The Mod Squad
That 70’s ShowBy Roy Rodenstein
1999, 1 hr 31 min
Directed by Scott Silver
Written by Stephen T. Kay, Scott Silver, Kate Lanier
With Claire Danes, Omar Epps, Giovanni Ribisi, Dennis Farina, Josh Brolin
When you think of The Mod Squad, what comes to mind? Many of us have vague recollections about this 70’s show, which was produced in part by Aaron Spelling, just the 8th of his 123 (so far) producer stints, and ran from 1968 to 1973. The Mod Squad the movie has the 70’s sensibilities down pat. Of course, the catch is that a large portion of these sensibilities is indistinguishable from those of the 90’s. Indeed, a well-known clothing manufacturer is promoting clothes based on the movie. The other catch is that The Mod Squad achieves a TV-show feel all too successfully, and looks flimsy on the big screen.
Sporting a game cast, The Mod Squad is the story of three youngsters caught by the police who are given a second chance by Capt. Greer (Dennis Farina) if they agree to go undercover for him. Claire Danes plays Julie Barnes, a strong-willed girl who still sometimes loses control of her emotions. Omar Epps is Linc Hayes, a smooth operator who’s in for arson and, of the three, he’s usually the one with the brains. Finally, Mr. Charisma, Giovanni Ribisi, is Pete Cochran, the rebel with a heart of gold.
If the descriptions of the principals sound like they are cut out of cardboard, the antagonists are cut out of single-sheet tissue paper. The plot concerns dance clubs, cars, guns, and drugs. Major drug deals are afoot, and some cops might be crooked. Everything you would expect is here: mint-green convertibles, abandoned warehouses, and a bouncy camera synchronized to the groovy 70’s sound effects.
The young ensemble works well together, the characters being gritty but cohesive when they need to. Individually, they’re not always as successful. Omar Epps is so cool that sometimes he’s frozen stiff, but otherwise he’s usually right-on, whether exploding at Pete for crashing his “set o’wheels” or freaking out when a gangster asks to dance with him. Claire Danes is apt but out of sync with the atmosphere at times, whether it’s because she looks more apathetic and annoyed than gritty, or maybe because she shows a bit more emotion than the plot’s frail frame can sustain. Maybe it’s that 90’s-70’s connection again.
As for the coppers, Dennis Farina and Richard Jenkins could probably do these roles in their sleep. The script tries to actually make them do that, but Jenkins in particular still manages some agitated zing, as he did in Flirting with Disaster. Brolin has perhaps the most one-dimensional character, whose screen time consists almost exclusively of fake smiling.
It’s Giovanni Ribisi who walks away with the movie; even his name is probably more interesting than most characters, and his performance is non-stop entertainment. There are actually many laughs in this movie, and they are all earned by Ribisi. From his growling match with a dog (which is painted on the wall) at the beginning of the movie, to his clown-like facial contortions both when showing earnest and put-on emotion, he keeps the movie from dragging. Having held his own in Saving Private Ryan, it’s apparent that Ribisi has great dramatic and comedic range.
There’s not much more to The Mod Squad. If you’re looking for some 70’s grooves, an explosion or two, and some amusing performances, you will enjoy this movie as much as I did. Just don’t go in expecting any kind of plot or character development that you wouldn’t see in an episode of a 70’s TV show.