We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
When will Hollywood screenwriters and green-lighters learn that the television shows of their youth are not golden-egg-laying geese? Possibly after the release of The Mod Squad. Scott Silver’s pompous, self-consciously groovy update of the ’60s-’70s TV show keeps the model intactthree stylish young amateur criminals rescued from a jail sentence by a police force that uses them to infiltrate milieus where real police would be soon sniffed out. But the original show took place at a time when its mere casting and premise passed for social politicsone white guy, one black guy, and one chick united the mod way, through style and sensibility, revealing by contrast that the establishment’s divisions of race, class, and sex were, like, irrelevant and judgmental, man. At the same time, they were working for the Man and thus had to fight not only their own worst impulses but the temptations of Squaresville.
Because setting the movie version during the original show’s era would be giving undue credit to the concept’s staying power, this Mod Squad is set in ’90s Los Angeles, where Julie (Claire Danes), Pete (Giovanni Ribisi), and Linc (Omar Epps) have been taken under the gruff but golden wing of Capt. Greer (Dennis Farina). While investigating a nightclub that is rumored to be a front for call girls, the squad stumbles on a lead that takes them straight back to their own precinct, currently in turmoil over the loss of some drug product from the station’s evidence locker. Mistrusted by the real cops they work for, the modders are the chief suspects.
If you’ve seen a movie, you’ll know who the culprits are and how the enterprising but none-too-original trio catches them. In fact, you’ll also know that they’re taken off duty after coming under suspicion for a tragic shooting; that Julie’s oily boyfriend is a snake; that fastidious Linc is car-proud and wacked-out Pete ends up driving the thing; that every conversation overheard or tape-recorded happens to relate in detail the bad guys’ nefarious actions, motives, and future plans; and that a tape is played over a loudspeaker just when the kids run out of evidence. Even lame little stabs at self-knowledge are rudely shoved aside for the sake of expediencePete and Julie josh, “At least [the final bust] isn’t taking place in an abandoned warehouse,” just before it takes place…in an empty airplane hangar!
Director Silver manages this clichéd mess as if he’s inventing cinemaThe Mod Squad is full of shots of the three walking in slow motion while cool R&B plays, and every moment of drama (not plot drama but personal drama: it’s-important-because-it-happened-to-the-Mod-Squad drama) gets shown two or three times, from different angles, in slow motion. The style value of these three kids’ very existence is a givennot a very modern premiseso the whole thing is filmed not glossily but grittily, in greenish light like a heroin-chic fashion shoot. Danes looks lovely, her elfish chin and thin arms fetishized by the camera, and Epps makes the best of a boring thing, remaining handsome and unhysterical throughout. But Ribisi acts as if he’s in another, far better movie, giving everything he’s got to the character of a rich kid punch-drunk on cultural contrast, blank-faced before his contemptuous parents, and reacting to anything discomfiting with a drowsy little smile.
Ravenous is an artily icky 100 minutes consisting mostly of men’s grimy faces richly bedripped in blood, the oozy, dark-red kind stirred up by the vat in horror-movie effects labs. Lest this aestheticized unpleasantness be mistaken for the film’s pointpositing it as a kind of pornography of the grotesque, with all corresponding lack of humor or narrative valuedirector Antonia Bird (Priest) suspends the bloodletting at random intervals for some unintelligible gobbledygook about Manifest Destiny, man’s hunger for power, and Native American mythology. These metaphors contradict one another, betraying the film’s real message, which is, um, also unintelligible. It has something to do with fake blood looking cool under the right lighting.
Not that it matters, but Capt. Boyd (L.A. Confidential’s Guy Pearce) is sent to a remote Californian U.S. Army outpost in the mid-1850s as punishment for his heroic actions in the Mexican-American War. (You read that right.) After meeting the anachronistically wacky post-Coen brothers band of freaksa drunk (Stephen Spinella), a querulous priest (Jeremy Davies), a stoner cook (David Arquette), a gung-ho soldier…anywayPearce encounters a half-frozen soldier (Robert Carlyle) who lures them all to an isolated cave with a tale of a wagon party starving in the wilderness. The interloper, however, has not starved, but turns out to have eaten his fellow travelers. He begins to dispatch his new friends for the same purpose.
What are all these terrific actors doing in this dismal piece of human chum? Dying, mostly, in horrible ways, and bleeding all over the furniture. Ted Griffin’s moronic script tries to cobble together an allegory about cannibalism as westward expansionnot a bad idea, except that he undermines it with talk about the “windeego,” a Native American version of the vampire, so that Carlyle’s character can be taken as a supernatural force, not a human impulse. (Plus, he’s Scottish, so even if he were land hunger personified, he wouldn’t exactly be an indictment of American greed.) None of the characters are interested in gold or landthey neither desire territory nor benefit from itso that argument is doubly foolish. Cannibalism is an interesting enough phenomenon in its real manifestationsthe emergency sort, as was the case with California’s Donner Party, Ravenous’ clear inspiration, and the cultural variety, exploited hilariously as a metaphor for American consumerism and conformity in Bob Balaban’s 1989 suburban horror flick Parents. Ravenous is about cannibalism as photographic subject; it’s one of those movies that comes right back up your throat after you see it.CP