The 2004 buddy comedy "Starsky & Hutch" is an amiable take-off that merrily ambles its way across our screen and is forgotten two minutes later. This is rather unfortunate, as it has a few good things going for it, not the least of which are its stars, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. Still, it never quite tickles the funny bone often enough to sustain its entire running time.
I suspect its weaknesses are twofold. The first problem is plainly its lack of effective gags. While two or three cute bits show up throughout the film, they're not enough. The second problem is more conjectural on my part. Follow me. The original "Starsky & Hutch" television show aired during the mid seventies. Unlike the "Austin Powers" flicks that were set in the sixties but had an abundance of jokes that anyone could get, young or old, much of the humor in this new "Starsky & Hutch" is a direct burlesque of the old series and especially the era in which it was set; a viewer would have to be at least a little bit familiar with the series or the seventies to appreciate the new movie. But the mid seventies were almost thirty years ago. That means that viewers would have to be in their forties or fifties to fully enjoy the new version. As a result, I have no doubt much of the film's satire is lost on a teen or twenties audience, leaving only the obvious, more universal jokes to entertain a younger crowd, and there aren't enough of these jokes. Well, OK, apparently it was enough, though, because the film did good box office. I just wonder how much better the film would have been had it simply been funnier for all age groups. On the other hand, I remember the original TV series and I remember the seventies, and I still didn't find a lot in this new film to laugh about. I'd say this one is going to be hit or miss all the way.
Stiller plays David Starsky, the fussier of a two-man undercover police team. It's a standard role for the actor, a pedantically obsessive, by-the-book type who is forever trying to live up to the image of his late mother, a respected policewoman herself. In her honor, he places doughnuts on her grave. But we've seen Stiller do this buttoned-up character before in things like "Along Came Polly," "Duplex," and "Zoolander." It's no wonder Starsky has had twelve partners in four years; he's a self-important ass.
Wilson plays Starsky's opposite, the laid-back Ken Hutchinson, his new partner. Hutch is so easygoing and carefree, he'd rather hang out with the bad guys than the cops. But we've seen Wilson do this role before, too. In fact, it seems like Wilson has only done this role lately, the cool, casual partner. He's done it twice with Jackie Chan in "Shanghai Noon" and "Shanghai Knights" and again with Eddie Murphy in "I Spy." He appears on his way to becoming a perpetual comic sidekick.
The third major character in the movie is Starsky's car, the celebrated Ford Gran Torino, souped up and painted red and white, just as in the old TV series. Frankly, the car steals the show. Starsky tells Hutch he likes it because it helps him "blend in." Right; like his ridiculously obvious fake disguises help him blend in. One of the best scenes in the picture is when Starsky manages to sink his car in the bay, and Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul show up to hand him their own original model.
Two other characters are reprised from the old show: Captain Doby, the pair's commanding officer, this time played by veteran movie tough guy Fred Williamson, always yelling at the fellows for their unorthodox police procedures; and Huggy Bear, the part-time black godfather and part-time urban informant, now played by part-time hip-hop MC and part-time actor, Snoop Dogg. Both performers bear uncanny resemblances to their original counterparts, Bernie Hamilton and Antonio Fargas.
The flimsy plot line is little more than a reason to reference the seventies as many times as possible. The movie, you see, lives or dies by two things: the chemistry of its two stars and its spoof of the period. The chemistry is generally pleasing but a tad trite by now, and the seventies' send-ups are extraordinarily tame and repetitive. The old TV show rather gets lost in the shuffle. So, we get, instead, a lot of jokes about the elaborate hair and clothing styles of the seventies, the black exploitation movies of the day, the cars, the food, the entertainment, the music, the disco dances, the water beds, the lava lamps, and all such dated material. The trouble is, we've seen all of this stuff lampooned before, and "Starsky & Hutch" doesn't make it much funnier the umpteenth time around.
Anyway, the plot concerns the two cops investigating a homicide. The villainous big cheese, Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn), is a sweetheart of a murderer, drug kingpin, and concerned Jewish father. He's got a worried flunky, Kevin (Jason Bateman), and a girlfriend-on-the-side, Kitty (Juliette Lewis). Neither Bateman nor Lewis gets much to do, funny or otherwise. Indeed, the only truly humorous character in the film is Big Earl (played by an ironically uncredited Will Ferrell), an incarcerated dope dealer, biker bar owner, embroiderer, and fancier of guys doing dragon acts together.
To give you a better idea of the film's wit, let me mention the director, Todd Phillips. He's the fellow who gave us "Frat House," "Road Trip," and "Old School." Believe me, "Starsky & Hutch" is much milder than any of these films, which is both a blessing and a curse. Although I didn't care much for the man's previous work, "Starsky & Hutch" could surely have benefitted from the zanier attitude of the earlier efforts.
Finally, lest I leave you with the impression that I didn't like the film at all, let me amend my critique by mentioning that I found nothing specifically offensive or insulting about the comedy. Indeed, there are several very funny moments, if only that. A game of Russian roulette going wildly amiss made me laugh out loud; and a gag involving a gift pony is funny. But these are only moments, flashes in the dark, in an otherwise very routine movie comedy that makes its points early and then lingers on longer than necessary. In other words, a little of this goes a long way.
Like the movie, the video quality is pleasant. Yet it's nothing that might compel a person to want to watch the movie just because it looks good. The screen size closely matches the movie's original theatrical exhibition size, which was 2.35:1, here rendered in about a 2.17:1 anamorphic ratio across a normal television screen. The transfer is without flaw, a relatively high bit rate assuring us bright, solid colors, little or no grain, and flicker-free viewing. The overall image is a little on the soft and fuzzy side, perhaps, but not to any great extent. Pretty good video, actually.
For an action comedy, I expected the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction to be more assertive, but again like the movie, it's somewhat laid back. The front channels present a wide stereo spread, which is impressive, but the rear channels only open up occasionally. Ricocheting bullets are obviously a must for the surrounds, but the rears don't kick in fully until the climactic car chase at the end of the picture. In the meantime, there's a decent low bass, not used often, and a well-defined transient response, also not used often. So wait for it; the sound eventually pays off.
The usual complement of extras accompanies the disc, only one of which is worth spending much time with. A nine-minute mock documentary, "Last Look Special: The Making of Starsky & Hutch," is funny because it spoofs the typical, promotional making-of feature that often comes with a DVD. I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the main movie, and because it was only nine minutes, it didn't overstay its welcome. The rest of the bonus items fall into the ordinary category. An audio commentary with director Todd Phillips; a two-minute fashion statement with Snoop Dogg, "Fashion Fa Shizzle Wit Huggy Bizzle"; six minutes of deleted scenes; and a five-minute gag reel of outtakes seems tame by comparison to the "Last Look Special." The bonuses conclude with thirty-one scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The Warner Bros. packaging I received included a keep case but no chapter insert.
Stiller and Wilson make a good duo, just as Chan and Wilson made a good pair. It seems that Owen Wilson makes a good partner for everyone he plays alongside. Stiller and Wilson's charisma, particularly together, works wonders to turn an ordinary screenplay into as much as it is. But it still isn't much. "Starsky & Hutch" is inoffensive, sometimes charming, and often irritatingly dull. Its satirical jabs are aimed at easy targets, its jokes repetitious or redundant, its pacing a little slow for farce. Maybe it aims to be too genial while it should have taken a page from the "Austin Powers" handbook and been more aggressively outrageous or silly. As it is, the movie passes an easy hour and a half or so, but just barely. It's not a bad film, mind you, but I couldn't see myself watching it again.