The Mod Squad

on March 26, 1999 by Wade Major
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   As a special two-hour episode of the original 1968-1973 Buddy Ruskin/Aaron Spelling television series, "The Mod Squad" wouldhave been terrific. As a 1990s-era feature film, presumably targeted to teens and young adults with little or no recollection of series, it's a decidedly strange fish. The setup, in fact, is nearly identical: three delinquent youths--Julie (Claire Danes), Pete (Giovanni Ribisi) and Linc (Omar Epps)--are recruited by LAPD Captain Greer (Dennis Farina) to pay their debt by working as undercover police operatives, only sans badge or gun. Though generally effective, the kids' outlaw spirits, lack of discipline and disdain for authority earn them little support and much scorn from the rest of the department. But Greer continues to support them--until he's killed and framed for the theft of seized drugs from a police evidence locker. One can almost hear the television plug: "Unless the Mod Squad acts fast to clear themselves and find Greer's killers, they know that they'll be next!"
   Arriving only weeks after the similarly-retro Mel Gibson vehicle, "Payback," this hip little bit of pre-disco nostalgia is obviously designed to ride the trend that began with Tarantino's "Jackie Brown"--contemporary crime tales resurfaced with the gritty look and feel of such '70s-era shows as "Starsky and Hutch," "Baretta" and, of course, "The Mod Squad." So far, so good, for the feature version of "The Mod Squad" is such a dead-on knockoff of the series--from its funky music, big ol' rubber-burnin'/gas-guzzlin' cars, trashy locations and washed-out photography right down to the oh-so-earnest acting, pimp & hippie fashions and hackneyed "corrupt drug-dealing cops" storyline--that it's a chore to even tell if the film is supposed to take place present-day.
   But there's an added strategy here that seems to throw the whole thing off. For Aaron Spelling, who executive produced both the series and the new film, the youth theme of the original series prefigured his later successes with such shows as "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place." With the current resurgence in both retro-themed and teen-themed films, the reasoning appears to be that a retro-teen-themed film should be just the ticket. But the film simply doesn't deliver anything sufficiently remarkable to distinguish itself from sturdier competition.
   That being said, there are a handful of pluses in the film that niche viewers may take as consolation, namely BC Smith's splendidly groovy score and the top-notch performance of Omar Epps, whose cool Linc compares well with Clarence Williams III's original incarnation.    Starring Claire Danes, Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps, Dennis Farina, Josh Brolin, Richard Jenkins and Michael Lerner. Directed by Scott Silver. Written by Stephen Kay & Scott Silver and Kate Lanier. Produced by Ben Myron, Alan Riche and Tony Ludwig. An MGM release. Action/drama. Rated R for language, violence and some sexuality. Running time: 94 min.
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