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Clemenza's Corner [Featuring Guest Reviewer Vincenzo]

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  Starsky & Hutch
Todd Phillips, USA, 2004
Rating: 3.5

Posted: March 08, 2004

A long, long time ago, in a Hollywood far, far away, yours truly worked as a stuntman on a number of TV cop shows. Yeah, brother, I'm here to tell you that Mama Falcone's baby boy Vincenzo put in his time rolling and butt-sliding across the hoods of cars, moving with the grace of a dancer through sloppily choreographed fight scenes and running in slow motion just ahead of billowing explosions.

As a result of my onetime occupation, I am possessed of a unique perspective when it comes to this latest Hollywood trend: these remakes of vintage '70s cop shows. Before I became a bodyguard for rich, pampered action-movie stars, I took the punches and the bullets meant for them in the land of make-believe. And frankly, I don't much like what's being done to the reputation of one of the best serial dramas ever conceived and executed in the history of television, cinema, literature or art. My friends, I'm talking about Starsky & Hutch.

Now, this new Starsky & Hutch movie is a comedy. I get that. It's got Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in the title roles, so you know you're not getting an exact carbon copy of the original series. Fair enough. And, sure, some of the humor is going to come from the styles and looks of the '70s, as seen by our oh-so-jaded eyes in the present. But the people behind the film, including director Todd Phillips of Old School fame, are kind of like your stereotypical cops in your run-of-the-mill action-film shootout scene: They're firing in so many directions at once, it's a wonder they don't kill themselves; forget about actually hitting the target!

Right from the get-go, the title characters are drawn with such broad strokes that at times you think this is one of those slapstick-y, Loaded Weapon type parodies. David Starsky (Stiller, with a faintly ridiculous curly mop and dated '70s outfits) is a hard-nosed, by-the-book cop who's so serious about his job, he'll chase a purse-snatcher across rooftops and fire escapes like he's Richard Kimble closing in on the one-armed man. He's easy prey for prankster cops who call in bogus crimes to watch him jump into action. Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson (Wilson) is his polar opposite, a breezy dude whose casual attitude towards law enforcement extends to committing actual crimes and associating with shady characters. These guys are so far apart, you just know they're gonna be partnered up by their fed-up boss (Fred "The Hammer" Williamson).

Oddly enough, once they begin working together, they come to respect and even like one another. That's easy for Starsky, because Poof!, just like that, Hutch's unsavory side just disappears. (Poor Starsky, though, remains a shrill, one-note joke throughout.) The reluctant partners start gelling as a unit, as they investigate the murder of an ex-convict, which leads them to cross paths with a smarmy drug dealer named Reese Feldman, played by Vince Vaughn as, well, the same character Vince Vaughn plays in just about all his movies. The plot that eventually draws the detectives into combat with Feldman is thinner than the bony cheerleader played by Amy Smart, but again, we know when we plop down our $8 that we're not walking into Shakespeare, so no harm done. The plot's not what's important here: It's the jokes, stupid.

And they're funny ones, too, for the most part. When the cops visit Hutch's friend and informant Huggy Bear, played by Snoop Dogg, Huggy's beefy thugs start spouting off facts about Luxembourg and the survival mechanisms of iguanas. (They're well-read muscle, get it?) When a would-be assassin takes potshots at Starsky's cherry Ford Gran Torino (still a fine-looking piece of American engineering, if you ask me), the duo busts in on him at his apartment, only to be waylaid by a spry little knife-throwing brat. But the jokes occasionally get in their own way. From Snoop's way-over-the-top fashion sense to a scene-stealing Will Ferrell as a kinky con, we get the feeling we're intruding on a clubby social scene. It's like Cannonball Run or a Rat Pack movie, where the film itself is a distant second in terms of priorities. Mainly, we're watching an excuse for a bunch of chums to get together and clown around.

So yeah, the jokes are a bit inconsistent. That even goes for the movie's running gag, which is that there's a homoerotic subtext to the budding friendship between these two stereotypical buddy-movie opposites -- and, by extension, to the machismo of testosterone-pumping cop movies in general. It's an easy gag, and not exactly an original one, but Starsky & Hutch runs with it like it's a key witness in an important mob case. And that's where this movie, in this reviewer's humble opinion, runs off the road.

Yeah, once or twice, it's funny. When the partners inevitably split up, a depressed Starsky imagines the two of them running along a beach in tight, colorful T-shirts. When they make up, he starts crying. Heck, in a nice bit of Freudian irony, Starsky's just trying to live up to the larger-than-life legend of his dear, departed mother, whose exploits on the force are still held in high regard. No problem, up to a point. The idea that Starsky and Hutch have repressed romantic feelings for each other is one thing. But to cast aspersions on the entire canon of police action flicks? That's just un-American.

To these seasoned eyes, the bond between the two leads is a fine example of one of life's most sublime and inspirational certainties: Male bonding. The masculine connection shared by men in the execution of manly pursuits is also known as agape -- that's pronounced ahh-GAHP-pay, not uh-GAPE, you illiterates -- and it's a staple of everything that makes us great. From the literature of Ernest Hemingway to the exploits of Superman and Batman -- Riggs and Murtaugh -- Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John; from the shared adrenaline of soldiers in a foxhole to the proud teamwork of a winning Super Bowl squad; from the moral certainty of a John Wayne Western to the grudging respect that grows between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed: The camaraderie of man in his element -- the unspoken frisson that sparks in the air like an electrical charge whenever men of virtue, character and grit are engaged in the discharge of their solemn duties -- this is a healthy, and vital, ingredient of our very lives.

Without it, dear readers, we wouldn't just be missing out on thrilling athletic contests and cool cinematic gunfights. No, my friends, we'd be missing out on our inimitable drive: the indefatigable pluck that fuels our greatest military victories; our forays into the skies and outer space; our dogged resiliency in the face of natural disasters, the Great Depression and the career of Billy Crystal!!! Without it, we'd still be shivering in damp bearskin rugs, huddling fearfully in our caves, jockeying among one another like craven jackals to be the first to kiss up to the guy who learns how to make fire from sticks!!!

Well, that's my take on it, anyway. To get back to the movie: Sometimes a pat on the butt from one man to another is just an acknowledgment of a job well done. Starsky & Hutch mines a couple of laughs by suggesting that its two macho characters might be a little light in the loafers, and that's all well and good, as long as we stop and remember that it's only a movie. When the original TV Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) and Hutch (David Soul) make a cameo toward the end, we're reminded of this important fact. The machismo that radiates from these two icons of buddy-cop greatness inhabits the theater with us, and makes us all too aware that Stiller and Wilson, while gifted comics both, wouldn't last five seconds in a real car-jump stunt over the bow of an escaping yacht and into the icy waters of a harbor, or an actual, live bar fight with a gaggle of pissed-off bikers.

If these two young punks weren't so quick to embrace cop-show clichés, and showed enough guts to embrace the joys of true cop-show bravado, Starsky & Hutch would be much more than an intermittently funny send-up of '70s fashions and cop-drama conventions: It'd be a worthy successor to one of the most inspirational odes to the beautiful bonds of manhood ever committed to film.

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 Clemenza's Ratings Key:

 5.0: A drop of bliss

 4.0-4.9: Touchdown!
 3.0-3.9: Close, but...
 2.0-2.9: Box of Rocks
 1.1-1.9: Time bandit
 0.0-1.0: Soul scarring
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