DUKES OF HAZZARD (2005)
Director: Jay Chandrasekhar
Television and cinema has brought us many famous vehicles. There's K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider, Herbie the Love Bug, the Ectomobile from Ghostbusters, Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine, the Mach 5 from Speed Racer, and the Batmobile. But with all of those in consideration, one car stands out in the minds of most Southerners as their favorite fictional mode of transportation: a tricked-out 1969 Dodge Charger dubbed "the General Lee." Anyone who watched television in the early '80s has heard of the General Lee, which made its first appearance when The Dukes of Hazzard premiered on CBS on January 26, 1979. Originally a midseason replacement for a cancelled series, The Dukes of Hazzard quickly became one of the most popular shows on CBS, so popular that it was second only to the legendary soap opera Dallas in the ratings. In the two decades since its final episode aired, the family-friendly show has gone on to achieve a large cult following, with reruns drawing high ratings on TNN (prior to becoming Spike TV) and CMT. The General Lee has become almost as recognized as the Nike swoosh, and denim cutoff shorts have been affectionately known as "Daisy Dukes" ever since. With the recent trend of old television shows being remade into movies, I guess it only made sense for Warner Brothers to roll the General Lee back into action on the big screen.
The plot, as with just about any random episode of the show, is relatively simple. Our story takes place in the fictional Hazzard County of Georgia, where "good ol' boy" cousins Bo (Seann William Scott) and Luke Duke (Johnny Knoxville) are preparing to enter the General Lee against Hazzard County golden boy Billy Prickett (James Roday) in an upcoming stock car race. After making their latest moonshine run, Bo and Luke return home to discover that their farm has been seized by Hazzard County's corrupt commissioner Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds). Why? Turns out that the equally corrupt county sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane (M.C. Gainey) found an illegal moonshine still in their barn. Of course, Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco being the bastions of goodness they are, planted the still there because, as sexy Duke cousin Daisy (Jessica Simpson) theorizes, "they were just too damn dumb to find the real one."
Upon stealing a safe from a construction site and paying a visit to a college science lab in Atlanta to find out what exactly the contents were, the Dukes discover that Boss Hogg is planning to acquire as many tracts of land as possible in order to raze the town and build a coal mine on top of it. With the help of Daisy and their moonshine-brewing uncle Jesse (Willie Nelson), the Dukes embark on a series of misadventures to save the county while trying to stay one step ahead of Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco.
The Dukes of Hazzard movie is very much like an inflated episode of the television show that inspired it, only with some rather drastic additions in the form of profanity and drug use (and nudity, if you're watching the unrated DVD). While these additions would no doubt be welcome had the movie been completely original, adding them sacrifices the element that made the show family friendly. Why the producers felt the need to make these changes, I'll never know. However, what's left of the show isn't changed with much. The only things most casual viewers will remember about the show are Daisy's short shorts and the General Lee, and both of those are in tact. There are car chases, action, a cute girl in super-short shorts, and all the Southern charm in the world.
We can obviously tell that Jay Chandrasekhar is behind the camera. A member of comedy troupe Broken Lizard, Chandrasekar's direction is very much in the style of his two prior movies, Super Troopers and Club Dread. Likewise, all five members of Broken Lizard appear somewhere in the movie, including Chandrasekar himself (who appears in one of my favorite scenes, a reprisal of the opening moments of Super Troopers). Chandresekar is also up to the challenge of filming the numerous action shots that populate the movie, with assistance from cinematographer Lawrence Sher (who previously worked with Chandrasekar on Club Dread). From the famed General Lee jumps to the car chase scenes to the barroom brawl early in the movie, Chandrasekar proves himself to be a credible director. He also goes out of his way to keep the movie interesting even when nothing is going on, and his ability to improve upon mediocre material with his directing ability is evidenced here.
