There’s a moment at the beginning of the “Charlie’s Angels” movie where a dashiki-clad LL Cool J is bemoaning the in-flight movie choice: an adaptation of the William Shatner cop drama, “T.J. Hooker.” It got a big laugh in 2000 and I imagine that a thinly-veiled version of that punchline would provoke a similar reaction today. That’s because most movies adapted from television shows are lazy money-grabs, with a patchy, Frankenstein script that can barely register as entertainment.
This Fourth of July holiday, “The Lone Ranger” finally hits theaters after what feels like two years of trailers and promotions. The film reunites director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp who have plundered moviegoers for almost 4 billion dollars with their “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy. Depp told the New York Times that this reimagining, with its heavy emphasis on his Tonto-bedecked in a taxidermied grackle, gives Hollywood a second chance at righting its history of grunting, xenophobic depictions of Native Americans.
Our own, Ty Burr, suggests that “The Lone Ranger” is less Sergio Leone and more “Wild Wild West,” but since this movie version is finally here, I sat through the torture wheel of “Yogi Bear” and Johnny Knoxville-era “Dukes of Hazzard” to find the 10 best adaptations that have made their way from television to the cinema.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Earlier this year, “Vanity Fair” came out with a fascinating article documenting the unbelievable travails of “The Blues Brothers,” a film that was doomed to abandonment halfway through shooting. Despite an out-of-control budget, a miserly studio head, and John Belushi spiraling into a massive cocaine addiction, John Landis was able to rally the budding SNL stars into enough footage to salvage a beloved comedy. Nowadays, it’s impossible to imagine Aykroyd and Belushi struggling just to get past Lorne Michaels’s discerning judgment, when Jake and Elwood’s skinny ties and Ray-Ban’s have become as iconic as Chaplin’s mustache or Groucho’s cigar. More of a musical celebrating the best in blues and R&B, Universal Pictures was able to finagle the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Pinetop Perkins, for a whimsical vanity project that gave us a brief glimps int o the mayhem of John Belushi’s imagination. Next
21 Jump Street (2012)
“21 Jump Street” is hands-down the smartest, funniest movie to come from the pre-Sopranos slum of American television. It’s a self-referential, pop culture nexus that has one foot embedded in the Stephen Cannell and Patrick Hasburgh original and the other delving into the spirit of a John Hughes comedy. The classic nerd/jock dynamic is turned on its ear when two underachieving bike cops are forced into undercover work amidst Gen Y go-getters who believe that monogamy is outdated and that organized sports are “fascist.” Channing Tatum is brilliant, shedding his ladykiller facade in favor of a converted nerd more comfortable miming light saber battles and rapping about potassium nitrate. And then there are the terrific cameos by Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle, and *spoiler alert* Johnny Depp, in the best prosthetic bombshell since Les Grossman of “Tropic Thunder.”
The Fugitive (1993)
“The Fugitive” stands as the only movie adapted from a television series to ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. Not until you look back at the other Oscar nominees from 1994 does the weight of that sentence strike with the appropriate gravitas. Think about it: Dr. Richard Kimble and the elusive one-armed man were in the same conversation as “Schindler’s List.” While Spielberg’s Holocaust opus has risen into the hallowed ranks of the cinematic elite, “The Fugitive” has given us plenty of enduring images, such as Harrison Ford’s plunge off a towering dam. This capped a flawless 15-year epoch in Ford’s career and was immortalized in that ultimate cultural barometer, “The Simpsons.” Next
Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996)
America has never quite understood the brilliance of Mike Judge. Yes, the early years of “Beavis and Butt-head” were a cultural phenomenon that fell in line with Bart Simpson slinging angsty maxims and Ren and Stimpy reveling in the easy humor of flatulence and cartoon violence. But chortling Beavis and his abusive, couch-potato buddy were celebrated for the very things they were conceived to indict. The fervor for mindless entertainment and puerile, adolescent release was the focus of Judge’s first film, themes he would continue to explore in the ignored “Idiocracy” and “Extract.” When Beavis and Butthead’s television is stolen, the anchor of their existence is ripped from the moorings and they’re forced to unhinge themselves from the living room couch in an effort to track it down. This picaresque tale takes them across the country, into the Oval Office, and smack into the beer-bellies of their transient, deadbeat dads. Unlike “The Simpsons Movie,” “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America” came at a creative high point in its existence and is still enjoyable because of it. Next
Wayne’s World (1992)
This was probably the smoothest transition of any SNL skit to make it onto the big screen. I know that’s not saying a whole lot considering its competing with Stuart Smalley and “It’s Pat,” but Wayne and Garth gave us far more than just “Bohemian Rhapsody” and a handful of tired ’90s catchphrases. Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt! Who can forget the “No Stairway to Heaven” sign, Wayne’s crazy ex, Stacy, giving giving him a gun rack, and the finest joke ever uttered about the state of Delaware. We should also make a hard-and-fast rule that Rob Lowe has to appear as a snarky yuppie in any vehicle for a SNL alum. He played it with distinction in “Tommy Boy,” but in “Wayne’s World” he did it in pleated slacks that would have made A.C. Slater weep with envy. “Schwing!” Next
Starsky & Hutch (2004)
Throw this into that ilk of hackneyed cinema that you’re not supposed to enjoy, but end up loving nonetheless. If anyone ever inaugurates a “cult guilty pleasures that were also lapped up by the lowest common denominator” category, I’ll happily throw this in with its chums, “MacGruber” and “Hot Rod.” Taking a similar caustic approach to the ’70s as “The Brady Bunch Movie,” but with far better results, director Todd Phillips essentially ignored the Soul and Glaser source material to give comedic free reign to his loaded cast, which included a number of holdovers from his “Old School” success. The Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson schtick was still fresh in this earlier pairing and Snoop Dogg is brilliant as smoothe-talking Huggy Bear. But what really stands out in this goofy adaptation is lascivious Big Earl played by Will Ferrell, a cameo as loutish and gratifying as Ashley Schaeffer on “East Bound and Down” and Chazz Reinhold in “Wedding Crashers.”
