Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Review: The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

The Dukes Of Hazzard
100 minutes
Rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

It must be noted first off, that I am not even a casual fan of the original Dukes Of Hazzard television show, which lasted for 6 seasons starting in 1979. I vaguely remember snippets of the show, and I remember wondering just how someone could jump into a car through an open window with such ease, as it seemed rather tough in real life (I'm proud to say I never tried; I found other, non-media inspired ways to hurt myself back in the day). Thus, I can judge this new movie adaptation with an open mind. And what be thy judgment? Well, with all the talk about how it represents the glorification of ineptitude, the worship of fast cars and easy women, and how its success will somehow be a sign of the creeping conservative movement at play in the last several years, it must be said that the film is quite fun. It may in fact commit all of the crimes above, but it does so with a certain knowing panache, it winks at several genre conventions, and in the end, the moral of the story is actually one that the core 'red state' audience would do well to hear. It's not nearly as stupid as you'd think, and it's just smart enough to be almost subversive.

The plot, for those who care: Luke Duke and Bo Duke (a deadpan Johnny Knoxville and an overacting Sean William Scott) run moonshine shipments for their uncle Jesse (Willy Nelson, with absolutely nothing to do), with the occasional aid of cousin Daisy Duke (Jessica Simpson, seemingly challenged by her 20 lines and embarrassed by the obvious exploitation of her breasts and legs). Alas, fiendish schemes are afoot, threatening to tear their fragile existence asunder! The evil Boss Jefferson Davis Hogg (Burt Reynolds, looking trim and having fun) has used his influence and power to make a land grab of several large farms in the area, including the Duke House. What could Hogg's evil scheme be? What is its connection to the upcoming annual Hazzard stock car race? Will our Duke boys unravel the odious scheme and bring peace and tranquility to the Hazzard county, or will Hogg triumph, covering the land in darkness and despair?

First things first, the car chases, and there are a few, are quite exceptional and they all feel real, with a minimum of special effects assistance (there are some amusing chase outtakes over the end credits, reminding one of a Jackie Chan film, but with a car). About 40% of the jokes work, with an edge going to the pure comedy bits, as opposed to the gentle acknowledgment of 'hillbilly' cliches. One exception is the matter of the giant confederate flag that eventually adorns the General Lee. It is actually used for a very funny gag, but is ruined by an additional nasty joke that ends too soon to defuse or play on the racial discomfort that develops.

The oddest thing about the film is that, while it indulges in certain less than esteemed bits of southern folklore, it has something trickier up its sleeve. The film seems to revel in the usual liberal-bashing stereotypes. The good guys are dumb, poor, not bathed, and scornful of authority. The bad guys are smart, well dressed, clean, intelligent, and usually members of authority. So, it would seem that this is a usual 'Us vs. Them' saga, a battle between rich, educated city folks, and poor, bored, uneducated 'real Americans'. Yet, in the end, the film could easily be read as a metaphor for the whole absurdity of that idea. The main villain, Boss Hogg, masquerades as one of the 'real people', but secretly plots to steal their homes purely out of greed. Remember that stock car race I mentioned? Well, that's organized by Boss Hogg as a giant diversion so he can subvert the law to get his evil plan rubber-stamped.

So, basically, we have a movie aimed at the 'red state' demographic which involves a rich, cooperate bad guy who pretends to be 'one of them real folk' and uses the bread and circuses of a stock car race as a diversion so he can screw those 'real Americans' out of their property. And, in the end, it is big government and law and order that saves the day once the evil scheme is exposed. Readers of What's The Matter With Kansas? might be amused.

Whether this can be taken as a symbolic representation of 'god, gays, and guns' (the three 'moral issues' that are used as a distraction to get people to vote for the very politicians that will help insure that their children starve to death or go uneducated) can be debated, but the fact that this film seems to have such an important point -pay attention and don't fall for the distractions around you- is a bit of a shock.

On a slightly related note, this comes days after Jessica Simpson openly complained about ABC censoring and softening the real living conditions of the US troops that she and her husband went to entertain in Iraq for a TV special. With all the talk about how Simpson's popularity is a reflection of people wanting a boring, safe, squeaky clean sex symbol, it's worth noting that more 'daring' sex symbols like Brittany Spears never had the guts to make such statements, or even really think for themselves. She may be a lousy actress, but Simpson has moxy.

Obviously, one need not read this much into The Dukes Of Hazzard. On purely surface levels, it's a quick, light, squeaky-clean 'thrillbilly' comedy that is slightly funnier and slightly more exciting than most people expected it to be. Whether or not the mass, unthinking consumption of this film will cause it to be the very sort of distraction that it seemingly rallies against is a valid question. But the very fact that this seemingly assembly line product actually raises such a question makes it just that much closer to being art.

Grade: B

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