The Mod Squad (1999)

Director: Scott Silver

USA - 1999

  Hoff! Hoff! Hoff! Hoff! 


Okay, you really think I would have learned by this time.  No, really.  I mean, it should be clear by now that the quality of the two Addams Family movies were a fluke, and the success of the Mission: Impossible franchise lay as much in its departure from the TV series standards as its familiarity.  After such gems as Car 54, Where Are You?, The Flintstones (why, oh, why did they make a sequel?), and My Favorite Martian, I shouOmar Epps doesn't deserve this.ld know better than to expect any shade of quality out of a movie based on an old TV series.  I must admit, I am waiting for the My Mother The Car movie, but only to laugh at the studios for stooping so low.  Wait, who am I kidding?  I paid good money to see 3000 Miles to Graceland.

In any case, so I rented a bunch of movies for the weekend from our local Dark Star video, the favorite movie rental place of our local group.  Please, please, people, I know they’re convenient and they guarantee to have stock in (which, by the way, isn’t the point), but please support your local independent shop, rather than Blockbuster (or, The Great Satan, as I like to call them).  Make friends with the clerks, so they’ll treat you right.  If you must go to a superstore, find a Hollywood Video.  They can still use the support.  Though, unfortunately, I can only find Cast A Deadly Spell at this Blockbuster near our first Chicago apartment, in the whole city I’ve investigated so far.  Though there are still some places I need to check out…

Okay, wait, I’m off-track.  I rented a bunch of movies from Dark Star (mention Opposable Thumb Films at the desk and get a confused look for free!), and trundled off home to enjoy a personal Bad Cinema Weekend.  First serving: The Mod Squad.

Initial reaction: where were the Drapes?  I thought this was a teen war movie between the Mods and the Drapes.  Well, not really, but I’m sure that would have been more interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like it’s completely inept or anything.  The three leads, Claire Danes, Giovanni Ribisi, and Omar Epps, are certainly capable actors, one and all.  They are, to the best of my ability to discern, completely believable as fictional characters.  I merely think that what those fictional characters are required to do is rather inexplicable and ends up being more dull than anything else.

The story opens at a rave, where each of the three leads is introduced, one by one, to a somewhat Beat-sounding voice-over and a lot of constantly-shifting MTV-like imagery.  Man, when you’re trying to be hip and so very, very interesting, there’s nothing like a jumpy, fast-cut scene to just sell your idea to the masses.  Oh, yeah.  Anyway, that’s when we learn the names.  Claire plays Julie Barnes, runaway and recovering alcoholic.  Man, I hope she was 18 when she did this movie, because otherwise I’d beNeither does Dennis Farina. really ashamed to be seeing her in her underwear.  I never did watch My So-Called Life, but I liked her in the trailer to I Love You, I Love You Not, and I hear she’s been decent in most other stuff, so I can forgive her this.  Giovanni plays Pete Cochran, thief and all-around-loser.  Man, I hope he was 18 when he did this movie, because then he knew what he was doing when he signed the contract, and can be held completely liable.  I’m not used to seeing him in roles where he’s a mostly functional human; then again, what, he’s been in The Postman and Friends and… well, I never saw Boiler Room, but I hear he gave up a perfectly good apartment-based casino to sell fake stocks.  How smart is that?.  Omar plays Lincoln Hayes.  See, it’s also something of a joke, because he drives a Lincoln, it’s just about his only prized possession.  Linc never needed a reason to go burn down the world.  See, ‘cause he’s just a revolutionary at heart, as you can see from Higher Learning, even though he also did Dracula 2000 and Major League II (I don't count Scream 2, because he was only in in for a short time).  It kind of helps that Linc is probably the most capable of the three; he’d be just fine on his own, I think, though it does help to have sidekicks.

You know, I think this movie would have been just fine if it were “Mod Linc and his two assistants.”  But then it wouldn’t be slavishly aping the TV show, now, would it.

Okay, so, once they’re all introduced, we see something of their personalities as the cops bust in and break up the rave.  Come to think of it, they never say what the bust was about.  Drugs, certainly, but who was dealing?  From the looks of things, it’s like the speakeasy raids during Prohibition, though they probably didn’t need fake flapper cops to bring down the criminals.  For that matter, what did the Mod Squad do?  Tip the cops as to where the party was?  Identify the dealers?  They didn’t do all that much during the actual bust, at least, nothing to help the cops directly.  Julie sees this cop, Detective Tricky (awful name for a cop, but fitting, since he's played by Sam McMurray of C.H.U.D. and Attack of the 5'2" Women fame, just to pick the highlights), roughing up this girl in a bathroom, jumps on his back, and starts whomping on him.  “Dig this police brutality, baby!”

