IF THERE'S one thing Warner Bros. knew it had with "The Dukes of Hazzard," it was a bedrock of audience recognition and sentimentality.
There's a whole lot of armchair outlaws out there who remember that long-running Friday night TV show (six seasons from 1979) with a certain fondness. They remember Georgia cousins Bo (John Schneider) and Luke Duke (Tom Wopat), who slid out the windows of their beloved '69 orange Dodge Charger (the General Lee) and negotiated those fishtail turns as they ran forever from the cops. Their good-natured souls somehow protected them from anyone who wished them harm, from cops to redneck troublemakers to highbrow TV critics.
Audiences also remember Daisy Duke (Catherine Bach) in the briefest of short pants, who was the cutesy equivalent of Elly May from "The Beverly Hillbillies." And they remember that benevolent narrator who softened up viewers with his omniscient, homespun drawl.
The movie version, which stars Seann William Scott as Bo and Johnny Knoxville as Luke, is smart enough not to mess with a good thing. Director Jay Chandrasekhar, whose goofy "Super Troopers" and "Club Dread" qualify him eminently for the job, has found the perfect balance of old-fashioned charm and postmodern touches -- but not too many to overshadow the show's precious texture.
Scott and Knoxville, who are capable of outrageous and dark comedy, rein in those impulses to play the angelic duo. And Jessica Simpson -- who did not fend off offers for other acting projects from the Royal Shakespeare Company to play Daisy -- has obviously worked hard with her personal trainer. Putting the official rebel stamp on the proceedings are two seasoned southerners: Burt Reynolds plays the sneaky, dandyish commissioner by the name of Boss Hogg, and Willie Nelson is Uncle Jesse L. Duke, the moonshine-making joker played on the TV show by Denver Pyle.
Which is to say that "Dukes" the movie is more charmingly lowbrow than screamingly funny, and it doesn't seem the slightest bit interested in straying from the formula of screeching cars, barroom brawls and other southern cliches (without the white-hooded touches, of course). Anyone going to this movie would want no less and, it seems, no more. This is one unusual case in which aiming for a middling C grade turns out to be A-plus work.
THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (PG-13, 106 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and mild sexual situations, crude and drug-related humor, and comic action violence. Area theaters.