My least favorite pop-culture phenomenon is the recycling of old, mostly lousy television series into new, even lousier movies. In the past year alone, we had the sequel to Charlie’s Angels, based on a show about nipples, and I Spy, starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson, who made Bill Cosby and Robert Culp seem almost Shakespearean. To judge from the near total absence of laughter at my screening, Starsky & Hutch, featuring the ubiquitous Ben Stiller and Über-buddy Owen Wilson as the Bay City cop team, won’t be spawning any sequels. Not to worry: My press kit mentions that one of its four screenwriters, John O’Brien, is working on a remake of the “classic” television series The Dukes of Hazzard. What’s next: Halle Berry in Get Christy Love!? Billy Baldwin in Adam-12: The Movie?
Someone in Hollywood must have decided that thirtysomethings want to be wet-nursed with big-screen versions of the shows they grew up on or still watch in reruns. But what’s in it for the rest of us? Starsky & Hutch doesn’t even work as a spoof, since director Todd Phillips chooses to play things straight. He shoots the movie all too faithfully, as if it really were a seventies TV show—cheesy sets, zoomy slo-mo, and lots of beige. Stiller and Wilson look bewildered. Were they perhaps waiting for a fifth writer to bail them out? They gallivant around town in their cherry-red Gran Torino, infiltrate a Bat Mitzvah for the daughter of a drug dealer (Vince Vaughn), and hang with their informant Huggy Bear, played by Snoop Dogg in what appears to be mid-snooze but is probably something else. In one real laff-riot of a scene, Stiller’s Starsky unknowingly mixes cocaine into his coffee and then freaks out at a disco, holding a gun to the head of his dance-contest opponent. As is customary in films of this kind, Starsky & Hutch ends with a bunch of goofy outtakes—which are as dismal as the rest of the movie. How do you decide what to leave out when there’s nothing worth keeping in?
For the documentary Collateral Damages, at Film Forum, director Etienne Sauret spent a year interviewing firefighters from two of the firehouses heaviest hit by 9/11. Billy, from Engine 6—the house nearest the World Trade Center—was the sole survivor of a five-man team that climbed the North Tower. Al, also at Engine 6, arrived after the towers had already collapsed. Captain Ruvolo, the head of Rescue 2, a company that assists other firefighters, recalls that none of his seven on-duty team members returned. Pete, of Rescue 2, explains that there is no survivor guilt for the simple reason that there were no survivors.
Sauret doesn’t intersperse footage of the attack or its aftermath. (His half-hour companion piece, The First 24 Hours, which will also be shown at Film Forum, provides those images.) He relies solely on the men’s testimony, which is almost as graphic. Their psychological trauma is the film’s real subject: Billy has almost entirely blocked out the pile-up of pulverized bodies and has sought counseling, while Al stoically describes the jumpers and the “monumental carnage” and wonders if he will ever be free enough to break down and cry. He talks about how he couldn’t bear being at home with his family afterward, how he repeatedly went back to the site even in the middle of the night to help with the digging. These men are united by an impacted rage. Their words here seem unrehearsed, newly felt—as if it all happened yesterday. It’s likely that many of these firemen, with their no-nonsense work ethic, are not introspective by nature—which probably made their turmoil even more unfathomable. As they describe it, in the wake of 9/11 they found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being spotlighted as standard bearers for the fallen. When people approached them on the street, desperately needing to talk out their feelings, all these men wanted was to retreat. In Collateral Damages, we are witness to heroism, all right, but it’s a heroism unsullied by sentimentality.