The Dukes of Hazzard is the latest in a very long line of movies derived from old TV shows. Johnny Knoxville plays Luke Duke and Seann William Scott is his cousin Bo. They’re a couple of good old boys from down South who run moonshine for their Uncle Jesse (Willie Nelson). There is also a third Duke cousin: Daisy (Jessica Simpson), who frequently uses her sex appeal to get Bo and Luke out of trouble with local law enforcement.
Trouble always seems to find its way into Hazzard County, and the plot finds commissioner Boss Hogg (now played by Burt Reynolds) typically up to no good. He has a scheme to run people off their land, buy it up, and excavate the country for its coal. In order to keep the townsfolk from raising objections at a court hearing, he brings in a famous race car driver, Billy Prickett (James Roday), to participate in a race that everyone is sure to attend. (Sure, this plan sounds stupid, but The Dukes of Hazzard has never been a fountain of logic.) Bo and Luke quickly get wind of the plan and decide to fight back. Boss Hogg relies on the inept local police force – led by Roscoe P. Coltrane (M.C. Gainey) – to divert the boys. This, of course, means lots of high-speed chases, death defying jumps, and multi-car pileups.
Other well-known parts of the “Dukes” show are accounted for as well, including auto mechanic Cooter (David Koechner of Anchorman) and that world famous Dodge Charger, the General Lee. More than anything, the General Lee was the trademark of the franchise. It probably had more name recognition than any of the actors on the show.
The appeal of the original “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show was always kind of strange. It seemed to have a fascination with cars jumping over gaps or crashing into puddles. It had semi-frequent journeys into slapstick courtesy of the bad guys, and Catherine Bach (as Daisy) always appeared in her tight little shorts, much to the delight of males everywhere. It was never technically a “good” or substantive show, yet like a lot of others, I dutifully sat in front of my television each Friday night to watch it as a child. To this day, the series is popular among a core group of fans. The movie version largely retains all of the show’s qualities and limitations, but it also contains more profanity and sex-related humor, which makes it less appropriate for a family audience.
On the plus side, the film goes bigger and better on the driving scenes. By using special camera mounts that weren’t available on the original show, the sense of speed conveyed is much greater and more exciting than anything “Dukes” fans have been exposed to previously. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there are moments when you really feel like you’re sitting inside the General Lee. A chase scene through the streets of Atlanta is the best example.
The casting of the picture is pretty interesting. Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott bring somewhat different dimensions to Bo and Luke Duke than Tom Wopat and John Schneider did. The original actors played the roles with charming orneriness, whereas Knoxville and Scott bring more edge. Watching the new actors, you become somewhat more aware that the Dukes are felons, running moonshine and creating vehicular damage that amazingly leaves no one injured. The new Duke boys are fine; they’re just different. Burt Reynolds and Willie Nelson are inspired casting choices, at least in theory. The material gives neither of them a chance to do anything earth-shattering, but both actors look like they’re having fun and that’s important in a property such as this.
A lot of people want to know whether or not Jessica Simpson can act. It’s not a fair question, because Daisy Duke has never been a role that required much acting prowess. It requires someone who looks good in a pair of too-tight shorts, which Simpson does. I’ve heard other critics carping, as though Simpson’s performance marks one of the signs of the cinematic apocalypse. The truth is that she’s fine. Meryl Streep doesn’t need to worry about the competition, but Simpson handles the role well and doesn’t take herself too seriously.
The biggest hurdle for The Dukes of Hazzard is that the humor is extremely hit-or-miss. Parts of the movie are very funny, while other parts fall completely flat. I laughed at the interplay between Knoxville and Scott (who are unexpectedly good together). I also laughed at the antics of the Dukes’ friend Sheev (Kevin Heffernan) who never wears pants but frequently wears a dead armadillo on his head. There are some clever lines of dialogue and bits of physical comedy throughout. But there is also a little too much of some of these things; the film has a tendency to repeat certain bits. Some of the scenes that are supposed to be funny – such as the Duke boys crashing a college laboratory and pretending to be Japanese scientists – don’t work. There’s also a borderline offensive scene in which Bo and Luke are confronted by a group of young African-American men in a ghetto section of Atlanta while wearing blackface and with a confederate flag painted on top of their car. Uh, who thought that was a good idea?
The film was directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, who tosses in an amusing in-joke for fans of Super Troopers, the breakthrough movie he made with his Broken Lizard comedy troupe. Did I like The Dukes of Hazzard? Well, kinda yes, kinda no. The TV show was only ever okay – a pleasant but unspectacular diversion that was good for a few chuckles. That more or less sums up the movie too; it is what it is. If you weren’t a fan of the show, this won’t change your mind. If you loved the show, you’ll probably love the movie. If, like me, you were somewhere in the middle, then the middle is where you’ll likely stay.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Dukes of Hazzard is rated PG-13 for sexual content, crude and drug-related humor, language and comic action violence. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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