Tapping '70s TV for big-screen bucks is hardly a new concept - - in fact, it's now such a common phenomenon that pointing it out is almost as been-there, done-that (and-bought-the-skinny-T-shirt) as doing it in the first place. But, when considering Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson's adaptation of small-screen staple Starsky & Hutch, it is worth repeating. In the not-too-distant past, we've seen inventive, spoofy cine-versions of '70s shows (The Brady Bunch Movie); we've seen slick remakes (Mission: Impossible); we've seen crass, sloppy, overstyled updates (Charlie's Angels); and then there are the adaptations so abortive we'd much rather we hadn't seen them at all (The Mod Squad).
Starsky & Hutch is none of the above. Why? Because, first and foremost, it's a Ben Stiller And Owen Wilson movie. If you're too young to remember Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul screeching around in a red-and-white Grand Torino, or never really dug it in the first place, don't worry. If you thought Zoolander was one of the funniest movies of the last five years, then you're in the right place. So make yourself comfortable and prepare for those sides to start aching again.
Misty-eyed nostalgia isn't the power source for this movie's almost blinding appeal. Instead, it's the crackling, comic-duo electricity which Stiller and Wilson generate whenever they share billing. Cleverly pitching their sixth collaboration as "a romantic comedy between two straight men", Ben'n'Owen evolve that loose, straight-faced, improvisational rapport which both have honed separately but which is never more finger-click snappy than when they're together.
Of course, it is nostalgia which drove Stiller - - this incarnation's originator - - to take the Torino's wheel in the first place, meaning there are plenty of winks at '70s TV-drama style along the way. And we're not just talking about huge collars, bad facial hair and Huggy Bear's pimp threads. Phillips (finally hitting his stride after the hit-and-miss Road Trip and Old School) peppers the visuals with ostentatious crash-zooms, keeps the wheel-spinning action lo-fi and slathers the soundtrack with brass blasts and wah-wahs, revelling in the absurd directing clichés of the era.
The cliché-toying extends to Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson themselves. Intended as a prequel, the plot throws them together as a reluctant chalk/ cheese teaming after each is chastised by their typically apoplectic captain (Fred Williamson). Starsky is a cop so driven and anal, he shoots a mall up chasing a mugger who snatched a wallet containing only seven bucks, and brings a thermos to work so he doesn't have to take coffee-breaks on the taxpayer's dollar. The laidback Hutch, meanwhile, has a very different philosophy on policework: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," he shrugs, before pulling on a balaclava and robbing a bookies.
How many times have we seen a cop movie that pairs up a stickler for paperwork with a law-book-scrapping partner? Exactly. Which is why Phillips, Stiller, Wilson et al win top marks for knowing their subject material and wringing all the comedy they can out of it. They should get top marks, too, for inviting a few of their buddies along for the ride. Vince Vaughn reeks of sleaze, deadpanning as the coke-peddling Reese, while Will Ferrell's support turn as fruity, dragon-loving biker Big Earl provides a prison interview scene which will leave you teary-eyed and hiccupy with laughter.
Unfortunately for the female cast, there are no such chewy roles to get stuck into - the result, no doubt, of Starsky & Hutch consciously inheriting the sexual politics of a filmmaking era which would happily portray women as airhead dollybirds up for a threesome with the first cute guy to pay them attention. Then again, even that outmoded convention is played to good comic effect. How could it not be when that cute guy's Owen Wilson?
And that's the key to this movie's charm. For every fault you could needle out of it, there are a dozen moments to applaud, thanks to Wilson and Stiller. Snoop Dogg's Huggy Bear, for example, falls a little flat, but who cares when you can watch these two leads gradually falling in professional, platonic love with each other while drug-dealers, lusty bikers and knife-throwing Korean children beset them from all sides? It's proof, if any more were needed, that this couple were made for each other.
The latest Stiller/Wilson effort seals their rep as Hollywood's top double act. You won't see many funnier movies in 2004.