I'm not sure I ever saw an episode of "The Mod Squad" during its 1968-73 run. It must have been on at the same time as, oh, I don't know, "Barnaby Jones" or something. In the Williams household, we liked our law-enforcement shows straight with no chaser, from "Dragnet" to "Hawaii Five-O." Only later would it occur to me how Republican our tastes were. I mean, even Barnaby Jones had a country-club air about him, whereas we were closer to the Beverly Hillbillies. If "The Mod Squad" registered on us at all, it was as something to avoid--hippies as cops, my parents' worst nightmare. If only in our living room, the revolution was not to be televised. Of course, when you got right down to it, "The Mod Squad" was nearly as retrograde as "Dragnet." For these weren't hippies, after all, they were ex-hippies who'd been scared straight. And if "Charlie's Angels," Aaron Spelling's next cop show, was really about hair, as Neil Postman has memorably claimed it was, "The Mod Squad" was really about clothes--those '70s fashions we still love and hate so much. Scott Silver's The Mod Squad tries to evoke those clothes without revoking the subsequent 30 years of fashion, and that pretty much describes the overall strategy for the film--retro given a contempo action-traction spin. The television series may not have been in complete alignment with the zeitgeist of its time, but at least it had a zeitgeist to be misaligned with. The movie version, which Silver co-wrote with Stephen Kay and Kate Lanier, seems cast adrift in its own faux nostalgia. (It should have been called The Postmod Squad.) Which is another way of saying there wasn't a very compelling reason to make this movie other than to cash in on baby-boomers' obsession with every last fragment of their lost youth and Generation X's curiosity about same. I suspect the baby-boomers will be disappointed, if only because the movie plays like an episode of "Beverly Hills Cop 90210." As for the Gen Xers, Hollywood's never been able to figure out what they like, or even who they are. Rest assured, they're nothing like the kids in The Mod Squad. Claire Danes, Giovanni Ribisi and Omar Epps, three of our best young actors, play Julie, Pete and Linc, juvenile delinquents who wound up in jail for assault, robbery and arson, respectively. Granted a reprieve by Dennis Farina's Captain Greer, they're soon back out on the street, working as undercover cops. Now, it's helpful to remember that Johnny Depp, having taken a similar acting assignment in "21 Jump Street," still cringes when the subject gets brought up in interviews. But The Mod Squad gets around the whole kids-busting-other-kids thing by siccing the Dynamic Trio on a group of corrupt cops. Greer, who might as well have the words "Father Figure" tattooed on his forehead, gets killed, then framed for a drug deal, leaving our modishly dressed youngsters, who are about as popular within the LAPD as Rodney King, to sort out the good guys from the bad guys. This, I should point out, is a task that challenges their detective abilities much more than it does ours. The plot has the paint-by-numbers, color-within-the-lines obviousness of episodic television.
Fine, we're not there for the plot anyway. We're there for the style, and I wish I could say Silver and his cinematographer, Ellen Kuras, who has a lot of street cred (Swoon, Postcards from America, Unzipped, I Shot Andy Warhol), deliver on the style. The movie's certainly stylish, alternating between dark, dank clubs and bright California sunshine, but it needs to be about something for all that style to register on us. Silver's directorial debut, johns, was like a children's-theater version of Midnight Cowboy set at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. The Mod Squad, in comparison, is set at the corner of Hollywood and Vain; even the acting finally seems like so many struck poses. Ribisi does the best job of distinguishing himself, with a character whose brain never flies above half-mast. Epps plays such a cool dude that he almost forgets to emote, and Danes still seems like Angela on "My So-Called Life." It's hard to buy these three as a squad, especially a squad of dead-end kids. On the contrary, their future's so bright they have to wear shades--Foster Grants, I believe.