At least we know now why this latest big-screen version of a vintage TV series was parked on the shelf more than two years. Crude, virtually laughless and aimed at a target audience that’s probably never heard of the source material, “Car 54” should have a short patrol of theaters before being towed away to the vacant lot of “10 worst” lists. Translate the show’s trademark “Oo! Oo!” into an “Uh-oh” for Orion.
Based on the movie’s long limbo period, most of those involved probably forgot about the project and, barring physical evidence, would deny involvement. Based on the goofy NBC series starring Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne that ran from 1961-63, the movie seems misguided from the start, since the show never enjoyed the lingering appeal of other, higher-profile sitcoms.
Efforts to “contemporize” the series only demonstrate how little there was on which to build a movie and the creative bankruptcy of the filmmakers, who rely on bad puns, an abusive rap score and scads of crotch-level humor — even a gag where a woman says a cop’s nightstick is poking her, and, you guessed it, he isn’t wearing one.
David Johansen plays Gunther Toody, a none-too-bright patrolman in Brooklyn’s tough 53rd precinct who gets paired with straight-laced Francis Muldoon (John C. McGinley) after his partner, Leo (Al Lewis, a holdover from the original series along with Nipsey Russell), retires.
Toody tries to loosen up Muldoon by introducing him to a femme fatale, Velma Velour (Fran Drescher), who’s surveyed “nightsticks” throughout the department. Meanwhile, the pair get involved in protecting a witness (Jeremy Piven) being held to testify against claustrophobic Mafia kingpin Don Motti (Daniel Baldwin).
Director Bill Fishman, who made his motion picture debut with the quirky “Tapeheads,” and a quartet of writers can’t stick with a plot, so half the scenes are incomprehensible. In the same vein, the closing credits include moments seemingly excised from the movie that aren’t outtakes — although, admittedly, it would be hard to ascertain what is.
Johansen — an odd choice for the lead, aside from his vague resemblance to Ross — and Rosie O’Donnell, as Mrs. Toody, perform at such a shrill level they’re nearly unwatchable, and the rest of the cast fares little better. Even the series’ quaint song never appears in its entirety, with snippets of it merged into a bastardized rap version. Johansen does utter one “Oo! Oo!,” albeit in off-color fashion.
Tech credits, from the dank lighting to drab sets, underscore the general sense of torpor. Barring a major tuneup, “Car 54” should have been left on the blocks.