Film reviews and more since 2009

The Mod Squad (1999) review

Dir. Scott Silver

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★½

I suppose the logic of me following up the surprisingly funny and endearing film adaptation of The Honeymooners series with the forgotten cinematic reworking of The Mod Squad is akin to my frequent roller-coasters at the blackjack table. I play with chance until, inevitably, I bust, and in the realm of Hollywood movies based on shows you commonly see on MeTV, my luck has ostensibly run out.

My first experience with the late-60s/early-70s cop drama The Mod Squad was relatively recent. The cable network known as Decades was rebranding as “Catchy Comedy,” and the channel’s final hours were spent airing a multi-day marathon of the show. Neither me nor my girlfriend were super impressed with what we witnessed across a couple episodes. However, symbolically speaking, the show had a meaty, even revolutionary premise. Its trio of protagonist were personifications of America’s Vietnam war panic (a shaggy-haired hippie, a free-spirit flower child, and a Black man), and perhaps a police department shoehorning them into their undercover operations gave viewers at the time a certain comfort.

Fast-forward to 1999 and the idea of a Mod Squad movie just sounds archaic, especially with the approach director Scott Silver (who would go on to write Joker) brings to the material. This couldn’t be more evident than the fact that title cards have to define the terms “mod” and “squad” for the audience. From there starts a TV-like voiceover introducing us to the trio. Julie (Claire Danes) was a teenage runaway and addict before she was even old enough to drink. Pete (Giovanni Ribisi) “went straight from Beverly Hills to the county jail.’ Linc (Omar Epps) “doesn’t blame his problems on anything,” perhaps alluding to his race in a strange manner. The film’s opening is its peak. It’s filled with energy as the introductions of our leads is intercut with club dancers, some altercations, and a few good fights.

Following that, Capt. Adam Greer (Dennis Farina) scolds the three for their poor-handling of an ongoing investigation. The wake-up call for the three hoodlums comes when Greer is murdered a short-time later. The intricacies of the case, I can’t even begin to describe because The Mod Squad is so all over the place to the point where potential suspects become interchangeable and the scope of the crime is muddied by slick camera-shots and a lot of senseless babble that renders the movie precariously close to being completely incoherent.

While it’s clear from the early minutes of the film that Julie, Pete, and Linc haven’t been working for the police department for very long, their investigative processes are so miserably incompetent that they render them lucky. The scope of their work involves them ducking-and-hiding in various settings long enough to hear the watched parties outline their every intention in casual conversation. It also leads to Julie discovering her sleazy lover (Josh Brolin) is not only cheating on her, but well aware that her and her two male partners are police officers. How a street-wise woman like this would even mess with such an obvious two-timing pimp as Brolin’s character is grounds for termination in itself.

Stephen Kay and Kate Lanier’s screenplay seems to try and get your mind to wander. If not for the uncharismatic and scantly developed trio, the plotting is so all over the place and the dialog so unclever that the primary enemy at play for this iteration of “the Mod Squad” is fleeting interest. One of its few honorable inclusions is that of cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who finds the right visual balance between a TV show and a feature-film. This does look like an upgraded adaptation of a TV show “lucky enough” to make it to the big screen, and it’s in large part thanks to the dynamic work of Kuras.

As The Mod Squad lumbers from one hackneyed bit to another, it does show faint signs that at one point a draft (or two) of this script had some vision. In addition to the opening sequence, the third act has Julie declaring, just before the final shootout, “At least it’s not going down in an abandoned warehouse.” This tells me one version of this movie had the similarly muted self-awareness of The Brady Bunch Movie. As unamused by the original series as I was in my first interaction with it, it stands to reason that things can always be far worse.

NOTE: As of this writing, The Mod Squad is available to stream on Max.

Starring: Claire Danes, Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps, Dennis Farina, Josh Brolin, Steve Harris, Peggy Lipton, and Clarence Williams III. Directed by: Scott Silver.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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