There are only two possible reactions to the film version of The Mod Squad: Either you hate it or you really hate it. It helps if you have some residual affection for the original Aaron Spelling-produced TV series (1968-1973) about a trio of troubled twentysome-things – blond chick Julie (Peggy Lipton), black hipster Linc (Clarence Williams III) and white dude Pete (Michael Cole) – who go undercover for the LAPD. Otherwise, dusting off a TV corpse for a Nineties movie makeover seems pointless, except to exploit the current box-office boom in youth flicks.
That means making everyone younger. The cops are now a trio of troubled teens who go undercover inside the Los Angeles club scene for Captain Greer (a wonderfully snarly Dennis Farina) to wipe their records clean: Julie (Claire Danes) is in for assault, Linc (Omar Epps) for arson and Pete (Giovanni Ribisi) for robbery. What a shame that the rejuvenation didn’t stretch to freshening up the plot. It’s the same cliché workout about dirty cops, drug deals and sex for sale. Is it naive to expect more? Not if you consider the credentials of the creative team. Director Scott Silver made a strong 1996 debut with johns, and his credibility as an indie filmmaker extends to co-screenwriters Stephen Kay (The Last Time I Committed Suicide) and Kate Lanier (Set It Off). Even the award-winning cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Swoon, Angela) does lackluster work as the film trudges through by-the-numbers chases, shootouts and police procedurals.
Danes is slumming, and she looks it. Bottle-blond hair, leather pants and a perpetually clouded expression do not constitute a performance. And Epps strikes cool poses but no sparks. Only Ribisi finds quirky humor in his role. “Why does she always get to be the prostitute?” asks Pete when Julie’s undercover work puts her in bed with drug dealer Billy (Josh Brolin). “So you kids are what – some kind of mod squad?” asks a veteran cop when the misfits become a working unit by film’s end. The line opens the door to a sequel. Slam it. Judging from the miserable looks that this guppified retread leaves on the faces of its actors and audiences, what’s needed is a quick, painless box-office death. Is there such a thing as youthanasia?