Studio executives like movies based on TV shows for the same reason they eagerly greenlight sequels, remakes and reboots: The concepts, stories and characters come presold.
“The Equalizer,” opening Friday, may not be as easy a sell as, say, “22 Jump Street,” which had the added benefit of being a sequel. The 1985 series that ran for four seasons is not as well-known or widely remembered. To recap: It starred Edward Woodward as a former Company (read “CIA”) man who dispenses justice when the system fails victimized citizens. The show’s most indelible moment was when Woodward slammed some “scum” against a wall to bring home the point that, “I do not forgive.”
The movie stars Denzel Washington, so that’s promising. But good casting can only take you so far (and miscasting will get you nowhere, as witness Tom Arnold in “McHale’s Navy” and Will Smith in “The Wild Wild West”). The most successful transitions from small screen to big have been lightning in a bottle collaborations between cast, director and screenwriter and, above all, a respect and affection for the source material. I still haven’t forgiven the original “Mission: Impossible” for making Jim Phelps a bad guy.
Which movies got it right? Here are a few:
The Fugitive: The gold standard. Andrew Davis film did in an efficient breakneck 130 min. what it took four seasons for the TV series to do: Get justice for falsely accused Richard Kimble. Harrison Ford was nominated for an Oscar and Tommy Lee Jones took one home as his relentless pursuer, U.S. Marshal Sam "I don't care" Gerard.
The Addams Family/Addams Family Values: A dream (or is that nightmare) cast wring every bit of goth mirth from screenwriter Paul Rudnick’s wickedly funny script. The sequel is even better than the original, if only for the addition of Joan Cusack as a black widow with designs on the lovelorn Uncle Fester. And Wednesday’s pained smile is a creepy joy to behold.
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!: From the creators of "Airplane!" came the short-lived TV series, “Police Squad!” which was a straight-faced spoof of “M Squad” and did for cop shows what “Airplane!” did for disaster movies. If there is a quibble with the “Naked Gun” franchise is that it turned Leslie Nielsen’s hard-boiled cop Frank Drebin into a clueless Maxwell Smart clone. Still, though, funny.
The Untouchables: It doesn’t get more A-list than Kevin Costner, an Oscar-winning Sean Connery, director Brian DePalma and screenwriter David Mamet. The train station shootout, the “Chicago Way” speech and Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone all stack up with the original TV series.
The Brady Bunch Movie/A Very Brady Sequel: Gary Cole, Shelley Long and company playing it absolutely straight as the quintessential 70s TV family emerge like a found time capsule into the 90s. There is a touch of madness in this story of a lovely lady and a man named Brady.
Star Trek: This 2009 reboot gives us what the previous 10 films starring the original cast never did: Tell the origin story of James T. Kirk and how he came to assume command of the Enterprise. The casting here, too, is inspired, particularly Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Simon Pegg’s Scotty.
These films are more hit and miss, but their game and appealing casts evoke fond memories of the originals: Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in “Starsky and Hutch,” Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway in “Get Smart,” and the cast of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Avoid at all costs: “The Avengers” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Bewitched,” “Land of the Lost,” “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “The Mod Squad,” “Scooby-Doo” (although Linda Cardellini is a great Velma and Matthew Lillard an uncanny Shaggy), “The Mod Squad,” “Car 54, Where are You?”
Your turn: What are your favorite movies based on TV shows?