The Mod Squad (1999)
Directed by Scott Silver
Cast: Claire Danes, Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps, Josh Brolin, Dennis Farina, Michael Lerner, Steve Harris, Mariah O'Brien.
1999 94 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, partial nudity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 27, 1999.
One of the problems with "The Mod Squad," otherwise known as a cool, or "hip" group of people, is that the three main characters never earn that sleek, exclusive title. Oh, sure, they make think they're cool, but there is never any evidence that they actually are, and when one minor character asks them at the end, "what do you all think you are? Some sort of mod squad or something?," it felt contrived and phony, a desperate attempt to make some sort of revelance come from the name.
Based on the cult Aaron Spelling crime-drama series that ran from 1968-1973, the show and film's premise is simple enough: three troubled youths, recovered drug addict Julie Barnes (Claire Danes), ex-arsonist Linc (Omar Epps), and goofy robber Pete Cochran (Giovanni Ribisi), agree to help out the San Francisco police and become undercover cops (minus any sort of weapons) in place of serving time in jail. You'd think the work would be a sort of community service but I guess not, since the three young adults are obviously paid enough to own their own apartments. Anyway, getting back to the story at hand, the three are assigned by their superior, Capt. Adam Greer (Dennis Farina), to scope out a night club that may or may not be involved in a prostitution ring. Soon, Greer has been murdered, and thinking that they may be blamed for the crime, Julie, Linc, and Pete set out to find the real culprits.
"The Mod Squad" is such a terminally thin, virtually motionless action film that it is only luck it contains many things surrounding the convoluted plotline that actually are worthwhile. Claire Danes, a wonderful actress who began her acting career with the best television drama of the '90s, "My So-Called Life," which met a premature burial but can still be found on MTV and home video, has appeared in several feature films since then, but none have been able to rise to her ability. Although beautiful and obtaining a hard-edged amiableness in many of her roles, judging from her latest picture, she should try and choose her projects better. Giovanni Ribisi, also a talented actor (just watch 1998's indie "First Love, Last Rites," and the recent "The Other Sister" if you don't believe me), I'm afraid is beginning to get typecast as the "silly" character used for comic relief. Here, that is exactly what Ribisi does, and it is the way he is instructed to act that began to grate on my nerves in the first half, although he was able to flesh out his character a little bit towards the end. Finally, Omar Epps, so very good in 1995's "Higher Learning," really doesn't have that much substantial material to work with, but still gives a respectable turn. Together, the three work fetchingly as a team, and this is the film's one saving grace, even if it still, unfortunately, isn't able to buoy the proceedings so that the film can be necessarily recommended. Some sort of pseudo-relationship arises near the end between Danes and Ribisi, but the movie never follows through with it, leaving the whole subplot to be a rather pointless waste of time. Aside from these three actors, the other characters mostly show up, read some lines, leave, and cash a paycheck. Michael Lerner should especially be embarrassed since he is given a ridiculous scene in which he forces Epps to dance with him. Huh? Where did that come from?
Even if "The Mod Squad" never proves to be what I would call stylish or cool, the funky music score, by BC Smith, definately is. Mixing '90s music with a groovy '70s-style score that often sounds suited for a blaxploitation movie, was a far more original and effective technical choice than anything else in the movie. One particular scene that jumped startlingly to life thanks solely to the music was a protracted comic-action sequence set at a carwash.
Meanwhile, the suspension of disbelief is tried many times throughout, with the apartment and Lerner-Epps dance sequence examples already given, as well as in the action finale in which Danes and Ribisi jump out of a car going at least 55mph onto the hard pavement, only to have Danes jump up and begin run as if nothing had just happened. Nevermind the fact that we had just gotten finished seeing her stunt double smash onto the road like a pancake. Also, one of the on-going jokes during the climax is the references to the "Lethal Weapon" series. "I feel like I should say we're getting too old for this shit," Pete says. "At least we aren't going to end up in some old, abandoned warehouse," Julie chimes in. And guess what? That is the exact place that they end up at! At once passingly clever, this sort of humor really doesn't work well in films, since it is both predictable and obviously a strain for original ideas.
During the running time of "The Mod Squad," I saw three promising young actors with a surprising amount of chemistry together, but nonetheless wasting their times; some entertaining music that fit the picture well; a few honest character scenes that made me yearn for more time to learn about the people; and a story that is as old as the hills, with all of the so-called "twists" being telegraphed far in advance, particularly in dealing with Julie's old boyfriend (Josh Brolin) who miraculously comes back into her life. For all of its virtues, "The Mod Squad" does not do justice to its "Mod" title. Basically, it really is just a cliched "Lethal Weapon"-ish action movie masquerading as something more.
©1999 by Dustin Putman