Starsky & Hutch (2004)
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriters: John O’Brien, Stevie Long, Todd Phillips, Scot Armstrong
Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Snoop Dogg, Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Fred Williamson, Juliette Lewis
American Cinema of the 21st century can so far be summarised by one word: nostalgia. Indeed, Hollywood has been cashing in on the creativity of past hits, using people’s own rose-tinted glasses for a guaranteed profit. The likes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Ghostbusters and Blade Runner have all received the reboot/revival treatment, some with success, but all with controversy and outrage. However, one reboot from the last 20 years that doesn’t necessarily elicit a rolled-eye response but instead a hell of a lot of puzzlement and raised eyebrows is Todd Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch.
‘Starsky and Hutch’ was a hit TV series in its original run from 1975 to ’79, responsible for the self-discovery of most teenagers sexuality in the 70s, as posters of its two stars, Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul (Starsky and Hutch respectively) plastered the walls of nearly every hormone-addled bedroom in the Western Hemisphere. Although still well known amongst the generation who experienced it as teens back in the day, this crime drama has lost its relevance over the years. A shame really considering its huge, continuing influence on our media: as the archetypal buddy cop show and original TV “bromance”, echoes of it can be seen in the likes of ‘Supernatural’ and 21 Jump Street. However, going from the height of pop culture to subconscious influence by 2004, one does have to ask the question: why was the decision made to reboot the show? Most reboots involve franchises that have enjoyed continued popularity across generations. One has to question the legitimacy of the film.
Starsky & Hutch tells the story of two dysfunctional rogue detectives operating in the fictional Bay City: Dave Starsky (Ben Stiller), an overly enthusiastic and somewhat clumsy officer who believes in the letter and the spirit of the law but lives in the shadow of his legendary Mother; and Ken Hutchinson (Owen Wilson), a cool, nonchalant hippy, disgruntled with the lifestyle and low pay of a police officer who gladly goes dirty for a few extra dollars. This odd couple are paired together by their Superior, Captain Dobey (Fred Williamson), as punishment for their infuriating idiosyncrasies that cause more crime than they prevent. Despite their initial animosity, the pair eventually bond on their first murder case with leads to a major drug bust. Thus the pair become an unstoppable crime-fighting force, who to our great amusement willingly throw themselves knee deep into the most ridiculous of car chases and shootouts.
The big challenge the movie faces is appeasing fans of the show whilst pulling in fresh audiences, some of whom would have been totally unfamiliar with the names Starsky and Hutch, and it doesn’t take long to notice the struggle in fulfilling both of these requirements. Definite liberties are taken with the characters and backstories that were well established in the TV series – speaking from the position of total neutrality there is absolutely nothing wrong with the use of artistic licence in an adaptation, but anyone familiar with any recent franchise update will know that any minute change to established canon will get some fans’ knickers in a twist. Starsky & Hutch is indeed no exception as can be seen in the mixed bag of reviews from the time, some of which express great outrage at the film’s supposed irreverence. In terms of getting new people hooked, the movie suffers from a slow start as the pace is jammed up by simultaneous plot exposition and the frenzied attempts to convince us of the iconic status of these characters.
There is a definite lack of confidence in the first twenty minutes, Starsky & Hutch unsure of what it wants to be – a straight up revival, a homage or a parody – with all options having the potential to alienate. It is only when the boys start working together (helped along by a cheeky Will Ferrell cameo) in which the movie commits to the spoof it is and things really start cooking. Again, it is important to reiterate that the idea of spoofing this iconic crime-fighting duo will be seen as nothing short of sacrilege to some fans, but Starsky & Hutch really is a far cry from its crass spoof contemporaries such as Scary Movie (2000), Epic Movie (2007) and so on. Despite the all-out comedy direction of the film compared to the original series’ dramatic nature, the names Starsky and Hutch are not being thrown under the bus for a quick laugh or buck, the whole affair is in fact made with a huge amount of affection for the original show.
Instead of mocking the original show’s concept, Starsky & Hutch is very much a celebration of all things 70s including the hair, fashion, music and of course sexual politics (and with this being a Todd Phillips movie, the last one is definitely racked up as gratuitous eye candy that has not aged very well at all). Any jokes made at the expense of 70s culture or of the show itself are indeed made through a rosy filter and not from a place of disdain. Most of the film’s comedic set pieces are created from satirising the clichés of 70s action TV series such as car chases and fight sequences, and in the hands of heavyweights in comedy acting and direction, every set piece lands in raucous laughter. One such hilarious moment is Starsky’s attempt at being “Bad Cop” during a suspect’s interrogation – through an hysterically botched game of Russian Roulette, with a gun chamber that’s not quite as empty as Starsky had thought, the “bad cop” manages to scare the ever-living sh*t out of the suspect and create a bullet hole in the interrogation room ceiling.
