By Anna Merlan
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Ginger and Fred. Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. To the list of unforgettable movie dance partnerships, we may now add Omar Epps, the trim, handsome young man who stars as one-third of The Mod Squad, and Michael Lerner, the heavyset middle-aged actor who played the mayor of New York in last summer's Godzilla. Late in this feature remake of the late-'60s/early-'70s TV fave, Epps, as Linc, an undercover cop, and Lerner, as a sleazy drug kingpin, are sitting together on a couch, waiting for a delivery and listening to a jazz version of "My Favorite Things." Abruptly, Mr. Big gets up and asks Linc if he may have the pleasure. "I'm not a fag; I just like to dance," he reassures him. Sure enough, Linc gets up, and the two men cut a rug. "You're a classy dancer," says Mr. Big, with a flirtatious grin.
It's a perplexing little scene, no doubt about it, but then The Mod Squad is an eccentric little movie. It's a terrible movie, really, but I'm not hard-hearted enough to condemn it, because it brings back some of the scrappy feel of '70s TV action series. Granted, as cultural revivals go, this isn't exactly on the level of the Renaissance. But after the tiresomely Wagnerian Sturm und Drang of '90s action movies, with their errant asteroids and their heroes blown to safety by the force of huge explosions, it's rather refreshing to see a hero scale a chain-link fence and bring down a suspect with a flying tackle to the accompaniment of growling funk.
It's a shame that the director, Scott Silver, who wrote the convoluted script with Stephen Kay and Kate Lanier, didn't know when to quit. When characters dash through parking garages or cars crash through warehouse doors, Silver's direction has a fine straight-faced irony. But when he allows the characters to make self-aware remarks--"At least it's not an abandoned warehouse," quips one--the air is let out of the joke with a flatulent sound.
TV's The Mod Squad, which ran on ABC from 1968 to 1973, was the creation of Bud Ruskin, who as a young man had worked as an undercover narc for the L.A. Sheriff's Department. His inspired notion was to package three "mod" '60s youths in a format--the hourlong police drama--that even the staunchest silent-majority type could handle. Pete (Michael Cole) was a rich kid who had gone hippie and was cast out of Beverly Hills; lissome Julie (Peggy Lipton) was the runaway daughter of a hooker; and soul brother Linc (Clarence Williams III) had been in the Watts riots. All three characters had had run-ins with the law, and had been given a chance by gruff-but-lovable Captain Greer (Tige Andrews) to become undercover cops.
Essentially, it was a show about finks--and finks of a sort that very much existed in real life--but somehow Julie, Linc, and Pete were always on the side of the angels. The bad guys weren't the sincere protesters and activists but the opportunists and crazies who took advantage of their commitment. Seen today, the show--episodes of which were occasionally directed by the likes of Richard Rush--seems hilariously overwrought and dated, but there's an undeniable sexy charm to the actors, which was surely the reason for the five-year run.
The stars of the new film version--Epps as Linc, Clare Danes as Julie, and Giovanni Ribisi as Pete--have shown their talent in other films. Danes created a near-flawless, criminally underrated Juliet for the '90s in Baz Luhrmann's film of Romeo and Juliet, and Ribisi was one of the strongest members of the Saving Private Ryan ensemble. But what The Mod Squad requires is not fine acting but glamour and casual appeal. This is less valuable than good acting, but unlike acting, it's impossible to attain by diligent effort--a performer either does or doesn't have it.
Epps and Danes have some--they look awfully chic, anyway--but it's the soulfully homely Ribisi who's the life of the party. He plays Pete not as a dashing hippie prince but as slow-thinking Southern California ditz who prefixes most of the lines he speaks with the word duuude.
Ribisi serves as a sort of surrogate for the slow-witted kids who the filmmakers presume are out in the audience--Pete stands listening while Julie and Linc discuss their theory of the case at hand, and at last he helpfully blurts out, "This is one of those dirty-cop drug things!" That's about as coherently as I could have put it--indeed, that's all that need be said concerning the oddly twisted plot, except to note that some gifted character players are shooed through it, among them Dennis Farina (as Captain Greer), Richard Jenkins, Steve Harris, Bodhi Elfman, and Josh Brolin.
It's easy to ignore these knockoff movie versions of retro TV shows, because they're almost always atrociously made. But it can be instructive to watch them because of the template they provide for culture compare-and-contrast between the old show's era and ours. It's notable, for instance, that while the behavior of the characters on the '60s show always displayed exemplary integrity, the members of the movie Mod Squad actually act like wild kids. Danes' Julie drags a boyfriend into the ladies' room of a club to make out and later vandalizes his car when she learns he's betrayed her. Ribisi's Pete gets it on with a girl out in the open in the same club--they don't even bother with the rest room.
This may make moral watchdogs do some hand-wringing about them as role models. It's a good bet, though, that those same watchdogs won't notice that Pete, Linc, and Julie manage to get through all of the film's car chases and foot chases and fights without firing a shot or killing any of their enemies.
The Mod Squad.
Written by Stephen Kay, Kate Lanier, and Scott Silver. Directed by Silver. Starring Omar Epps, Clare Danes, Giovanni Ribisi, Dennis Farina, Richard Jenkins, Steve Harris, Bodhi Elfman, Josh Brolin, and Michael Lerner. Opens Friday.
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