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Starsky & Hutch

The best joke about Starsky & Hutch may be that there really aren't many jokes. Take away a few tweaks and nods of hindsight about the strangeness of the seventies, and the movie version plays as a long episode of the original, just with a new cast. When you've got Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson doing their thing, of course, it can't help but be funny.

Up until now, director Todd Phillips has been an indifferent talent. He has a sense of humor, but often his jokes led nowhere - if you've seen Old School, you probably laughed, but somehow knew you could have laughed harder.

In truth, where Starsky & Hutch creaks the most is when he has tried too hard to pull off a gag instead of just letting the situation play out. That happens often in the first third of the film, and then somehow somebody convinced him (perhaps in the editing room) to just lay off and let things reach their natural conclusion.

With the help of cinematographer Barry Peterson and a host of designers, the film certainly has the look of the seventies. More specifically, it feels like a television show from that time period, with flat lighting and an earnest if uninteresting score. If Stiller (as Starsky) looks a little uncomfortable and out of place, that's just the niche he has found on film in general. Wilson, however, appears to have finally found his home.

The plot, which may actually be a remake of a Starsky & Hutch episode for all I know, concerns drug kingpin Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn) and his scheme to take over the narcotics trade in L.A.

With the help of his aide (or brother - the relationship is never quite clear) Friday (Jason Bateman), Feldman plans to introduce a new odorless cocaine onto the market. Appropriately and winkingly called New Coke, it fools drug-sniffing dogs. Most importantly, it fools Starsky, whose uses it to sweeten his coffee and launch a delirious sequence of events that still, embarrassingly, don't really exaggerate things too much. (The best part of that sequence? Owen Wilson singing original Hutch David Soul's one hit wonder, "Don't Give Up On Us, Baby.")

Eventually, because it must, the action brings in street pimp Huggy Bear, played by Snoop Dogg (or vice versa). Why is never really quite clear, though eventually an undercover operation arises that does need his services. Except for one in-joke there about grass, the rapper and his role meld seamlessly, in a classic bit of casting that may make you forget Antonio Fargas. Perhaps you already have.

All the casting works surprisingly well, mainly because the script has been so slavish to the television show's set-up. Though the character of Manetti has nothing to do (probably a later episode would focus … oh, wait…), Chris Penn easily fills his shoes. Sporting a cheesy moustache, Vaughn clearly needs to go back in time and become a regular villain-of-the-week on ABC. In the only female role that really registers, Juliette Lewis works a little harder than she has in quite a while.

Then there's Stiller and Wilson. If you caught them on the Oscars, you already know they have a chemistry that plays up both of their personas well. For some, their previous teaming, Zoolander didn't work, but in that case at least one of them was stretching out of his persona. But now that Stiller has settled in to the role of urban angst avatar, it's pretty funny to see that become a would-be action hero. Underneath his easy-going demeanor, Wilson has always had just enough steel to make him seem possibly tough. Now they work.

However, they work so well that a director like Phillips can take it easy, still squeak by and get a lot of undue credit. So much so at this point that the helmer already has another television remake lined up, The Six Million Dollar Man. Why? Because test audiences loved Starsky & Hutch, and it's not hard to understand.

Just like the television series, it's hard not to like these guys. Someday, somebody will have enough talent to make us love them.


Derek McCaw

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