In fact, the film not only parodies but offers significant fan service with regards to the original show, being stuffed full of references, and not just the obvious stuff either like the Ford Gran Torino and Owen Wilson’s rendition of David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up On Us”. There are several nods to iconic episodes and moments from the show including a few cheeky winks to its now legendary homoeroticism (Starsky’s beach dream sequence is based on a real promo shoot for the show). Luckily none of these references are drummed-up to the point of distraction and will only be noticed by fans of the series, undoubtedly eliciting reactions of delight.
The depth of these references further confirms that Starsky & Hutch was made by those who grew up with the TV show and remember it with nothing but fondness, the fact of which can be seen especially in the casting. Ben Stiller is clearly over the moon to be involved. He isn’t merely acting in this performance, more channelling Paul Michael Glaser’s Starsky, doing a perfect imitation of all the mannerisms. It can be inferred that the original Starsky was a character that a young Ben Stiller admired, as his barely contained delight can be heard in the large majority of his delivery, lifting up the most mundane lines, such as when addressing claims of having a perm:
“For your information, my hair is naturally curly…”
The casting of Snoop Dogg as informant Huggy Bear is nothing short of a stroke of genius. Nearly every element of the show and of the 70s itself is lightly ragged on, except the character Huggy Bear who instead merely gets an update on his coolness. Huggy Bear remains the coolest thing of the whole affair. There is some insinuation that this incarnation of Huggy Bear is a pimp which is slightly disturbing, but the character still clearly has a heart of gold with his head screwed on right. His role in solving the crime of the film is nothing short of an homage to television’s coolest and most beloved snitch.
Unfortunately the casting isn’t entirely perfect, with Owen Wilson as Hutch being the most disappointing element of the entire picture. Nothing about his performance is remotely reminiscent of David Soul’s. In many of his scenes he seems to have wandered on to set unsure of why he’s there (which to be honest is the case for most of his movies). Owen Wilson is merely himself dressed up in a Detective Ken Hutchinson outfit in this film. Owen Wilson’s casting represents the overall paradoxical nature of Starsky & Hutch: the film probably only got greenlit with the casting of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as the leads after seeing their success as a pairing in Zoolander (2001), and furthermore the only way this film could have been made is if it was made as a comedy.
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For those unfamiliar with the original ‘Starsky and Hutch’, it really was an international sensation. The chemistry between Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul was completely unrivalled and couldn’t have been deliberately created beyond the pure chance of their casting, bouncing them to the top of the TV ratings. It was lightning in a bottle. Hence it would be near impossible to recreate, and any serious reboot would be an instant flop. Some fans would probably jump at the chance to see a straight up revival of the show, but in all honesty Todd Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch is probably the closest possible thing to that. It may be a spoof but it definitely shows its respects to the original.
The only other different (or better) approach to the reboot would have been to have pushed for a R rating instead of a PG, especially as the original show would regularly deal with adult themes. However it would dangerously skirt too close to the territory of Friedberg and Seltzer productions which are undeniably entertaining in their own way but are also just plain crass and puerile.
At the end of the day, Starsky & Hutch is an entertaining look back on to the 70s which will guarantee a good chuckle from those born before and after that decade. Dedicated fans of the TV series should not be put off by the casting (it has to be confessed that Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson really are no comparison to the Adonises that are David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser) as they will find a newly reinvigorated love and appreciation for their beloved show. It is certainly a nice way to spend a spare 90 minutes, but in 17 years since its release, it lives in danger of fading into irrelevance compared to the more ground-breaking comedies of that decade (that’s R-ratings for ya). Living in a similar fate of the show itself, it really does bring into question its legitimacy and of Hollywood’s obsession with reboots in general. What survives of the ‘Starsky and Hutch’ fandom is fed by newcomers discovering the magic of the original, and not by using the film as a gateway.
It is nice having a spoof of the 70s to watch, but the decade was never in danger of being forgotten, the revival of Boney M’s “Rasputin” is testament to that, and the critical success of Nice Guys (2016) means that originality can be used over familiarity to induce nostalgia. Altogether, there will always be factors that affect a franchise’s longevity, almost all of which will be beyond the control of any financier or studio. Starsky & Hutch is an entertaining watch but remains irrelevant when you can still access the original TV show.