signature comic chops; the sh*t they cut their teeth on.

Being a stiff, winking nebbish is what Stiller is best known for. From Reality Bites to Meet The Parents (where I belived he first sparred with Wilson) to The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty remake, Stiller at his best is when he plays the fish-out-of-water. By happenstance or by design. Stiller’s Starsky is an odd amalgam of Roger Murtaugh, momma’s boy and Frank Drebin. Dedicated, but to what? Sure, there’s the case, but that’s just the proverbial Maguffin. Here he kinda strains at being straight-laced; a “serious” Stiller is often funnier than a goofy, nerdy Stiller. He might not be some supercop, but to even infer that?

I’ve always dug Wilson’s shaggy dog sense of humor, like he doesn’t know where he’s going either. His midwestern surfer dude schtick has always tickled me, and it suits his Hutch to a T. “What could possibly go wrong?” should be his epitaph, and a keen catchphrase to his Hutch. We have Wilson here at his laid back silliness making it up as we go along for the ride.

Wilson and Stiller have sparred together before true, but not as primary foils. Hutch was their first true outing together if you ask me, and it was pretty amusing, almost in spite of the well-worn plot device (eg: bust a drug ring). But this was less a silly Lethal Weapon rip-off than more like a 21st take on Abbott And Costello Play Cops. But in the 70s. With a lot more boom. And babes. And cool hair. And all the body language smirks, like we’re all in on the joke. Including the audience.

Speaking of cool hair, Snoop Dogg as informant Huggy Bear was an inspired bit of casting. He managed to out-Murtaugh Murtaugh. Always timely on the scene to both deliver Starsky and Hutch about drug ring scuttlebutt and quick to remind them what a pair of lame-o white boys they are. And they need it. Simply put, we got good banter here with this doofy Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad. Guess it’s really no shock considering all three’s similar style of motormouthed delivery, either funky beats or stammering, uh, beats. Word.

Speaking of which, Vaughan has made a career of being a motormouth. His Feldmen doesn’t stray far his gimmick as carnival barker on speed has kinda worn thin on me, but paired with straight man Bateman as Kevin the sycophant works really well. Let’s face it, Hutch is a tongue-in-cheek, kitschy action comedy satire based on a 40 year old dopey buddy cop TV show (but with a cool car!). But that being said, we gotta have villains just as nutty as our heroes, essentially mirroring our gung ho cops (okay, Stiller is gung ho. Wilson asks what a “gung” is, and Snoop’s only interested in da hoes). Since Vaughn’s persona has become such a self-parody, why not work it? It does work here, against most odds; his Feldman is equal parts hustler and baddie with Bateman as “Yes, master. Whatever master. should be running this operation (backslap to the head; get back to the laboratory).

Not just our leads, but the accomplices all had a chance to shine. Well, maybe just one really. I’m not much of a fan of Will Farrell’s style of soft-core frat boy comedy. But sometimes…sometimes a snicker slips through the wire. Even as just a cameo, Farrell is as obnoxiously goofy as ever. He improved his entire scene, I’m sure of it. Despite me being a naysayer, I felt like Farrell stole the entire movie in five minutes. Remember what I said about trickery? No? Good. Moving on.

Despite Hutch being a semi-screwball comedy we do got have a nice little mystery to solve a la a hockey helmet Law And Order, but with more chuckles. It’s almost sovereign that all buddy cop movies got some dire stakes on the line if the bad guys succeed in their nefarious acts. Wooooo. I found it kinda cool—if only in a chewing gum sense—that this token device played out so…okay. I guess if found some strategic  scenes of action played well against the funny. It makes for better comedy in the long run. Ask the Greeks.

Whoa, whoa. What’s with all this in depth scrutiny of a dopey Todd Phillips parody (almost a given)? Okay. Sometimes you gotta give yourself over to the absurd. No matter how much you think you detest certain movies based on the casting, story and director’s crap shoots it sometimes, albeit rarely hits the mark. Hutch did that to me. I guess I was stressed out at my time of viewing and just needed a dumb laugh. Hutch gave me a tickle. That and it was decently funny, too, skewing all those buddy cop trappings listed before. We could do far, far worse here.

Like some damned perm for high school Homecoming, circa 1975. Go Cougars!

My mascot was a f*cking canary, which is probably why I grew my hair long. Why not?

Do it. Just do it.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s dumb. It’s sophomoric. It’s funny. Take it with a lick of salt. I did and you’ll need it. Did I mention the cool car?


Stray Observations…

  • Great soundtrack. Period music played with a modern style. It works.
  • “Why are you touching him? Jesus…”
  • Nice shootout.
  • “Must be the old coke. This is the new coke.” “It’s sweeter.” Groan.
  • I did feel ashamed to laugh at this fluff. But it was fluff. It’s hard to be cynical sometimes.
  • Best. Easy Rider tribute. Ever. Down to the music.
  • Is that a fondue set? Oh yeah, right. Period piece.
  • Oh hey, it’s Patton Oswalt. Neat…who also improvised his lines.
  • Shout out to Hamm’s, Farrell’s poison of choice.
  • Direct quote from blogger’s lips: “Mimes. Oh, sh*t.”
  • “I don’t cry. I work out.”
  • Wait. When did the wheels get fixed?
  • “Do it.”

Next Installment…

The Half Nelson is referred to by most coaches as being the easiest, but most effective move in folkstyle wrestling, and is very commonly used.

Nice codependency metaphor there, Wikipedia.


 

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