One of my incessant side notes here: what’s up with the retro ‘70s hip dialogue in this flick?  I mean, damn, people, I’m as much of a fan of it as anyone, I like to pepper my speech with “baby” or “cool” or even “groovy,” though I always think of Bruce Campbell’s character Ash when I say it.  But do any of the mod club kids these days actually talk this way?  I do think not.  Still, that and the wakka-wakka music do really evoke the whole ‘70s feel.  That and the slick leather clothes.  Oh, yeah, baby.  Of course, I actually did live in the ‘70s.  Admittedly, not in such a happening spot as L.A., but still.  And I don’t recall many people actually talking like that.  Ah, but what is history, particularly in the media, but people’s recollections of past events, which are inevitably colored by time?  All that being true, the lines seem laughable, and whether it’s intended or not, they make me giggle.

So, Julie attacks a slimy cop, Pete runs away from an overweight one, who I think is supposed to be Detective Carl Greene (Michael O'Neill, who was in The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag and Bushwhacked, if I've got the right guy in the right role); when the guy stops, out of breath, Pete comes back and checks on him, then offers his wrist for the cuffs, which only makes sense after you know they’re already in the Squad; I had half-expected some kind of origin scene, like in Band of the Hand, but instead we pick up in media res.  Linc, on his part, watches an officer push this creepy blonde guy in leather pants (credited as Gilbert "Skinny Freak" O'Reiley, played by Bodhi Elfman, who seems to have had roles in a bunch of  kind-of action films like Sneakers and Enemy of the State, but I can't recall having seen him; he was also Londo Pearl in the TV series Freedom, who I think I remember as the guy beheading photos of the Joint Chiefs with thrown quarters, but man, he looks way different) out of an exit door, telling him to get away before he gets arrested.  Then some other cop slams Linc up against the wall, and he quietly asserts that he’s cool…  and man, is he ever!

So then we get the intro to their boss, Captain Adam Greer (Dennis Farina, a long way from Crime Story and Get Shorty; the man's destined to play cops and mafiosi his whole life), and his best buddy, Bob Mothershed (Richard Jenkins, who was in Undercover Blues, Wolf, and The Impostors, one of the few non-bureaucratic roles I've seen him in).  Seems Greer's little experimental underage squad is not going over well with the others, but hey, you gotta beak eggs…  He turns into Mr. Standing Room Only when he doesn't seem to want to let them stay seated when he's chewing them out, which he seems to do regularly.  I'm not sure I really understand the management technique of yelling at your folks, even when they've been doing, you know, decently.  Maybe it's just me; I was once called "Captain Positive Claire Danes, on the other hand... Reinforcement" during a role-playing game, so my technique is suspect.  There, I've admitted it on the web, I'm a role-playing gamer.  I game, and I'm proud.  Back to the review.

They come in on this black book (a.k.a. prostitution) case, helping out Detectives Tom Eckford and Earnie Lanier (Larry Brandenburg and Lionel Mark Smith, respectively.  Brandenburg was in such films as The Untouchables and Fargo, but has recently been in Major League: Back to the Minors, and Mighty Joe Young.  And this one.  Smith, on the other hand, has a shorter but smoother resume, starting in Homicide, hitting The Spanish Prisoner, and going on to Magnolia right after this one, among others.  Mostly dramas of some seriousness, more's the pity).  They're sure there's a ring operating out of this club managed by Red Wilson (comic actor Toby Huss, late of Bedazzled and TV's Nikki.  You have to like a mousy thin guy who was on The Adventures of Pete and Pete as Artie, the Strongest Man in the World).  So Julie goes in as a waitress, and the other guys start going in as young patrons.  Are these 18-clubs, or are these guys no longer minors?  Because they were trying to give the impression they were very young and tough, but a simple ID check would boot them out of a place like that, but maybe I'm getting too specific.  While on the job, Julie meets up with an old flame, Billy Waites (Josh Brolin, who looks immensely old in this film, I'm afraid, and quite different from both Mimic and The Young Riders TV show.  I really did like that show.)  As it happens, Brolin's 11 years older than Danes, which means if their characters were dating when she was, say 18, he'd be 29, picking up high-school seniors.  Creepy.

