Film Review: Dukes of Hazzard

Mary Katharine Ham

8/17/2005 9:10:02 PM - Mary Katharine Ham

I was prepared to really hate this movie. But I didn’t.

I was ready to leave the theater with a big, cornbread-flavored chip on my shoulder, huffing about unfair representations of white Southerners. Instead, I left a little homesick.

I was prepared to be saddened by what I was sure would be a blight on the good name of the Dukes of Hazzard County. Instead, I found myself once again marveling at the Hemi-charged flight of the General Lee.

Perhaps it’s because my expectations were so low that I was able to enjoy this movie, but I think it was more than that. It was the General Lee.

In recreating a beloved TV classic, director Jay Chandrasekhar and writer John O’Brien undoubtedly knew they weren’t ever going to please everyone with casting. Let’s be serious—there has never and will never be another Tom Wopat. But they did what they could. Burt Reynolds as Boss Hogg and Willie Nelson as Uncle Jesse are hard to take issue with. Jessica Simpson was sizzling as Daisy Duke without being overly sleazy. And, then there were the Duke boys— I never did quite buy Johnny Knoxville and Seann Michael Scott as Luke and Bo, but they were all secondary. You know why?

Because this movie got one thing perfectly, beautifully, roaringly right. The General Lee.

The rumbling, orange, ’69 Dodge Charger was in top form, and the director was smart enough to let the General steal almost every scene he was in. The writers even found a way to get the car’s Confederate-flag paint job past the political correctors. For not sacrificing the Stars and Bars on the altar of tolerance, the writers were rewarded with one of the funniest scenes in the movie—the Duke boys caught in stand-still, Atlanta traffic while, unbeknownst to them, the flag of the Confederacy flies on their roof. The gag did exactly what this movie was supposed to do. It brought Bo and Luke into the 21st century without sacrificing their Southernness, and it did it in a surprisingly clever way.

Of course, Southernness requires an accent—one that Hollywood has a special way of butchering. But Scott and Knoxville’s attempts were respectable. Keanu Reeves, Demi Moore, and other more respected professional pretenders should be ashamed that they were shown up by the dialectic abilities of Stifler and Jackass. They weren’t perfect, but they weren’t grating or British-sounding. Oddly, native Minnesotan Scott pulled it off with more success than Tennessean Knoxville and Texan Jessica Simpson, who tried just a little too hard.

Simpson, though entirely too blonde for the part in this brunette’s view, did more justice to Catherine Bach than I had bet on. The script makes Simpson a bit more savvy than her real-life persona, which is good considering the real Jessica would be great at seducing the bad guys, but not so great at deducing their plans. The original Daisy, of course, was both a seducer and a deducer, which is what made her so effective.

Ben Jones, the actor who played Cooter in the original series, has denounced the movie as showing “an arrogant disrespect for our show, for our cast, for America's families, and for the sensibilities of the heartland of our country,” so I expected to be much more offended than I was.

There is sex, but it’s mostly confined to sexual references and nothing too graphic. Willie Nelson is mostly relegated to the unseen end of the CB, and the requisite pot jokes are limited to one, if I remember correctly.

Jones seems to forget that the original show routinely featured Daisy prancing around in a bikini or suspiciously bikini-shaped shorts and tops. If memory serves me, it also featured the Duke boys shirtless on occasion, strutting around in jeans so tight they rivaled Daisy’s. The movie simply imparts to the Dukes themselves the libido their viewers have been indulging all these years.

Knoxville’s Luke is a bit of a cad. His opening scene involves a delivery of moonshine to a local farmer’s shapely daughter, which is a little much, especially right at the beginning of the film. But libertine Luke is leveled out by a Bo that is true to the original hero’s innocence, if a little dim. Scott’s Bo faints at the touch of a woman and is rendered monosyllabic by a high-school crush.

The plot is pure Dukes—predictable, formulaic, and full of slots for car chases. Boss Hogg engages in a little creative eminent domain (must have been before the Kelo decision came down) on Hazzard County farms by planting contraband on the properties so he can confiscate them. In the Dukes’ case, he plants a moonshine still. His discovery is technically “fake but accurate” since the Dukes are moonshiners, but the Dukes apparently don’t subscribe to the Dan Rather standard of evidence, and they decide to foil his plans.

Foiling the plans of course requires racing in the county auto rally against a Jeff Gordon-esque rival in cahoots with Hogg, traveling to Atlanta for a bit of research and big-city hijinks, and gathering the whole gang at the courthouse to oppose Hogg’s plans to strip-mine the county. And, all of it is done to the tune of an inspired soundtrack and the narration of The Balladeer.

The movie is fast-paced and often funny. The General Lee is fast-paced and often airborne. The engine will give you chills when you hear it for the first time in THX. If you’re a hardcore Duke purist, you might not want to be along for the ride. If you’ve got small kids, I’d suggest a test drive before you let them see it. But if you’re just a plain old fan of the Good Ol’ Boys, it’s worth the price of a matinee admission just to see the General fly again.