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MOVIE REVIEW

Duo enjoyably cop that '70s 'tude

Is there anyone left on the planet tickled by the notion of a '70s TV show updated into a campy big-screen buddy comedy? Besides Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, that is? "Starsky & Hutch" has no reason to exist other than to let the comedy team -- and after "Zoolander," "The Royal Tenenbaums," and "Meet the Parents," they're practically the Hope and Crosby of the new millennium -- do their uptight prig/stoner dude shtick against a background of wah-wah guitar licks. Oddly, this is enough to make for an enjoyably stupid night at the movies.

The original "Starsky & Hutch" was the hip cop-duo show of its time, that time being the late 1970s, when the fashions and attitudes of the '60s had ossified into self-parody. Created by William Blinn, the series repackaged the scuffed brutality of the "Dirty Harry" movies for prime time, keeping

just enough violence to appall critics and attract huge audiences. Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky) and David Soul (Hutch) emerged as stars and haven't been heard from much since, although Glaser went on to a profitable TV directing career and popped up as Diane Keaton's ex-husband in "Something's Gotta Give." The new "Starsky & Hutch" is directed by Todd Phillips and cowritten by him with, among others, Scot Armstrong. These two were responsible for the neo-"Animal House" shenanigans of "Old School," now playing around the clock on pay cable, and they've retained the tone of shaggy-dog farce for this retread.

Stiller plays Dave Starsky much as he did Derek Zoolander: with clueless furrowed brow and a glare of lunatic conviction. Wilson, as mellow, amoral Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson, continues to coast on his sizable charm, although it bears noting that he's pretty much all runners and no sled at this point.

The mightily belabored goof is that by-the-book Starsky thinks he's the hippest guy in Bay City, when, in fact, Hutch is the real mack-daddy. Starsky jogs along the beach listening to Chicago through melon-sized 1977-era headphones, and the sight gag alone is enough to peg him as the squarest of squares. Hutch, meanwhile, casually chats with a suspect in Korean, beds both the cheerleaders (played with airhead glee by Amy Smart and Carmen Electra), and is ethically slippery enough to suggest pushing a body back into the bay in hopes that it'll float down to the next precinct.

The body has been provided by drug kingpin Reese Feldman, played by Vince Vaughn as a marblemouth big shot obsessed with his daughter's upcoming bat mitzvah. In the movie's faint wave in the direction of plot, Reese has developed an odorless strain of cocaine that passes undetected beneath the noses of drug-sniffing dogs and is planning to distribute it in mass quantities. This leads to Starsky and Hutch showing up at the bat mitzvah disguised as mimes -- apparently the film's sense of topicality is stuck in the '70s as well -- and doing horrible things to one of the birthday presents.

Goosing the proceedings is a cast of pop-culture castoffs and character actors. Blaxploitation godhead Fred Williamson plays the duo's ramrod boss; former Michael J. Fox pretender Jason Bateman goes nerdy as Reese's partner in crime; Juliette Lewis does her nails-on-chalkboard thing as Reese's girlfriend; and Chris Penn, now roughly the size of Montana, appears as a hostile fellow cop. The "Red Tomato" -- Starsky's beloved '74 Ford Torino -- qualifies as its own character.

Stealing the movie, however, is rapper Snoop Dogg as Huggy Bear, the pimp/informant originally portrayed by Antonio Fargas on the TV show. Regally overseeing his neighborhood domain -- "Think of us as Luxembourg," he tells Starsky -- Huggy is a snitch with class, and the sight of the Dogg's scrawny body duct-taped with boxy wiretapping devices may be the best joke in the movie. Stiller and Wilson go through their paces pleasantly enough, but "Starsky & Hutch" only comes to life when Stiller is allowed to improv his way out of character. A bit where Starsky accidentally ingests the new strain of coke and goes into uptight overdrive is funny until everyone heads to the disco for a watered-down "Saturday Night Fever" sequence.

Much better is the scene in which the two go undercover for a climactic charity dinner and Starsky mutates into the supremely tacky Ward Finkle, a cross between Eugene Levy and Moe Green from "The Godfather" who peppers every sentence with the guttural command, "Do it. Do it. Do it." It's the one moment in which Stiller finally gets it done.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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