Hollywood Babble-On

Ron Shelton tries to mock the L.A. buddy-cop movie, but the joke's mostly on him

Having seemingly exhausted all permutations of the sports-comedy formula (Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, et al.), Ron Shelton has now moved on to another obsession: the Los Angeles Police Department. Earlier this year, we got the uncharacteristically somber (for him, anyway) Dark Blue, a "what if" tale of the alternately corrupt and beleaguered force circa 1992. It worked, and worked well, as contemporary crime drama, if perhaps not as actual social critique of the LAPD under Daryl Gates. Shelton is back to his familiar lighthearted style, however, with Hollywood Homicide, his second swipe at the department in six months. Surprisingly, it doesn't work anywhere near as well.

Mistake number one, perhaps, was to make the case at the heart of the film a thinly veiled reference to the Tupac Shakur/Biggie Smalls murders, a sore point for hip-hop fans and others around the world. Still, the plot is secondary to Hollywood Homicide, a movie that revels in every single Hollywood landmark and archetype on hand. When the movie works, it gleefully skewers the clichés of the buddy-cop genre, allowing stars Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett to mock the established, overearnest personas they've recently been known for. When it doesn't work, it's exactly what it purports to be lampooning -- a lame, boring buddy-cop movie.

The central thematic joke of the movie is that contemporary L.A. cops, unlike those in other cities, really want to be in a different line of work and see law enforcement as a means to an end, an inconvenient intrusion on their real lives. Hartnett's K.C. aspires to be an actor, natch, and imagines that a vegan diet is a necessary step to thespianhood. He also teaches yoga, mostly as a way of meeting women, but has done it for so long that the Eastern philosophy behind the stretching has permeated his consciousness and become an obsession. Ford's Joe Gavilan invests in real estate, a field that causes such suspicion among his peers that he's under investigation for it. Both men are constantly on their cell phones -- Gavilan's rings with "My Girl," K.C.'s with "Funky Town" -- a joke that gets so overplayed that it actually goes past unfunny and back to funny again.

Hartnett and Ford: buddy cops du jour
Hartnett and Ford: buddy cops du jour

Shelton thankfully spares us the introductions -- we meet both leads in the opening scene, and they're already partners. It's clear K.C. isn't very good at his job, due mostly to inexperience, but it's also fairly clear that Joe doesn't really care about that, because what's weighing on his mind is a large, undesirable chunk of property that he hasn't managed to sell in almost a year. Professionally, the two are on the case of a murdered hip-hop group who were on the verge of becoming big stars, but it's also telegraphed fairly early on that the trail will tie neatly into the mysterious death of K.C.'s father and the life of the radio psychic (Lena Olin) whom Joe's been dating.

Those plot coincidences, along with the endless parade of celebrity bit parts -- Eric Idle as a frequenter of prostitutes, Lou Diamond Phillips as an undercover cop in drag, Smokey Robinson as a cabdriver -- occasionally make the proceedings feel like a Christopher Guest improvisation spoof. Indeed, the film's best moments, a dual-interrogation sequence and an uproarious final car chase, feel off the cuff, as if Shelton and the actors waited until the day of shooting to actually nail down the specifics.

It's valiant on Shelton's part to try to undermine Ford's tough-guy image by making him a half-assed detective with none of the monotone seriousness we've come to associate with the man lately, but old habits do die hard. One of Ford's trademark tics, that of angling his index finger upward into the face of someone he's exasperated with, is showcased a few times; perhaps the only refreshing upside is that Lena Olin gives it right back to him.

Hartnett isn't known for comedies but goes a long way toward demonstrating his aptitude as an oblivious straight man. K.C. has recently been cast in the lead role of A Streetcar Named Desire, allowing Hartnett to show off his best "bad Brando." When Ford helps him run lines and delivers readings worse than those heard on a WB sitcom, it's quite the hoot. Good actors love to play bad (see also Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights); it's only unfortunate when the movie they're in plays worse, and not always on purpose.

 
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