Having seemingly exhausted all permutations of the sports comedy formula (Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, etc.), 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's back to his familiar lighthearted style, however, with his second swipe at the department in six months, Hollywood Homicide. 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's secondary to Hollywood Homicide, a movie that revels in every single Hollywood landmark and archetype on hand (except maybe those associated with Scientology) and boasts cameos by every famous friend of Shelton's who happened to be in town at the time. 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, overly earnest personas they've recently been known for. When it doesn't work, it's exactly what it purports to be lampooning -- a lame, boring cop buddy 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 which causes such suspicion amongst his peers that he's currently 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 incessantly overplayed that it actually goes past unfunny and back to funny again.
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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, mostly because of 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 whose members 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 cab driver, Gladys Knight as a suspect's mother, Martin Landau as a former big-shot producer, Robert Wagner as himself -- occasionally make the proceedings feel like a Christopher Guest improvisation spoof. Indeed, the film's best moments, notably 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. Unfortunately, Shelton doesn't quite go far enough, so that when the creakier plot mechanics come into play, we wonder if they're actually meant to be taken seriously, as they certainly aren't whimsical enough to make us laugh. Likewise, a pursuit sequence in which a suspect tries to flee via canal, with K.C. attempting to pursue his prey's ever-changing course by crisscrossing the same bridge several times, plays like it ought to make us laugh, but doesn't come close.
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 (an omnipresent gesture which online critic Drew McWeeny has dubbed "the finger of doom"), 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 herein. K.C. has recently been cast in the lead role of A Streetcar Named Desire, which allows 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.