The Mod Squad

Mary Elizabeth Williams reviews the Aaron Spelling-produced update of the TV show 'The Mod Squad'.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 26, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Is it possible to try too hard without making any effort whatsoever? Because that seems to be the one slim accomplishment of "The Mod Squad," a movie that manages to stink on two levels. On the one hand, it is an aggressively stylized, frantically in-your-face cop caper; on the other, it's one of the most mindless, shamelessly lazy films so far this year.

The original "Mod Squad," like its latter-day pastiche, focused on three youthful small-time criminals going undercover for the fuzz in exchange for getting their rap sheets cleared. Embodied in the sleek Peggy Lipton, the suave Clarence Williams III and that other guy nobody ever cared about, they were television's first truly cool cops -- the Woodstock generation's answer to poker-faced, by-the-book gumshoes like Joe Friday. While not exactly high art, "The Mod Squad" made a certain kind of sense within its turbulent late-'60s/early-'70s time frame, when the idea that law enforcement could be young and hip was still a clever novelty. Nowadays, when every other action movie or cop show features pin-up-ready boys and girls with a knack for breaking the rules, that concept doesn't seem quite so daring. And those hallmarks of executive producer Aaron Spelling's style (he was a co-producer of the TV show) -- snippy women, neat hairstyles, inappropriate emotional outbursts -- are squirm-in-your-seat embarrassing up on the big screen.

Maybe the filmmakers shouldn't worry so much about the freshness of their premise, though, because it's conveyed in such a breathlessly nonsensical "Charlie's Angels"-variety opening sequence that viewers could easily miss it altogether. It's as if director Scott Silver, aiming to maintain the TV series feel, dropped the audience into a show already in progress. And while it's bad enough that it takes so long to figure out just how these quasi cops operate, basic character questions -- like: How were they recruited? Why would they want a clean record so badly? and Who in their right mind would pick them for sensitive police business? -- are never adequately addressed.

These mysteries become more problematic when the three fail to inspire confidence in their crimefighting abilities. Wasn't the whole point of being a "mod squad" (a concept helpfully defined in the opening credits) so that its members could be badasses? Why, then, are these three so lame? They get lathered up in car washes, hoodwinked by petty criminals and generally made to look foolish at every turn. As Linc, Omar Epps mistakes a robotic monotone and grim expression for some bizarre version of stoic machismo, displaying all the warmth and naturalness of a vending machine. At the other end of the spectrum, Giovanni Ribisi's Pete is a twittery amalgam of his "I'm a slow learner" characters from "Friends" and "The Other Sister" (incredibly, this is the second movie this spring in which he barks like a dog). Ribisi, with his soft cherub face and frenetic, bouncing-off-walls energy, may be one to watch, but he's well on his way to typecasting himself right out of the running for any characters with IQs over 100. Claire Danes, as Julie, has a dewy, wounded quality that suggests she may be trying to do something with her sketchily drawn character. Mostly, however, it seems she was cast just to brighten the scenery and model the clothes (beleaguered Levi's is launching a line of Mod Squad attire, which may be why the movie so often looks like little more than a big-budget jeans ad).

As half-formed as the leads are, the supporting cast is even less fleshed-out. Most of the film's other characters are so nakedly, mustache-twirlingly dastardly, they might as well be running around wearing "I AM SOOOOO EVIL" T-shirts. In the convoluted plot line involving crooked cops and stolen evidence, forget complexities or torn loyalties -- these characters aren't even vaguely subtle. As large pieces of scenery are sacrificed to rampant chewing, the bad guys broadcast their schemes via the clunkiest expository dialogue this side of "Fantasy Island," apparently oblivious to the fact that talking really loudly isn't the best way to convey super-secret information. Luckily for them, the squad's as incompetent as they are, which may be why it takes them so long to catch on to their wicked plans.

When at last the trio does glom on to what's going on, they're still a little slow on the uptake. During one scene, in which Pete seems to suddenly realize he's trapped in the middle of a terrible, clichi-riddled action movie, he dejectedly declares he didn't know this sort of stuff happened. (Imagine how we feel, Pete.) "Mod Squad" is full of such smirking winks at the audience, but in its desperation to affect a knowing camp, it winds up looking unsure of its own joke. The style -- from the clothes to the camera work to the wacka wacka soundtrack to Linc's boat-sized Lincoln Continental -- is heavy-handed retro, but without any apparent meaning or even nostalgic affection. Director and co-writer Silver pointlessly crams the screen with Quinn Martin-era cinematography and inadvertently hilarious, movie-of-the-week dialogue like "He's a pimp! And he's not sober!" and "We've got to find that guy with the leather pants!" All "Mod Squad" needs is to be divided into neatly titled segments like "Act I: A Bust Gone Bad." The result just seems like more of the fatuous, hopelessly passi TV that it's based on.

With its leaden dialogue, absurd plotting and cue-card-worthy performances, this newest television remake is more "Police Squad!" than "Mod Squad," but without the deliberate comedy. Late in the film, worn out by explosions, chases and a mountain of other contrivances, Julie observes that she's getting too old for this shit. Certainly, she's not the only one.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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