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Starsky & Hutch: less than arresting

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As both a buddy-cop movie and a big-screen TV series adaptation, Starsky & Hutch stands guilty of multiple counts of trafficking in pop cliches.

The new film, like the '70s show, includes chases down alleys and over rooftops, escaping suspects who vault chain-link fences and heroes who roll off the hoods of getaway cars. Wah-wah pedals and ominous bongos resound in the background. Starsky & Hutch certainly proves more faithful to the memories of David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser than it needs to be.

Director Todd Phillips cleverly employs the most subversive cliche of all: that a gay subtext underpins all those action movies about mismatched detectives turned comrades in arms. Sure, sometimes male bonding is just male bonding, but it only takes a lingering, sweaty, shirtless scene or an argument over who has the bigger gun for things to turn homoerotic.

Starsky & Hutch brings those undercurrents hilariously out into the open -- for a while. Dave Starsky (Ben Stiller) intones his lawman's credo, "You cross the line, your nuts are mine," which may conceal a Freudian wish beneath a macho pose. Midway through the film, Starsky's relationship with Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson (Owen Wilson) moves into unusually intimate territory for two supposedly straight guys, providing the film with its sharpest, funniest moments.

But Starsky & Hutch only gradually introduces the gag, abandons it too quickly and otherwise presents a pedestrian treatment of an all-but-forgotten TV series.

When their commissioner (blaxploitation star Fred Williamson) forces them to partner up, their ethical mismatch at first seems rife with possibilities. Starsky enforces the letter of the law with nearly suicidal recklessness, while Hutch admits in voice-over to being a dirty cop. In his first scene, he literally robs sacks of cash from a bookie but hastily claims to be undercover when uniformed officers arrive. The team-up could be an "Odd Couple" version of James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential.

But the film never holds Hutch accountable for his crooked streak, and as the duo investigate a murderous drug lord (Vince Vaughn), they warm up to each other. Hutch admires Starsky's red-and-white Gran Torino, and they both ogle cheerleaders who provide clues to a murder case. The film trumpets its T&A scenes so proudly they scarcely seem sexist.

Starsky and Hutch behave like sex objects themselves to win the cooperation of a kinky convict (Will Ferrell). And when Starsky unknowingly takes cocaine, he becomes smitten with Hutch. When he and Hutch fight and break up, he mournfully imagines them both running on a beach wearing rainbow-colored "Starsky & Hutch" T-shirts. It's no coincidence that sunny, insipid hits like "I Can't Smile Without You" and "Afternoon Delight" keep turning up on the soundtrack.

For a comic actor who retains so much goodwill from audiences and critics, Stiller mugs an awful lot -- "See how funny these faces are!" he all but announces. Stiller's success as a comic lead rests on two basic modes: Humiliated Guy (There's Something About Mary, Along Came Polly), where he stammers and shrugs sheepishly, and Angry Guy (Mystery Men, the upcoming Envy), where he sputters, pops his eyes and flares his nostrils.

But at times he's inspired. Undercover as a leisure-suited businessman, Stiller gives the role a minor catch-phrase -- "Do it!" -- so effective that people in the audience were parroting him. And Stiller shows off ridiculous dance moves when the coked-up Starsky enters a disco contest, a scene that would have been twice as hilarious had American Wedding not already done it.

Starsky and Hutch marks the fourth time Stiller and Owens have teamed up on screen, including Zoolander and Meet the Parents. They make fine comic foils because Stiller's New York neuroses amusingly bounce off Wilson's WASP-turned-surfer mellowness. As usual, Wilson exudes comfort in his own skin, playing peacemaking "Good Cop" whenever Stiller's excitable "Bad Cop" flies off the handle. His Hutch is too good to be true -- he consorts with underworld figures but still finds time to play Big Brother to a neighborhood boy -- but Wilson's self-assurance almost manages to sell the role.

But too often the film puts them in situations with no pay-off. When they disguise themselves as mimes or Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, the jokes extend no further than the outfits.

Though Phillips genuflects to the music and the fashion of the 1970s, his nostalgia feels second-hand. The film puts headbands, fondue sets, tinted sunglasses and perms on parade, but shows less affection for the 1970s than for the 1990s revival of the Me Decade.

Snoop Dogg portrays informant Huggy Bear, although he's really just playing Snoop Dogg in vintage pimp gear. I suspect Snoop turns up so often in films and TV not because he's a magnetic presence, but because he's become such a familiar "brand" as a famous hip-hop ne'er-do-well. Phillips, like talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, buddies up to Snoop hoping his street cred will rub off on him.

For a genuinely loving and lively homage to 1970s cop shows, watch the Beastie Boys' video for Sabotage. Starsky & Hutch only sabotages itself -- it comes up with a funny idea, but punks out.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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