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Starsky & Hutch

Eschewing the errors of last year's seriously self-impressed lightweight, Hulk, opting for the straightforward recasting that its ABC Wednesday night counterpart Charlie's Angels sidestepped, and not quite teetering on the unkind renderings of the Brady Bunch updates, the latest in the TV revival series has gone for silliness supreme in a late-date prequel. Todd Phillips' Starsky & Hutch is a loving send-up of the series that spawned it, embarrassed neither of the guns that the Angels and ET have long since disavowed, or the seventies' sex-madness the millennium is just beginning to reclaim, and the cast, among whom the most usual of over-the-top suspects, is charmingly obliging.

The sardonic superiority of our times is imprinted on the adapatation, though -- in a warm-hearted sort of way. The names, the clothes, the blonde, the brunette, and that glorious Gran Torino striped tomato are really all that tie Starsky & Hutch, the movie, to the 1970s buddy cop series it parodies. Inventing backstories that Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul could never have dreamed of, director Todd Phillips takes liberties that would have curled Cap'n Dobey's toes.

The series started out tough and played to its finish with tongue more and more firmly in cheek; the film version picks up on that finish and runs with it. But somewhere in the rebirthing lab, the personas of the classically hip buddy cops were switched: Ben Stiller's David Starsky has traded in Glaser's trash-eating, brash-talking streetwise slicksterdom for a variation on his own Along Came Polly Reuben Feffer priss (his mother was a great cop whose memory he can't live up to), while Owen Wilson, playing a variation on every character Owen Wilson plays, shows no sign of the laid back health-conscious soulfulness of the original Hutch (he's playing a Chinatown heist a la Shanghai Noon's Roy O'Bannon when we first meet him here). It's a concession to the younger actors' styles -- and a forgivable transformation unlikely to trouble those who never wore Starsky & Hutch knee socks -- but it did give me a moment's pause. When Snoop Dogg appears in master mack form as Antonio Fargas with a sharp-bladed edge, encyclopedic body guards, and an iguana, you know you're not in Bay City / Kansas anymore.

Hutch as a dirty cop? Starsky as a failed mama's boy? Huggy as an actually dangerous gun-totin' pimp? Going for the familiar wink rather than originality, the film digs at the decade's retrospectively goofy mustaches, macho, disco and swagger. Vince Vaughn, fresh from the Old School, slithers seventies-style as a crooked entrepreneur hawking “New Coke” as he prepares for a family affair, while his girl-on-the-side Juliette Lewis rubs suntan oil on his back and his right-hand man Justin Bateman whines nervously beside him with a white man's white creamed, sun-blocked nose. Ken and Dave exercise their wiles and test their wares on cheerleading partners Amy Smart and Carmen Electra. And in throw-away scenes, an uncredited Will Ferrell plays on the buddies' pretty-boy appeal and brings the film to a full giggle.

A masterpiece, it may not be. Good fun, though, it truly is.

©2004 Shari L. Rosenblum