The “75 Years of Excellence” promotional banner MGM is flying over its pictures this year sits with particular discomfort on “The Mod Squad,” one of the lamest films the company ever has foisted upon the world. This latest bigscreen retrofitting of a vintage TV series (1968-73) feels like the most shameless effort yet in the renewed exploitation of the youth market, which should quickly become apparent to the target audience. Foul word of mouth will spread quickly to send this exercise in pipsqueak crime-fighting back to its vid roots in short order.
As if admitting that the old TV show may not be all that familiar to teens, filmmakers have felt compelled to run dictionary definitions of “mod” and “squad” before main titles. This is followed by TV-like intros of the three leads, who come equipped with the same names as they had in the series, the first network co-option of late-’60s anti-establishment fervor.
There’s Julie (Claire Danes), the sullen blond former vagrant and heroin addict; Pete (Giovanni Ribisi), a rich boy gone bad, and Linc (Omar Epps), a black kid with a thing for arson. Instead of doing time, they have agreed to serve as undercover agents to help infiltrate the counterculture — er, trendoid hangouts where old scumbuckets prey upon vulnerable, unsuspecting youth.
As their mentor, L.A. police Capt. Greer (an embarrassed-looking Dennis Farina), helpfully points out, “These kids can get into a thousand places that we can’t.”
In a contempo context, after so many years of ultraviolent and hyperkinetic action films, the bland hokiness of “The Mod Squad,” whose members, after all, aren’t “real” cops and can’t carry guns, looks as innocent and dated as silent-movie melodrama. Assigned to get the lowdown on a suspected teen prostitution ring being run out of a downtown club, the kids are in over their heads, and Julie, pretending to be a waitress, runs into an old boyfriend from her druggie days (Josh Brolin) who wouldn’t mind helping her renew old habits.
By any standards, the stakes remain penny ante throughout, and the sporadic stakeouts, confrontations and action set pieces are crashingly silly and routine. Naturally, some of the older cops, who have opposed the use of the squad from the beginning, are in cahoots with the bad guys, and the way the kids get the goods on them is so preposterous that you’d think such an idea would be rejected even for a TV episode, much less a feature.
Thesping is at least consistent — sullen looks, tough posturing and line readings crafted to conceal any emotion are the order of the day. Although Danes looks sharp, it’s depressing to see her talents squandered on such a project; as for the up-and-coming Ribisi and Epps, the quicker they move on from this, the better. Director Scott Silver (the overrated “Johns”) attempts to jumpstart some excitement with the usual array of musicvid-derived cutting and lighting techniques to deadening effect, and the special abilities that lenser Ellen Kuras has brought to numerous indie pics prove useless here.
If possible, the staggeringly conventional score makes the film seem even more juvenile than it is.
For some reason, distrib decided this teen-oriented film needed to be R-rated; script seems to go out of its way to throw in multiple uses of the f-word, and a couple of gratuitous background sex scenes are the only other things that could have generated the restricted tag.