Whenever Bo Duke (Seann William Scott) and Luke Duke (Johnny Knoxville), the rowdy, horny, and profoundly literal-minded good-ol’-boy cousins of The Dukes of Hazzard, get into a car chase, which happens to them about as often as most people pull up to a stoplight, you can be relatively certain of one thing: the General Lee, their orange hot rod with the Confederate flag painted on top, will careen down the road or (more likely) through the woods with such loosey-goosey, no-holds-barred abandon that it zooms ahead at a razory diagonal angle, perpetually in mid-swerve. The movie, likewise, guns forward at a sustained zigzag. It’s trash, all right, but perfectly skewed trash — a comedy that knows just how smart to be about just how dumb it is.
Bo and Luke, who sell jars of moonshine manufactured by their grizzled Uncle Jesse (Willie Nelson), want nothing more out of life than to fight, party, race cars, and chase curvalicious Dixie chicks. The two are loopy cornpone hedonists devoted to the American dream: the pursuit of happiness, white-trash yokel style. Somehow, though, the law has a way of always squashing their freedom, and fighting back is no simple trick. It takes lots of schemes and plans; it takes entire convoluted episodes.
When Luke, with his scuzzy scowl, and Bo, with his maniacal infantile gleam, attempt to break into the safe of Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds, a-twinkle with sin), the corrupt commissioner who is plotting to strip-mine Hazzard County, it’s a job as tricky as splitting the atom, albeit with somewhat more primitive means. The safe gets dragged by tow truck through the office window, then down the road, where it smashes a bunch of mailboxes, then down the road farther, with Luke pulled along on top of it. A few strategically placed explosives, along with a flaming arrow, finally do the trick, but what gives the sequence its nuthouse kick is that it’s staged with utter demented conviction, as the epitome of common sense. In Hazzard County, this is how you bust open a safe, dammit. By any idiotic means necessary.
When it premiered in 1979, The Dukes of Hazzard looked like the final chapter in the schlockification of TV. It drew on the corporate jiggle of Charlie’s Angels, the how-low-can-you-go cheesiness of Fantasy Island, but what gave Dukes its unique doltish appeal was the innocuous ease with which it co-opted the dregs of ’70s outlaw culture. Bo and Luke may have been Ken dolls in Stetsons, but the series, which drew on the New South kitsch of CB radios, Smokey and the Bandit, and the lame-duck aimlessness of the late Jimmy Carter era, had the brain-dead temerity to insist that these plastic hicks were true-blue ”rebels.” On TV, at least, this is what bad-boy insouciance had come to: beefcake ciphers with paste-on accents sticking it to the man between station breaks.
As a movie, The Dukes of Hazzard is more fun than it has any right to be, perhaps because it’s not a cynical hipster campfest. Unlike, say, the strenuously tongue-in-cheek buddy movie that was fashioned out of Starsky & Hutch, it doesn’t condescend to the original show. It hardly needs to: The condescension is built into the material, and so the director, Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers), out-hips the hipsters by playing it straight, italicizing the dopiness ever so slightly, letting the throwaway chicanery of The Dukes of Hazzard wink at itself. He makes the chintzy pleasures of one-dimensional storytelling seem like hog-wild innocence rather than an insult.
Then, too, Chandrasekhar kicks up the series’ sexy energy. The car chases are blissful celebrations of movement and flight, cued to the burnt-rubber scorch of ’70s Southern-rock chestnuts like the Allman Brothers Band’s ”One Way Out” and Molly Hatchet’s ”Flirtin’ With Disaster,” and Scott and Knoxville are a rudely charming pair of low-down freewheelers. When they sneak into a lab at a university in Atlanta, pretending to be Japanese science geeks, the film cuddles up to racism without quite crossing over into it. Bo and Luke are such ingenuous nitwit tricksters that they turn xenophobia into a half-cocked state of grace.
And then, of course, there’s Daisy Duke, their perversely wholesome sex-bomb cousin, who uses her willowy assets to ease them out of tight spots. On the show, Catherine Bach got famous for mainstreaming a disco fashion trend, but apart from those butt-cleaving cutoffs, she was a flavorless wedge of cheesecake. Jessica Simpson, with skin as tawny as melted caramel and a smile of joy to rival Julia Roberts’, turns Daisy into a vibrantly luscious comic tease. She’s Little Annie Fanny as the world’s most self-mocking Hooters waitress, and it will be no surprise if Simpson’s star keeps rising long after she has hung up her short shorts.