Owing to the exponentially rising costs in feature filmmaking over the past 25 years, Hollywood, never noted for its bravery, has developed a penchant for being extremely risk-averse.
The anxiety that courses through the veins of studio executives when faced with the prospect of ponying up $100, $200, or even $300 million dollars to produce a single feature film these days is extreme. One big bomb can most certainly end even the most storied Hollywood career.
Because of this, those with greenlighting power have sought ways to reduce the odds of failure as much as possible.
One way in which they have achieved this is to forego taking chances with new, innovative material, and instead rely on proven stalwarts from the past. Instead of going with an original idea, they feel much more comfortable putting out Fast and the Furious Part 19 or yet another Batman, Spiderman, or Superman reboot, as those properties have made boatloads of money in the past.
And while time has proven their strategy to be right in terms of box office proceeds, more often than not, it has also led to a dispiriting number of lifeless, hackneyed films, in which the storytelling is unoriginal and mediocre at best.
Every once in a while, though, Hollywood takes an old property and successfully puts a new spin on it, such that it pleases even this curmudgeon. One such example was the 2004 remake of Starsky & Hutch.
It was a minor stroke of genius to take a dark, sardonic television show from the 1970s and revamp it into a retro comedy spoof featuring three of the funniest actors in Hollywood. What’s more, the true star of the original show was retained: that iconic, red Ford Gran Torino.
For this month’s edition of Rob’s Movie Muscle, I thought it would be fun to have a look at Starsky’s car, and in the process celebrate one of the few times Hollywood got it right on a remake. So let’s dig in!
Starsky & Hutch was a production of Dimension Films and Warner Brothers, in association with AR-TL, Weed Road Pictures, Red Hour Films, and Riche-Ludwig Productions. It was distributed in the United States by Warner Brothers.
The movie was helmed by Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Old School, The Hangover) based on a screenplay by Phillips, John O’Brien, and Scot Armstrong.
The film featured an all-star cast consisting of Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Vince Vaughn, backed by co-stars Snoop Dogg, Fred Williamson, Juliette Lewis, Jason Bateman, Carmen Electra, Chris Penn, Molly Sims, Patton Oswalt, and Amy Smart. Cameos included those by Judah Friedlander, Will Ferrell, and the original Starsky and Hutch, Paul Michael Glaser, and David Soul.
In keeping with the original television show that aired from 1975 to ’79 on ABC, Starsky & Hutch follows the exploits of police detectives Dave Starsky (Stiller) and Ken ‘Hutch” Hutchinson (Wilson) as they prowl the crime-ridden 1970s streets of fictional Bay City, California. They are aided in their efforts by an omniscient street informant, Huggy Bear (Dogg).
While the plot of the film is original, as are most of the ancillary characters, many of the TV show’s elements are faithfully retained and spoofed. Thankfully, Starsky’s beloved, souped-up Gran Torino is one of them.
The Ford Gran Torino was an unusual choice of hero car. The television show’s creator, William Blinn, originally wanted to use a more traditional muscle car in the form of a green and white Chevy Camaro convertible, a car he had personally owned in the past. That didn’t come to pass, largely because Spelling-Goldberg productions, which was producing the show, had an existing deal with Ford to supply them with cars for their shows.
After reviewing the vehicles available for production lease, Blinn and the other producers settled on the 1975 Gran Torino equipped with a 351 Windsor V8. Though nominally powered for the day, the Gran Torino was not typically associated with muscle in the minds of most performance car aficionados who preferred Mustangs, Challengers, and Camaros.
Multiple cars were used over the series’ production (some equipped with the higher output 400 and 460 V8s and numerically higher gear ratios for stunt work), owing to the considerable wear and tear the cars incurred. All were fitted with Ansen Sprint 5-slot mag wheels and air shocks, and were custom painted with the iconic, white vector stripe over the factory 2B Bright Red paint by the show’s transportation wrangler.
When producer Aaron Spelling first introduced actor Glaser to his new show ride, the latter instantly took a dislike to the car, exclaiming “that thing looks like a striped tomato!” Glaser allegedly felt the brightly-hued car looked childish, and the idea that two undercover cops would roll in such a recognizable and outlandish vehicle was insipid. Soul apparently hated the car because the vinyl seat upholstery made him slide around during scenes of high-speed pursuit.
Nonetheless, the car and its aesthetics were kept and became the most memorable thing about the show. So much so, in fact, that in 1976, the final year of the Gran Torino’s production, Ford offered a limited edition, PS 122 option Starsky & Hutch replica Gran Torino to the public. 1305 of the car-buying public became takers.
Although the 2004 film remake was a spoof of the television show, Director Phillips felt that the movie should stay true to the original in some respects so as not to alienate die-hard fans.
As a result, Starsky and Hutch’s wardrobe was replicated, their firearms were identical to those that Glaser and Soul carried, and of course, great care was taken as to the Gran Torino.
Two hero cars were prepped by Mike Walsh’s Premier Studio Rentals, while the seven stunt cars were the charge of Cinema Vehicle Services. One hero car was built up from a 1974 Gran Torino, while the other was an actual 1976 PS 122 Starsky & Hutch replica. Both cars were equipped with the original 351 Windsors.
Careful attention was paid to make the hero cars identical inside and out to the television show’s vehicle, so on the exterior, body-colored mirrors were affixed, Ansen wheels were mounted, and of course, the vector stripe was painted on the ’74 car.
Inside, a knurled, black steering wheel cover was added, the period-correct Motorola police radio was mounted to the bottom of the dash, and the familiar, magnetic red police light which Hutch would place on the car’s roof when in pursuit, rested on a bracket attached to the transmission tunnel.
The stunt cars were beefed up as is common in the industry these days. Frame reinforcements and suspension upgrades were installed to add durability and improve the Gran Torino’s non-legendary handling. Modern BF Goodrich rubber was fitted to aid road holding. The stock engines were replaced with 360 cubic-inch Windsor V8s tuned to produce roughly 435 horsepower which made onscreen burnouts and pursuits easier to accomplish. Dual Flowmaster exhausts were installed to afford a deep, bassy roar.
All of these mods yielded some terrific on-screen automotive action. Two scenes, in particular, stand out: a chase sequence on a golf course where the Grand Torino performs some pretty intense jumps over sand traps, roughs, and hazards, and the finale, in which the car is launched off a ramp and jumped over a steaming yacht. Of note is the fact that these and other stunts were practically achieved, as opposed to relying on CGI.
The car is also the source of quite a bit of humor in the film, especially in a sequence where a sniper is trying to kill Starsky and Hutch, yet Starsky is more concerned with the damage being inflicted on his ride than being shot himself.
Largely because of its outrageous appearance and the thrilling stunt sequences it participated in, the Ford Gran Torino from the television series and film has managed to enter the rarified pantheon of iconic movie vehicles that includes such cars as James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, Frank Bullitt’s ’68 Mustang, and John Millner’s five-window ’32 Ford hot rod. In fact, people who have never seen Starsky & Hutch in either of its formats recognize the car without trouble.
That’s quite a legacy for a fairly run-of -the-mill ‘70s car…