'Dukes of Hazzard': A Vehicle of Rusty Parts
Friday, August 5, 2005
"The Dukes of Hazzard" is like a nice, deep breath of fresh gasoline.
At first, it's weirdly delicious and the memories it conjures, of fabulous trips through fabled landscapes, of freedom to the horizon and endless possibilities, are pleasant.
But soon enough the metallic bite takes over and clamps down, and before long you're thinking: Gack! My head is in a vise!
So loud, so long, so dumb. Burt Reynolds's face is frozen like a Dairy Queen sundae in January, Jessica Simpson appears to be constructed of some luster-free flesh substitute distilled from an advanced petroleum byproduct, and the two boys playing the Dukes are charmless, charismaless and, generally, clueless.
You have to say this for the original Duke cousins on the TV series, John Schneider and Tom Wopat: They had some life to them. Between them and Catherine Bach, inert yet decent, and with Denver Pyle as Uncle Jesse and an orange '69 Dodge Charger named General Lee, you had yourself a nice enough little TV show to last six years ('79 to '85). Plus it kept Waylon Jennings out of bars.
It wasn't the real South or even the fake South. Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, William Faulkner and Miss Eudora Welty wouldn't have recognized it. But it expressed something, if crudely: All those kids who were called rednecks or hillbillies, except during wartime when they got all the hit-the-beach or drop-the-bombs jobs and were called "our brave boys," were human, too, and had a kind of integrity, grit, ain't-backin'-down-from-nothing toughness that deserved commemoration, not contempt.
This was their first big national anthem, by cracky; it followed regional cult pieces, such as writer-director (and series creator) Gy Waldron's "Moonrunners" (1975) and before that the haunting Bob Mitchum bootlegger's melody "Thunder Road" (1958). Tom Wolfe's great Esquire piece "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!" helped, too, in 1965. It would reach its highest artistic expression in the great Steve Earle song "Copperhead Road" (great American song, by the way) and take over the mass imagination when we became NASCAR Nation.
This iteration of "The Dukes of Hazzard" seems to have forgotten all that, if they knew it in the first place. It's directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, who traces his career back a little ways to a cult item called "Super Troopers," which some (not I) found funny. Evidently, this movie is full of cameos from that movie but how would I know as I remember not one thing about it.
You know the deal, unless you're from Mars: The Duke cousins, Bo and Luke (Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville), are the natural aristocrats of Hazzard County, Ga., a corrupt little chunk of red dirt run by Boss Hogg (Reynolds) and patrolled by his kept enforcer, Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane (M.C. Gainey) and minions in Smokey hats. In general, the two want to eliminate the vice competition, represented by Uncle Jesse Duke (Willie Nelson), the county's most beloved bootlegger.
It's pretty much the Robin Hood-Prince John-Sheriff of Nottingham dynamic, played out with loud Daimler-Benz constructions in swamplands and peanut fields rather than on horseback in a forest called Sherwood. Oh, and the two fellers have an ally in their bodacious cousin Daisy, who seems always willing to divert attention at key moments by flashing her headlamps at the sheriff's deputies, enabling Bo and Luke to get away yet again.
The story specifics here are even wispier than on any Friday night in the late '70s. Boss Hogg is angling to win a big stock car rally, and has even imported a professional NASCAR stud to win the race, which amateur Bo has won four times running. But could it be that the Boss has a deeper plan, something about distracting the citizens of Hazzard so they can't attend a zoning hearing that will enable him to strip-mine the county and turn it into a hole in the ground? Can the Duke boys avoid the cops, win the race, and get folks to the hearing in time? Miss Welty, stop rolling your eyes back there now, and Mr. Faulkner, please, even if your bourbon is concealed in a paper bag, would you please stop drinking it through a straw, this is what storytelling has become in the United States.
The two young actors, Scott (who came up through the "American Pie" films, where he was the weasel-eyed bad boy) and Knoxville (who knocked himself silly in MTV's "Jackass" series), don't have much chemistry between themselves or with any of the girls who are supposed to find them so alluring. They seem to be in different movies and neither seems very southern at all. Willie Nelson has about three lines, all of them old Borscht Belt jokes, and Simpson never appears to be either (a) comfortable or (b) from Planet Earth.
That leaves the two old dogs to carry the show. Old Dog One is Reynolds, and though I will always love this agreeable rogue and scalawag -- he made some fine entertainment -- his quest for eternal beauty through the fountain of youth called plastic surgery has left his face weirdly inert. Nope, no wrinkles, but no motion either. Also, he's no longer big but superthin and light of foot, almost gaminlike -- his power is gone and in its place is a downsized reduction of the great laughing stud who dominated American films all through the '70s and well into the '80s. He's become his own bobble-head!
Almost for contrast, Old Dog Two, former almost-star Joe Don Baker (the original Buford Pusser in "Walking Tall" and a terrifying hit man in "Charlie Varrick"), appears as the Governor and stands for the natural aging process: He's lumpy, baggy, fat, his face looks like somebody pulled it behind the General Lee on a midnight run between Macon and Athens, but he's still less freakish than whatever it is Burt Reynolds has turned into.
As for the endless car chases, they seem less developed than they were on the TV series, even if the budget is higher and they can do a lot more wrecking. The one thing "Dukes of Hazzard" does well, however, is to fire the General Lee like an orange Atlas missile almost to orbital altitude. The car sails through the air as if Evel Knievel is behind the wheel, and that's the Grand Canyon down there, not the red dirt of Hazzard County. If you like to see cars fly, this is the movie for you.
The Dukes of Hazzard (106 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content, crude and drug-related humor, profanity and comic violence.