The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)
Jessica Simpson. That, in two words, is why this cracking film never got the credit it deserved. I’d never heard of Jessica Simpson before I went to see it—in fact, I’d barely heard of the Dukes of Hazzard TV series—so it didn’t prejudice me in the slightest, or stop me from thoroughly enjoying it (and going to see it twice in the cinema). But when I mention it to anyone else, all I hear back is “Jessica Simpson.”
We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture. I know this because all the newspapers and TV programmes tell me so. But, even if they didn’t tell me, I could guess from the strange reaction people have to certain films—“I wouldn’t watch that because I hate Tom Cruise”. “Ugh, I can’t stand Keira Knightley”. They don’t hate their acting, mind you; they hate them. It baffles me, but there you go.
But if you can get over any weird to the actress who plays Daisy Duke, and if you haven’t decided from the title sequence that it just has to be a terrible movie because:
a) All the critics say so
b) You have happy childhood memories of the Dukes of Hazzard TV show and a remake is blasphemy
c) You’re convinced that a remake of an eighties TV show has to be terrible
…then you just might love this movie as much as I do.
I didn’t know anything about the film or the show, going into it. Here’s the set-up; Bo and Luke Duke are cousins closer than brothers, living on a farm in Georgia with their uncle Jesse and their curvaceous other cousin Daisy. The family distils and sells illegal moonshine, and the Hazzard County sherriff Boss Hogg is perpetually trying to catch them out. (In the TV series, the Dukes were reformed moonshiners.)
Despite this, Boss Hogg is the bad guy—always plotting and scheming misdeeds against the people of Hazzard—and Bo and Luke are the Robin Hoods of the piece. The film revolves around Boss Hogg’s plans to strip-mine Hazzard for coal, his seizure of the Dukes’s farm as part of this plan, and the Duke boys’ efforts to stop him.
All the reviewers slammed it. I can’t for the life of me see why. This is a witty, fast-paced, (mostly) warm-hearted, even poetic evocation of the Deep South in the twenty-first century. And it takes the modern-day myth of the Dukes of Hazzard (and let’s face it; the original series, though endearing, was pretty dull) and gives it a glow of the timeless. Yes, really. I think the Dukes of Hazzard inhabits the same comic never-never land as Bertie Wooster or Mutt and Jeff. Bo and Luke are never going to leave home, Uncle Jesse is never going to die, and Daisy is never going to retire her short shorts.
Enjoying this film so much inspired me to watch the original series on DVD. It’s certainly quaint, and it’s certainly endearingly innocent. I tried to like it, but the stories were dull as tapwater. Only the inspired comedy duo of Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, the eternal persecutors of the Duke boys, lifted it above utter tedium.
Oddly enough, those two villains have been utterly changed for the film, going from loevable buffoons to out-and-out creeps (Boss Hogg being played by Burt Reynolds). Still, it makes sense. The film, though still a comedy-adventure like the TV series, is a lot more realistic in tone—right down to the colourful language and lack of social niceties that we might expect from real hillbillies.
What I like most about the film is its evocation of Hazzard County as a reality—not a realistic reality, but a world of its own. The true test of a fictional world, whether it’s a galactic federation or a single house, is that we feel it existed before we looked at it and will go on existing when the story ends. Watching this film, I believe that Hazzard County is out there, somewhere, even if I can’t find it on a map.
Why do I think this pleasing illusion, which is surely the goal of most films, is achieved so notably in The Dukes of Hazzard?
Part of it, I think, is that the film expects a certain amount of prior knowledge. Even if you had never heard of the TV series you’d realise, from the way the characters were introduced—almost with a flourish—that they are not making their debut. As well as this, the dialogue gives us glimpses of a functioning past. “This is worse than the time you sunk it in the Tipton Swamp”, says Hazzard County’s best mechanic, Cooter Davenport, examining the vandalised General Lee. (The General Lee is the Dukes’s car, and here again the film leaves us in no doubt that the vehicle is—and there’s no other word to use but this much-bandied one—iconic. When Cooter repairs the car, and Bo Duke enthusiastically honks its new “Dixie horn”, and the boys admire its newly-painted Confederate flag on the roof, we realise we are present at a creation myth.)
The film boasts some effective and atmospheric scene-setting, too. The scene set in the Boar’s Nest, Boss Hogg’s is especially vivid. You can almost taste the grease on the air, and smell the beer fumes. Every bristle on the unshaven hillbillies’
chins is true-to-life. And it serves as the venue for the best film bar-fight I’ve ever seen.
(I love the idea of bar-fights, but apparently the reality is rather less romantic. There is another marvellous set-piece, later—the best movie car-chase I’ve ever seen.(And really, how could the Dukes of Hazzard fail to feature a classy car-chase?) It uses AC/DC’s song “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It” to sublime effect, and as with all good action scenes, its appeal lies in the fact that the dialogue and story don’t wait for it to
finish, but continue right through it.
All this is served with some surprisingly witty dialogue—when the NASCAR driver Billy Prickett (a wonderful comic creation, drenched in bufoonish charisma) is asked what charity he’s driving for, he replies, “Anal bifida…spinal bifida…it’s one of the bifidas”. In one particularly inspired scene where the Dukes are posing as Japanese executives, Bo answers the reasonable question, “Are you guys really Japanese?”, with the magnificent line, “We converted”.
All this, and Roger Ebert still named it as the second worst film of 2005. The film received seven “Razzies”, the booby Oscars awarded each year to (supposedly) terrible films.
The lesson? Don’t bother reading film reviews (except mine, of course). Just slip this into your DVD drive and prepare for a rip-roaring ride. Yee-haaaawww!!!