The writer and director Todd Phillips's big-screen adaptation of Starsky & Hutch has a crafty, can-you-dig-it? spirit, derived from his affection for the 1970s and the original TV cop series. All that's missing from the flaky fun is an announcement over the film's end credits: "Tonight, on The Love Boat ..."
The TV show featured a pair of apparently plainclothes fuzz -- who were they supposed to be fooling? -- played by Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul. When they weren't tumbling into each other's arms, they were sliding over the roofs of cars or over suspects' Miranda rights. Phillips may not quite be a filmmaker, but he's on his way to becoming a director. His grasp of tone is a few steps ahead of his previous film, Old School. That movie had the staticky inconsistency of the AM radio probably found in the dash of the '74 Gran Torino driven by the detectives David Starsky (Ben Stiller) and Ken Hutchinson (Owen Wilson), better known as Hutch.
The fishtailing oversteer of that eight-cylinder beast is almost another character in a plot fueled by leaded gas. It involves the detectives in hot pursuit of a drug ring, as both the car and the story career through the streets of a backdrop so anonymous that it might as well be called Santa Metro. (The actual name is Bay City.)
Starsky is probably one of those rare detectives who don't deserve the by-the-book speeches from their commanders, in this case Captain Doby (Fred Williamson, looking fit enough to keep up with his squad). Starsky is paired with another loner -- cool, shaggy Hutch -- who's a step away from being bounced from the force for dancing around sticky procedural guidelines involving payoffs and consorting with criminals.
STARSKY & HUTCH
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Starring: Ben Stiller (David Starsky), Owen Wilson (Ken Hutchinson), Vince Vaughn (Reese Feldman), Fred Williamson (Captain Doby), Snoop Dogg (Huggy Bear) and Juliette Lewis (Kitty)
Running time: 97 minutes
Taiwan Release: today
Starsky and Hutch are tethered to a harness of buddy-movie cliches, but their congeniality comes from the actors' chemistry, demonstrated in several previous films together. As Starsky, Stiller uses the caffe Americano bravado that made his sketch turns on The Ben Stiller Show so freakishly intense. He's doing an inside-out re-creation of Glaser's puffed-chest brawler, and he has been tricked out in nearly every outfit that Starsky wore through the series's run, down to the creased jeans and blue-and-white Adidas found in contemporary photo spreads in magazines like The Fader.
Wilson is just as competitive an actor as Stiller, but sails through the movie with his toasted graciousness, which is equal parts Jeff Spicoli of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the TV private eye Jim Rockford. (Like Rockford, Hutch even lives in a trailer.) Wilson has really become the stoner's version of James Garner, and his most charming asset continues to be his combination of good manners and ecstasy-flavored narcissism. While he seems to be squinting to get a fix on his conversational partner, he's actually trying to get a better look at his reflection in that person's eyes.
Avoiding the confrontational machismo that made the series a regular target in the pages of The Advocate, the movie instead plays Starsky's zealous obliviousness against Hutch's low-rent worldliness. This pays off in moments like a double-date scene that's part interrogation and part Russ Meyer, which gives Wilson a chance to recreate a David Soul moment pitched, evidently, in the key of L.
Phillips throws in cameos, both expected and wickedly surprising, that keep things hopping. Based on the number of faithfully recreated moments in the Starsky & Hutch movie, he must know that the show -- with its casual brutality and sardonic, back-alley fascism -- was derived from slap-happy action comedy-dramas like Richard Rush's 1974 Freebie and the Bean and, more specifically, Peter Hyams's 1974 Busting.