They do some bonding over the fact that they’ve both been sober for a while, doing the Steps and all that.  Boy, people pick the strangest things to bond over, these days.  Linc goes outside to meet up with Mr. SRO, and ends up seeing Leather Pants get into Mr. SRO’s car… he thinks.  Hard to tell under those yellow sodium lights, sometimes.  In any case, back in the club with the bad music (young people actually listen to this crap?  Man, they’re in worse shape than I thought), Pete has done some sort of voodoo charm spell on this woman to make her think his frog-like looks are attractive, either that or she’s drunk enough to think he’s Russell Crowe, and they’re making out like someone’s making a movie.  Um, a different kind of movie, actually.  But then her boyfriend comes up and, naturally, it comes to fisticuffs.  Pete is not one to stand by the Marquis of Queensbury rules, so the bouncers toss him.  Kind of spoils his ability to watch out for Julie, now, doesn’t it?  Talk about planning!

Next day, they all go in to talk to Mr. SRO, and Linc confronts him about picking up the Leather Pants freak.  Out of nowhere, he talks about taking drugs from the evidence locker.  I don’t think it was mentioned previously, though I could well be wrong.  Still, given the eventual unfolding of the plot, it"Please. No more talky." seems oddly prescient, but of course, Mr. SRO isn’t talking.  I suppose he thinks he’s protecting them, but since when is withholding information that could mean their lives to know or not know considered protection?  If they know there’s a risk, they’re in better shape to protect themselves, don’t you think?  Ah, Mr. SRO, you’ll risk your kids on the job, but won’t keep them updated in life, eh?  Mr. Double Standard, is more like it.

That night, Julie and Billy keep hitting it off (and hitting it in the restroom; who does this?  Am I just sheltered?), while Linc keeps watch in the club, and Pete stays in Linc’s treasured car on the top floor of the parking garage across the street.  Linc sees Leather Pants and a friend kicking it with a couple of Cali Blondes, and when they leave, he follows, even though he doesn’t have much more than suspicion.  Maybe he feels a tremor in the Force; he’s certainly smooth enough to be a Jedi.  So, anyway, when Pete sees Linc exit the club, he realizes he’s got to get down there, and clumsily navigates the big ‘70s-era Lincoln sedan down through the garage.  Unfortunately, Leather Pants, in the driver’s seat of his own car, sees Linc crossing the road, pegs him as a cop (of a sort, at least), and drives off, leaving his friend behind.  Pete tries to pull out, but gets hit by a car driving by!  Spends the rest of the chase sitting there fretting about the damage done to the car, knowing Linc will kill him, but only metaphorically, unfortunately.

Meanwhile Linc pursues Leather Pants' friend, a character credited as Bald Dude (played by Stephen T. Kay, who isn't bad as a wastrel stoner, but probably learned in his time on General Hospital as Reginald Jennings, or in Lethal Weapon 3 as the Movie Director).  Bald Dude steals a station wagon, but even then, he can’t escape Linc.  And he’s a dope, so when he finally has to go back to beating feet, he tips his position, and Linc is off again.  This isn’t all that bad of a chase, actually, particularly if this were a TV movie.  And when Linc finally catches up to Bald Dude, it’s kind of flashy.  Certainly, what few stunts the leads pull off, Linc accomplishes most of them.  Bald Dude spills what little data he has, and also makes sure to mention some stuff that is completely unnecessary, like where he works, so that they can have an excuse to track him down later.  Not that I mind that they’ll have to re-visit this character, but come on, can’t you possibly think up a more elegant way to provide the data?  I mean, can’t you even have Linc ask the question, rather than have the guy just blurt it out?

