Back to the '70s: Along came polyester

After the torture shown in The Passion of the Christ, the next worst thing I can think of is having to relive the '70s without the drugs that got us through the first time.

That's how it is watching Starsky & Hutch. Okay, it's not torture, but the movie version of the 1975-79 TV series captures the hair, the clothes, the music, the attitude, and the cinematic clich├ęs of the period.

There's more emphasis on comedy in the big-screen version, which stars Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as the mismatched police partners of the title. You might expect even more, since it was directed by Todd Phillips, whose previous films are Road Trip and Old School; but some of the humor is in the eye of the beholder. Afros, for example, make some people fall out of their chairs. Plaid polyester suits do it for others.

I expected more reaction from the preview audience to the cameo appearances of the original Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) and Hutch (David Soul) at the end of the picture; and a more inside reference, Owen's rendition of David's sole hit, "Don't Give Up on Us." Perhaps it's true that if you remember the '70s you weren't there, or perhaps Warners shouldn't count on fans of the TV show to flood theaters for this one.

David Starsky (Stiller) is a tightly wound loose cannon who won't let any naughty deed go unpunished on his watch: "When you cross the line, your nuts are mine." His mother was a legend on the Bay City force, and he feels privileged to serve, even thinks he's overpaid.

Ken Hutchinson (Wilson) thinks he's underpaid and isn't above supplementing his salary with any ill-gotten gains he can get his hands on. He's not crooked, just has more of a live-and-let-live attitude.

When Capt. Doby (Fred Williamson) puts them together, they go through the usual buddy movie routine, what Phillips sees as "a romantic comedy between two straight men... They don't really get along at first, they start to get along, they break up, and then they come back together for a better union than ever."

Snoop Dogg replaces Antonio Fargas as a less flamboyant version of police informant Huggy Bear, who Starsky takes some time to come to respect.

The case, in the course of which our heroes disguise themselves as mimes and the stars of Easy Rider, involves Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn), an outwardly respectable businessman who's really a major druglord. (Oi, another Jewish villain! Is Mel Gibson behind this one too?) His scientists have developed a new form of cocaine that can't be detected by drug-sniffing dogs. (And this was years before Coke developed "New Coke.")

Witnesses include cheerleaders Carmen Electra and Amy Smart. They have to be pumped for information, and our guys are only too happy to oblige. There's also Big Earl (an unbilled Will Ferrell– like, that's going to stay a surprise for long), a guest of the state prison system who finds Hutch attractive and makes him trade– er, favors for information.

The movie includes a disco dance-off (haven't we seen this scene a lot lately?) and that sine qua non of '70s action movies, a car chase. It was the decade when burning rubber wasn't caused by overzealous condom use.

Phillips studied his '70s movies to get the details right. Rather than comment on them, he makes Starsky & Hutch look like one of them. That should serve as a reminder to those critics who lionize the films of that decade that Hollywood also turned out a lot of crap in those years.

But some of it was fun crap.