The Mod Squad
1999, R, 94 min. Directed by Scott Silver. Starring Steve Harris, Dennis Farina, Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps, Claire Danes.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., March 26, 1999
Irony, modern Hollywood style: Young director flashes promising talent with a sharp debut feature about male hustlers, thus earning himself a shot at … this, a chance to flagrantly prostitute that talent with a cheesy, barrel-scraping Seventies-TV revival flick that's the artistic equivalent of a $5 back-alley blowjob. Actually, a half-million-dollar blowjob is probably more like it. Scott Silver, whose johns broke out of the gay film fest circuit and into a successful arthouse run a couple of years back, has almost surely quintupled that payday with The Mod Squad. And although it's hardly the most shameful act ever committed in the name of gettin' paid, one wishes Silver had asked himself a few basic questions before diving into this update of the Nixon-era ('68-'73) series about three young petty street criminals pressed into service as undercover cops. Like: What's the concept here? Affectionate, Tarantinoesque homage? Nineties-hip retrofitting (a la Mission: Impossible) of a classic TV premise? Or, perhaps, the dependably lucrative Brady Bunch campfest approach? The Mod Squad, rather like The Avengers, seems totally at a loss to decide which tack it wants to take. The predictable result is a sketchy, half-baked, stylistically inconsistent movie that scarcely even pretends to care whether it makes sense or not. Unable or unwilling to develop a coherent game plan, Silver settles for touching a few obligatory bases. First and foremost, the suits get plenty of sexy trailer fodder featuring Julie (Danes) wriggling around in denim hip-huggers and walking away from exploding cars. For Seventies kitsch aficionados, there's a steady diet of car chases and pointless “goin'-places” scenes with background musicians laying into the Hammond organs like galley slaves. The soundtrack album is serviced with an all-over-the-yard score including everything from trip-hop to Blind Faith covers -- all wildly inapropos for the action they accompany. On the plus side, Silver actually does a clever job of tweaking the basic characters' personas for their contemporary setting. Ribisi is allowed to totally reinvent Michael Cole's hippie beefcake Pete (he of the Warren Beatty coiffure and lame-ass Glen Campbell neck scarves) as a horny, addlepated punk madman. Danes' Julie, like Peggy Lipton's original, seems to be around mainly for her blonde pulchritude, though at least she has bit more animal vitality about her than her drowsy-eyed forebear. As Linc, Epps (Higher Education) tinkers little with Clarence Williams' brooding, toothpick-chewing badass persona. But then Linc was always the coolest one anyway, so why screw up a good thing? Silver, to his credit, has too much native talent to suppress for a full 90 minutes. A handful of appealingly out-there touches -- such as a bisexual drug lord who manages a Hanson-like teen pop group -- offer fleeting glimpses of the director-writer's latent potential, but in context they're more puzzling than redemptive. Bottom line: With videos of the original Mod Squad series readily available on the Web, why take part in the corruption of promising young directors by going to see pointless knockoffs like this?