Bald Dude tips them that Leather Pants is supposed to be meeting someone under a bridge, something appropriately deserted and spooky.  Naturally, when they all go there, they hear a distant series of gunshots, and see Mr. SRO lying in a convenient spot of light at the far end of a huge, pitch-black Hey fellas, what's the chances of Mod Squad II? concrete tunnel, with holes in his chest and cocaine scattered about.  And not once do they look up or around to see if the killer is still lurking about.  I tell you, if this weren’t their movie, they’d be dead so flaming fast… See, this is why you don’t recruit everyday thug kids into your special squad.  1) they don’t carry weapons, so they can’t defend themselves in kind, like officers are supposed to do.  2) they don’t have any training in either observation (for fleeing suspects, for example) or not contaminating a crime scene.  And 3) they are far too easily set up, as evidenced by the fact that when they hear sirens approaching, they bail instead of waiting on the scene like good cops would (this I learned from L.A. Confidential).  They also don’t give much thought as to who would have called the cops, and when.  I mean, it was maybe two minutes, max, since the gunshots, and to have the cops responding already to such an abandoned locale, in L.A., is really pushing the envelope.  Just like, when they’re back in the city, they have a couple of cars screech up to apprehend the trio, just walking Julie home.  Linc knew it would happen, of course, but that’s why he’s the leader.  Still, I mean, it’s not like these guys are dangerous.  “Oh, but the cops thought they might have shot Mr. SRO.”  Bull.  There’s no evidence on that, one way or the other, and nobody suggests that there’s any sort of tip going on there, either.  It’s just there to ratchet up the tension, make the situation seem more important than it actually is.

Anyway, after they're picked up, they each get interviewed separately by Detective Briggs, Internal Affairs (Steve Harris, doing yet another cold, powerful performance like in The Practice and The Skulls, which he can do in his sleep by this time; he's a native Chicagoan, so I have to give him props when I can).  They cut back and forth between the interviews.  Of course, Pete is the most unbelievable of them all.  Peter Cochrane, you ARE the weakest link!  Then they all get put up into a room, and get talked at by Bob Mothershed, apparently out of loyalty and love for his murdered friend.  He gives Pete his card, with his home address on it.  Then he leaves.  There are some cheap histrionics, as the boys want to pretend they aren’t affected, and the tough girl just gets angry, and then they go off to their respective places.  Turns out Pete and Linc are roommates, or at least, that’s how it seems.  Julie, on her part, lives alone in a run-down apartment, which nonetheless has a decent amount of floor area (how much does that police gig pay, anyway).  And it’s on Hollywood and Vine, believe it or not.  So, I guess she’s neighbors with Tom Waits.  No, wait, that’s “Heart-Attack and Vine.”  Sorry about the confusion.

Anyway, so Julie, in her grief, calls up Billy for some, er, consolation, I guess.  Linc gets Pete, and they go to the car wash where Bald Dude works.  Men deal with their grief by roughing up low-lives, apparently.  Oh, and Pete has to take command of Linc’s car again, which, naturally, leads to misery for the car, and thereby Linc.  When are you going to learn, brother, he’s a goof, and can’t be trusted with the keys?  I mean, after the first time, I thought you’d have learned.  In any case, Bald Dude leads them toWhen A Picture Tells 1,000 Words: Actual Footage Leather Pants’s beach-side trailer.  He’s not home, of course, but it’s now time to start the educational portion of the movie, the strong anti-gun message, so they tool around with a gun for a bit, and then decide to wait for Leather Pants to come back.  Boy, for something that was marketed as a slam-bang kind of action movie, they’re sure spending a lot of time waiting around.

Billy comes over to hang with Julie, and then has to go.  As the evening wears on, Julie begins to miss him, and then decides to visit him at home.  Actually, given his real business, that was a rock-stupid move, giving his address to a woman he’s just making connection with.  What, you couldn’t expect her to drop by at an embarrassing moment?  In the most stupendous coincidence of timing, she pulls up in her cab exactly as Billy and his coven of slutty-dressing women leave the building to drive out to this party.  Turns out, Billy is up to no good, as Julie listens in on his dealings with a sleazy "rock" band manager Howard (Michael Lerner, who seems to be having way, way too much fun in this role; he must realize he's in something at least as bad as his roles in Godzilla (1998) and The Beautician and the Beast, and is making the most of it).  Trouble is afoot, and disillusion runs rampant.