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999)
Before Trey Parker and Matt Stone tackled religion in “The Book of Mormon,” they were skewering cherubic Disney jingles and beloved Broadway tunes courtesy of Stan, Cartman, Kyle, and Kenny. “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” also became a savvy platform for Parker and Stone’s grievances with the American Motion Picture Association regarding matters of obsenity and the controversy that surrounded their show when it first launched on Comedy Central. The concerned parents of South Park literally hearken in the apocalypse over the debut of Terrance & Phillip’s lewd feature film. This reflection on hypocrisy and bigotry, paired with the success of their puppet comedy, “Team America: World Police,” cemented the Colorado duo as two of the best satirists since Mark Twain. Next
The Muppet Movie (1979)
The formula for the Muppets’ absurdist sketch-comedy hour was a natural fit for the big screen. Loaded with celebrity cameos such as Dom DeLuise, Milton Berle, Madeline Kahn, and Richard Pryor, “The Muppet Movie” is like an ’80s time capsule as enjoyable as slap bracelets and Mr. T cereal. With Jim Henson and Frank Oz firmly at the helm, we see the Muppets at their poignant, wise-cracking best. Avoiding later gimmicks like a pirate ship or deep space, the Muppets inhabit that particular comic world where talking frogs are pursued as restaurant spokesmen and bears are heckled from the stages of redneck saloons. “The Rainbow Connection” still stands as one of the most touching introductions to any film, a fact that wasn’t lost on Jason Segel who incorporated the Paul Williams tune it into his nostalgic 2011 reimagining, “The Muppets.” Next
The Untouchables (1987)
Since the disintegration of Prohibition, Eliot Ness and Al Capone have become mythological figures shrouded in reverance and pathos. So, it was fitting that the popular ’60s crime drama was shaped by Brian De Palma, who indulged in the coked-up excess of “Scarface,” and David Mamet, a playwright fixated on the seediness of middle America. Mamet can barely restrain himself, as the “The Untouchables” script is littered with memorable, grandiose soliloquies every bit as juicy as his “Put that coffee down!” speech in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” And who better to deliver Al Capone’s fiery repartee than Robert De Niro, unsullied by the stink of Fockers and Billy Crystal buddy comedies. Even milquetoast Kevin Costner is strangely endearing as Ness in what remains of the best gangster movies of all time. Next
Miami Vice (2006)
Eschewing the pastel campiness of the original Crockett and Tubbs, Michael Mann opted for a grittier reality; one with handlebar mustaches, the Technicolor blues of a Daft Punk video, and a skyline shrouded in the autumnal hues of a harvest moon. Like much of Mann’s work, the script is borderline humorless and Colin Ferrell’s gruffness comes far too close to the ridiculous timbre of Christian Bale’s Batman, but “Miami Vice” succeeds as a moody, druggy, undercover yarn. Only when held up to Mann’s prior work such as “Manhunter” and the crime tour de force, “Heat,” does this adaption feel slightly contrived and lifeless. This was one of the first movies to be shot digitally and the results are stunningly beautiful. As “Miami Vice” approaches its tenth anniversary, it has started to build a bit of a cult following. And if it weren’t for Nonpoint’s putrid rendition of “In the Air Tonight,” thrust in (I can only assume) for “Grand Theft Auto” fans, I’d say it was completely well deserved.
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