And boy, is the material mediocre. Credited to John O'Brien (who also co-wrote the cinematic adaptation of Starsky & Hutch), the screenplay heavily alters the characters as we know them from the show. Daisy has seemingly had her "bimbo" levels amped up to eleven, Bo has an unhealthy sexual attraction to the General Lee, and Uncle Jesse, the show's moral backbone, is telling dirty jokes and smoking weed. I know Willie Nelson is famous for being a pot-smoking hippie, but they could have easily made a joke about cheating on his taxes instead. And perhaps most altered are the characters of Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco. While they were the villains on the show, they were more misguided than downright evil. While Boss Hogg's depiction seems as if Burt Reynolds has gone from playing The Bandit to playing Smokey, Sheriff Rosco seems to be the most different. His childlike nature from the show is all but gone here, and we're given a sheriff that's as mean as a rattlesnake and genuinely hates the Dukes. As despicable as he is in the movie, I'm surprised they didn't turn Sheriff Rosco's beloved basset hound Flash into a Rottweiler. I understand the desire to have credible villains, but I guess I'm just used to the Boss Hogg and Rosco from the show. However, O'Brien's screenplay (which was given a little polish by Broken Lizard) does have many moments that I found to be downright funny, no matter how lame or silly they may have been. From the aforementioned spoof of Super Troopers, to the fight scene early in the film, to the postmodern jokes about the Confederate flag on the roof of the General Lee, the movie succeeds in making me laugh, so I can't fault it for that.
The cast can make or break a comedy, but for the most part, the Dukes cast is a hodge-podge of different levels of talent. Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville, perhaps best known as "Stifler from American Pie" and "that guy from Jackass" respectively, are enjoyable as Bo and Luke. Both are extremely funny actors, and they do manage to make things entertaining. Jessica Simpson, who plays the scantily-clad Southern belle Daisy in her first major foray into acting (after a few guest spots on That '70s Show and the 2003 revival of The Twilight Zone, along with a cameo as herself in Dana Carvey's The Master of Disguise), obviously didn't have to fend off any offers from the Royal Shakespeare Company to do the movie. Her lack of acting experience is painfully obvious, though one can tell that she's at least trying. And was it just me, or did her Southern accent sound forced and fake? She's from Texas, so you'd think she'd already have something resembling a real Southern accent. Burt Reynolds and Willie Nelson both put their own Southern stamp on the movie, each giving likeable performances that, while far different from the base material, are still engaging. Meanwhile, M.C. Gainey and Michael Weston aren't awful as Sheriff Rosco and Deputy Enos Strate, James Roday is forgettable as Bo's unlikable rival Billy Prickett, and Junior Brown does a fine job filling the shoes of the late Waylon Jennings as the disembodied voice of "The Balladeer." But I found my favorite members of the cast to be David Koechner as mechanic Cooter Davenport and Broken Lizard's Kevin Heffernan as conspiracy theorist Sheev, a character created specifically for the movie. Koechner has been hilarious in his past acting roles (including Anchorman and a stint on Saturday Night Live), and although he only has a handful of scenes, he doesn't disappoint. Heffernan is also quite funny, though I really didn't need to see him in his tightie-whities (though it's definitely a step up from seeing him naked in Super Troopers).
The movie also benefits from entertaining music. The twangy country score by Nathan Barr is great and quite fitting, but where the real fun lies is with the song soundtrack. Fittingly comprised of music from bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, Montgomery Gentry, ZZ Top, and the Charlie Daniels Band, the soundtrack isn't bad. The filmmakers also make the very wise decision to use the version of the theme song performed by Waylon Jennings, complimented by Willie Nelson's faithful cover. However, where the soundtrack stumbles is Jessica Simpson's horrendous, embarrassing cover of the Nancy Sinatra classic "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'." If Sinatra was dead, she'd have been doing cartwheels in her grave when the song was released.
I know that the movie has been pretty much reviled by both critics and fans of the show, but you know what? I liked it. The movie knows that it's silly, and it revels in it. It might not be built on the strongest of foundations, but the movie still entertained me. I go to movies to be entertained, so in that aspect, I'll call The Dukes of Hazzard successful. I know what I like. Yeah, the movie isn't perfect nor is it 100% true to the show, but so what? Screw the hoity-toity critics that are just too highbrow to enjoy themselves. The Dukes of Hazzard have never been highbrow, and that's the way it should be. I'll give it a solid three and a half stars and a recommendation to fans of goofy Southern humor.
Final Rating: ***½