Out at the beach, our ever-so-observant young cops are woken up by the muffled sounds of sixty or so people coming into the trailer.  Well, only three.  But still, for folks that are supposed to be watching the place, they should have seen it coming.  This is just about the only time Linc fails, proving that he is, indeed, human, and not some pleather-clad god.  So they sneak up, and Bald Dude follows, just in time to get a bullet in the head from some pretty recognizable strangers coming out of the trailer.  Pete gets spattered, and it is here that we learn Guns Are Bad.  Now we know, and knowing is half the battle.  Well, maybe it’s not so blatant as that, but damn, you’d think kids in L.A. hadn’t already seen 500 murders on TV, and a couple in real life, by the time they dropped out of high school, or something.

Things swiftly go downhill from here, Linc’s car gets progressively more busted up, and some of the most inept and ludicrously successful spy work I’ve ever seen gets accomplished.  The only reason the three characters didn’t get bullets in the brain was because IITS.  Don’t be expecting them to contact you kids for Sneakers 2 anytime soon.  Julie falls of the wagon, and then takes leave of her senses, because she hooks back up with the guys in their efforts to take down Mr. SRO’s killers.  Howard, the rock band manager, is just kind of creepy, particularly when he does this ballroom dancing thing with Linc.  Of course, Linc is an excellent dancer.  Also, Howard never seems to listen to much rock music, which then makes his passion for his band make a bit more sense; he obviously doesn’t know trash product when A requisite visit from The Man. he hears it.  So then the clichés mount, and yes, the kids seem to notice it.  Maybe it’s the script, trying to make one last gasp of self-aware witticism.  Sorry, script, too late, and it’s a weak attempt anyway.

There were things I could like in this film, but by and large, I really can't recommend it.  If you're nursing a stiff drink with a gang of cine-thug friends like yourself, and just want to rip the thing apart, it gives a few good hand-holds, but by and large, there's not that much to work with.  Hence, the drink is important; by the time you get halfway through the movie, you should be drunk enough to think even the dull parts are funny.  In actuality, there’s very little in the way of cool action, or much in the way of action in general.  It seems to follow the ‘70s idea of action; to see the difference, watch the two Escape from [Blank] movies back to back, and if you can stay awake through New York, you can see the modern version of the same movie in L.A., with way better action and stunt sequences.  Not that the story is any more coherent, but it’s a Carpenter movie.  Also, the second one suffers from the loss of Isaac Hayes.  But back to My So-Called Mod Squad.  It’s too dull to be a thriller, and not erotic enough to be an erotic thriller.  The leads have good star power, but they’re under-used.  It’s not funny enough to be a comedy, and not mysterious enough by half to be a mystery.  Someone in the IMDb organization termed it a teen angst movie, and that’s probably the best definition, except there’s really no need to be particularly angsty in the movie; scared, sure, thirsty for revenge, absolutely, but full of angst?  Not quite on the same level when you’re being set up by dirty cops.  But maybe that’s just a personal view.  



These are the times of which to cherish...


- Not only do we get an unexpected insight into Pete’s background (though when I saw where he was, I kind of expected it, but that was only a few seconds before the reveal), but we also find out that moms (like Dey Young, whose favorite credit of mine is Rock 'n' Roll High School, though Spontaneous Combustion comes in second) will be moms.  I’m sorry to say that dads (such as Holmes Osborne, whose highlight is Nice Girls Don't Explode) are given short shrift in this film, but what can you expect; an estranged offspring has to have some reason to stay away, and if you’re setting up the mom for goodness, that leaves…

- The touching toenail-painting scene.  Maybe it worked in Bull Durham, but you're no Bull Durham, my good movie.  Oh, wait, I just called this movie "good."  I take it back.

- Fun with movie cliches.  If only they'd applied that sensibility to the rest of the film, it might have been wry or something.

- Eddie Griffin's special credit, right at the end, for a throwaway role that apparently existed merely so the movie could claim it had Eddie Griffin in it.  Is he, like, a big box office draw, at this point?  You know, after Double Take?  I don't know these things.

- I liked the fact that Hanson (actually, Jason Maves, Casey Verst, and Ricky Lesser as Kirk, Kevin, and Kris) was linked to cocaine trafficking.  Serves them right, with that maddening “Mmm-Bop” crap.  Yeah, yeah, it was catchy the first time, no need to ram it down our collective throats with endless, repetitive radio play.  Is it any wonder I stick to the tape deck?

- Who’s the man, always looking out for his doofus roommate? “Link!”  Damn right!  He’s a complicated man, no one understands him but his car…



-- Copyright © 2001 by E. Mark Mitchell






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