Starsky & Hutch

on March 05, 2004 by Wade Major
Bay City. The '70s. For diehard fans of disco era television, that's code for "Starsky & Hutch," the enormously popular television series that ran for four seasons between 1975 and 1979. Starring Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul as bantering buddy detectives David Starsky and Ken Hutchinson, the Leonard Goldberg/Aaron Spelling-produced series blended elements of both mainstream cop fare ("The French Connection," "Serpico") and so-called "blaxploitation" cinema ("Shaft," "Across 110th Street"), paying particular tribute to the latter by casting two veterans of the genre--Bernie Hamilton and Antonio Fargas--in key supporting roles as police Captain Dobey and club owner/informant pal Huggy Bear.

Ordinarily, this might not seem ready material for a comedic feature film adaptation, but the success of the "Charlie's Angels" films, based on another Goldberg/Spelling series from the era, appears to have changed the landscape. In the new picture, most nearly everything is played for laughs but not ridicule. It's a tightrope act that aims to appeal to but not alienate fans.

In this telling, directed with giggly glee by Todd Phillips ("Old School," "Road Trip"), uptight, straight-laced Starsky (Ben Stiller) is reluctantly paired with easygoing rule-breaker Hutchinson (Owen Wilson) after hot-tempered Captain Dobey (football great and blaxploitation film legend Fred Williamson) decides he's fed up with them both. The buddy antics get off to a predictably rough start, but soon settle in as the two find themselves oddly complementary, not only with women (Carmen Electra and Amy Smart in an amusing appearance as pro cheerleaders) but also in bringing down a powerful but wily drug lord (Vince Vaughn, complete with handlebar moustache).

What's smart about the film's approach is that it aims to replicate the team's television chemistry rather than their individual personalities. It doesn't matter that the series cast Hutch as the serious one and Starsky as the goofball--by writing to Stiller's and Wilson's strengths as performers, the interplay ends up being the same. (Remarkably, this is the first of their six pictures together in which Stiller and Wilson actually play "buddies," though judging from the chemistry many may find themselves swearing to the contrary.) Similar liberties have been taken in refashioning a more pimped-out Huggy Bear for rapper Snoop Dogg. Though Snoop's Huggy has little in common with Fargas', he's a welcome scene-stealer whose presence, if not his personality, is firmly in the spirit of the show.

Other details are meticulously faithful, from Starsky's cherry-red Gran Torino with white swoosh stripe to actual wardrobe. It's a kitschy confluence of references and nostalgic in-jokes all but guaranteed to make faithful fans simply cackle with delight. Whether or not non-fans will be quite so engaged is a more difficult question. Those who don't know, for example, that Soul also had a major hit as a recording star in the '70s with "Don't Give Up On Us, Baby" will be left scratching their heads. Other touches, such as the verbatim recreation of actual shots and moments from the series, are so "inside" that hardly any but religious S&H devotees will likely even spot them.

Even as a series, though, "Starsky & Hutch" had its fits and starts. By the fourth and final season, the once tough crime drama had devolved into self-parody, some of which is directly referenced in the film. So if the movie sometimes seems too silly for its own good, detractors can point their fingers first at the series. Starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Fred Williamson, Snoop Dogg, Vince Vaughn, Carmen Electra and Amy Smart. Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by John O'Brien and Todd Phillips & Scot Armstrong. Produced by William Blinn, Stuart Cornfeld, Akiva Goldsman, Tony Ludwig and Alan Riche. A Warner Bros. release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for drug content, sexual situations, partial nudity, language and some violence. Running time: 100 min

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