Combustible Celluloid
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With: Claire Danes, Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps, Dennis Farina, Josh Brolin, Steve Harris, Richard Jenkins, Larry Brandenburg, Lionel Mark Smith, Sam McMurray, Michael O'Neill, Stephen T. Kay, Bodhi Elfman, Holmes Osborne, Dey Young, Michael Lerner, Monet Mazur, Eddie Griffin
Written by: Stephen T. Kay, Scott Silver, Kate Lanier, based on characters by Buddy Ruskin
Directed by: Scott Silver
MPAA Rating: R for language, violence and some sexuality
Running Time: 92
Date: 03/17/1999

The Mod Squad (1999)

3 Stars (out of 4)

'Squad' Side

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Academy Awards are finally over and I'm fed up with movies that tell me war is bad, literature is good, alcoholism is bad, etc. I'm in the mood for a good bad-movie like The Mod Squad. It doesn't have much in the way of brains and it has plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. Yet it still crosses the finish line. I had a good time and I left the theater smiling. However, the funky, grimy feel of the movie makes me think it would play better as a midnight movie or a late night video rental.

Claire Danes, Giovanni Ribisi, and Omar Epps star as the new version of the Mod Squad, based on the TV show of the same name, which ran from 1968 to 1973. (But, the actors in the movie weren't born until after the show went off the air.) They are young criminals convicted of, in order, assault, robbery, and arson. The police have assembled them into an unofficial unit led by Captain Greer (Dennis Farina). And their job is to infiltrate the thousand-or-so hip seedy ratholes in L.A. that the cops can't get in to. Before long, the trio is involved in a scheme involving dirty cops and a stash of coke stolen from the evidence room. Not knowing who to trust, the Squad go out on their own.

I was able to see a third of the plot coming from a mile away, another third made no sense whatsoever, and the last third was drowned out by the music. Some scenes are directed in a great hurry so that we miss out on what might have been character building, subtleties, or nuances. What we've got left is a lot of self-contained scenes involving chases, shootings, stakeouts, etc. Most of these scenes work based on style and energy alone, not to mention the great music score by BC Smith, who scrambles up a mix-tape of punk, hip-hop, and jazz. The music was so good that I didn't mind the plot being drowned out. In fact, I was kind of glad. This movie reminded me of Spike Jonez's video for the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," which pays homage to 70's cop shows in a tilted, jerky, low-budget style.

The casting works too. Danes is a wonderful actress with a great face. She has had good roles in several movies. And she shines here, even if I don't think she's found a project that reaches the depth of her performance on the cult TV show, "My So-Called Life." Ribisi, like Edward Norton, is one of our greatest young actors, as proven by his roles in subUrbia, Saving Private Ryan, and a funny recurring role on TV's "Friends." His energy is almost too much for "The Mod Squad" to contain. I haven't seen much of Epps (Scream 2) before now, but he has a strong presence as well. In one scene he dances with rock band manager and drug-lord Michael Lerner (Barton Fink) and makes it seem uncomfortable and graceful at the same time.

The Mod Squad was assigned to a team of indie filmmakers, no doubt hoping for some kind of rebellious spirit. And I think it worked. Writer and director Scott Silver made the male hustler movie johns. Writer Stephen Kay both wrote and directed the beat poet movie The Last Time I Committed Suicide. And writer Kate Lanier penned Set It Off and What's Love Got to Do with It.

Unfortunately, if you were thinking about checking out the movie because you're a fan of the old TV show, there's not much for you here. This is a music video movie, based in style and energy rather than on plot or characters. It makes you long for the good old days when TV writing was inferior to movie writing. It's kind of sad when folks leave the movie theater and say, "the TV show was better." Now, you can get better quality by staying home and watching "Ally McBeal," "The Simpsons," or "Sports Night." Maybe in 20 years, we'll see movies of those shows and all will be right in the world. Until then, I recommend The Mod Squad as mindless, stylish fun.

In 2015, Olive Films released the movie on Blu-ray. I'm not entirely sure it holds up as a guilty pleasure or anything, but if it catches you in the right mood, as it did me once, you might enjoy it. The Blu-ray picture seems a little flat, but that could be a quality of the original cinematography (it has been 16 years since I've seen it). The sound, and all that great music, however, is top-notch. The only extra is a trailer.

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