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'Mod Squad' too cool for its own good; Review: Young actors deserve a better plot to work their way through.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If only "The Mod Squad" were as sophisticated as it is self-referential, or as smart as it is funny.

The movie, like the 1968-1973 TV show, was produced by youth-TV king Aaron Spelling. And, like the worst kind of TV show, it's really, really dumb.

That's not to say it isn't likable. The chief reasons for its appeal are its stars: Claire Danes, Omar Epps and Giovanni Ribisi as the young would-be criminals who are recruited as an undercover police squad.

They're supposed to be really tough, though we never see the lives of crime from which they've been redeemed. Thus we're deprived of a much-needed dramatic arc. In fact, we're deprived of a lot of drama, period, as writer-director Scott Silver segues into music-video-type sequences that linger moodily over our heroes sauntering in slow-mo or gazing into their belly buttons.

And the plot? It's about as deep as a Hardy Boys whodunit, but not as square, as it's full of drugs, sexuality and four-letter words.

In a hackneyed story about cops on the take, the squad's mentor, a seasoned officer played by the always engaging Dennis Farina, is whacked in short order. The mystery is about as inscrutable as plastic wrap. Our heroes keep finding themselves in the wrong place at the right time and miraculously "solve" the crime with a tape recorder and a lot of bad driving.

But it isn't all terrible. Epps is a cool presence whose gravity and grace imply an intelligence that certainly didn't come from the script. Ribisi is the spaz of the group, funny and geeky, a hot wire who makes up in courage what he lacks in finesse. And Danes pro- jects her usual intelligence and vulnerability, though her recovering-addict character is more sweet than streetwise.

These are three winning actors in search of a story, and they don't find it here. It's amazing how much empathy and humor they generate between spurts of pointless violence and goofy references to the original "mod" era (through music and awkward exclamations of "right on!" and "solid!").

Fans of the TV show say it was cool. The movie is kind of cool, too, but it tastes like cold leftovers after an hour and a half of stupidity.

'The Mod Squad'

Starring Claire Danes, Omar Epps and Giovanni Ribisi

Directed by Scott Silver

Released by MGM

Rated R (language, violence and sexuality)

Running time 94 minutes

Sun score **

Pub Date: 3/26/99

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