Published March 1, 1999
Near the end of The Mod Squad one of the three drop-dead hip teen cops, Pete Cochran (Giovanni Ribisi), says to another, Julie Barnes (Claire Danes): “Dirty cops, drops at the airport: I feel like one of us should say, ‘We’re getting too old for this s***’.”
Julie replies: “At least it’s not going down at an abandoned warehouse.”
Ha ha. The next thing they know they are at an abandoned airplane hanger. “God! That’s almost an abandoned warehouse,” says Pete.
“We’re getting too old for this s***,” deadpans Julie.
Already they have noticed the strangely cinematic quality of what is going on around them. “This is one of those dirty cop-drug things?” says Pete. “That s*** really happens?” Either that, Pete, or you yourself are in a movie.
These sorts of postmodern-style apologies for the tediousness and familiarity of the story we are being offered, designed to disarm us with their whimsical charm, also amount to a confession—not that one is needed—of the preoccupation of the teen movie with attitude to the exclusion of all else. Pete and Julie and their obligatory black partner, Linc Hayes (Omar Epps), are criminals, sure, guilty (we are told) of arson, assault and robbery. But underneath, see, they are good kids. They have a lot of attitude, which is cool, because they are carrying around a lot of anger about the parental neglect and social injustice and victimization by grown-ups generally that has made them like this. All they need is another chance, and this they get from a kindly policeman, Lt. Greer (Dennis Farina), who has the brilliant idea of using them as undercover police auxiliaries because “These kids can get into a thousand places where we can’t,” as Greer explains.
Yes, but are you at all likely to get them back again? In real life, we should say no, but the movie doesn’t bother trying to look like real life. We know this loopy form of crime prevention by hiring the criminals as cops is no more believable than the fact that here almost all the cops turn out to be criminals. But believability is obviously not a priority in this movie. The clichés of the dirty cops and the drug drop at the airport and the abandoned warehouse and any number of others are actually useful given that the film’s purpose is to promote an even more venerable cliché, that of the misunderstood teenager who is both alienated from and better than the grown-up authority figures he inevitably feels misunderstood and oppressed by. Apart from Greer, of whom we see very little, there is no sympathetic adult in this picture. “We can’t trust anybody, right?” says Linc. “Just each other?”
Right, Linc. At least you noticed that the movie you’re in is being utterly straightforward about its shameless appeal to adolescent fantasy and self-pity. Poor Pete, wounded, in trouble and pursued by those who want to kill him, is laughed at and rejected by his own parents when he comes to them for help. Poor Julie is seduced, deceived and abandoned by an older boyfriend (Josh Brolin) who is nice to her only to have his way with her (fancy that!) and turns out to be a pimp and a drug dealer. Poor Linc is the victim of racism from the real cops down at the station house—the same cops who turn out to be “dirty.” The teenager’s sense of being victimized by those who have the power and the knowledge to boss him around is as characteristic as the sense of strangeness of the adult world suggested when the criminal kingpin, played by Michael Lerner, ask Linc to dance with him. “I’m not a fag, I just like to dance,” he says. O-o-o-o-kay, as my own teenager would say.
All teen movies aspire to the condition of music videos, and The Mod Squad is no exception. Having established early on the paradigm of the teen victim fighting the corruption of the adult world, however implausibly, there is nothing left to do but play the loud music by really hot bands and accompany it with self-consciously arty camera work that looks like something out of a Pepsi commercial. Well, after all, it is the Pepsi generation, fighting crime and mean adults simultaneously and looking very cool about it, I’m sure, to the thirteen and fourteen year olds who are the movie’s intended audience.