Some mythical ’60s buzzwords (cool, man, dude) never die. But to judge from ”The Mod Squad,” the stylishly hollow update of a TV series surely no one but its producer Aaron Spelling needed to see turned into a movie, I have serious doubts that mod is going to be making a comeback anytime soon. (I wouldn’t hold my breath about solid, either.) The term was already verging on passé when the series debuted in 1968. In a way, though, its paisley quaintness was key to the show’s cross-generational, square-in-hip-drag appeal. By tossing together three counterculture refugees (”One black, one white, one blond”) and presenting them as outlaws who’d redeemed themselves by going undercover for the LAPD, ”The Mod Squad” groveled before a new generation of viewers, and at the same time it unveiled the ultimate in reassuring Nixon-era establishment fantasies: that these rude, scary, trouble-making hippie militants could actually be cops. No need to get uptight — they’re really on your side, man!
Of course, the only thing vaguely scary about today’s youth culture is its unprecedented purchasing power, and so the new ”Mod Squad” celebrates the fashionable-renegade postures bred in malls. The film, which teams Omar Epps, Giovanni Ribisi, and Claire Danes (one black, one white, one blond — all bland), presents undercover law enforcement less as a profession than as an accessory, an excuse to pout and glower chicly, to stand around in nightclubs acting like a sullen version of the Last American Rebel.
What are Pete (Ribisi), Linc (Epps), and Julie (Danes) so serious about? They’re tracing a connect-the-dots conspiracy that involves their murdered boss (Dennis Farina), a cache of stolen cocaine, a prostitution ring, and the usual cover-ups in high places. Mostly, they’re up against a director, Scott Silver, who stages criminal encounters as if they were desultory commercials for criminally overpriced jeans. Silver has a knack for letting the tension leak out of a scene, until you’re sure it can’t get any more slack, and then finding still a little more dramatic air to squeeze from it. He shoots everything in grainy shadow mood, reducing Epps to an alienated puppet and forcing Danes to spend the movie in a funky daze. The one actor ”The Mod Squad” unleashes is Ribisi, whose quizzical sad-clown eyes made him so haunting as the medic in ”Saving Private Ryan.” Here, he seems desperate to establish his flaked-out, Method-to-my-madness chops. He screams, he cries, he leaps onto a car and boogies, he ”explodes.” The joke is that for all his junior-De Niro posing, he remains a flyweight firecracker. He’s more odd than mod.