Cracklin' Bacon, Maple Syrup, and Powdered Sugar: "Super Troopers 2"
Broken Lizard’s original Super Troopers is one of the finest American “hang out” movies. While opening to mixed-to-bad reviews, it had already generated a following at the previous year’s Sundance, its impeccable relaxed candor making it an irresistible late-night companion when accompanied by a night of sundry substances, disappointed flirtations, and cheap grocery-bought pizza. While it begins like any other stoner comedy—following three college kids smoking up and doing shrooms on a road trip from Vermont to Canada—its smug drug humor isn’t related to its pull (if anything, it’s the one annoyance), but the relaxed effects of reefer in its construction seems to be a catalyst for its enduring legacy. For while we only see the eponymous, mostly-mustached officers toking up in a couple scenes (their mission becomes stopping a local marijuana ring), they’re played by the Broken Lizard comedy team (Jay Chandrasekhar, Steve Lemme, Kevin Heffernan, Erik Stolhanske, Paul Soter), who doubtless inhaled while riffing and writing the film. As such, Super Troopers is tirelessly playful and amused with…everything, despite a veneer of occupational boredom. For a goofball comedy, it’s probably ten minutes too long, and yet it’s that loosey-goosiness that gives it the charm making it so amenable to constant late-night-pizza revisits. Even its original release—in the winter of 2002—had a ne’er-do-well’s dexterity. It was apparently finished well over a year before. However “antsy-in-its-pantsy” Super Troopers is, it was destined to take it easy for the whole ride.
Super Troopers was independently financed and good enough to get the bigwigs of 20th Century Fox behind it. 16 years later—the time span between the second and third Godfathers, or Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace, to get a clear picture of the context—we have the welcome return of the misfit patrolmen in Super Troopers 2, a refreshingly old-school title befitting a group who wanted to emulate Burt Reynolds movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The sequel seems overdue: Super Troopers’ improvisational and lackadaisical sensibility predates the Judd Apatow slacker/stoner/masturbatory comedy apparatus that became fashionable in the ‘00s (Chandrasekhar, Broken Lizard’s director, would even go on to direct episodes of Apatow’s Undeclared). However successful Super Troopers has been since its release, particularly on DVD and Comedy Central television, Fox Searchlight wasn’t hustling to throw money onboard for a follow-up. Broken Lizard hadn’t had much success in the interim. In 2015, they went Indie GoGo and surprised everyone by making their goal in days.
The endeavor was quite a story, as excitement for the sequel’s reality was jacked up by hilarious segments the group put together to complement the campaign, mostly involving the obtuse and garrulous officer who ends up being the butt of the gang’s jokes, Farva (Heffernan), trapped in a patrol car trunk until the goal was met (even after it was met, the others thought it would be fun to keep him locked up longer). Chandrasekhar reassumed his director’s chair, as familiar faces like Lynda Carter (as the Vermont governor) and Brian Cox (as the team’s boss, Captain O'Hagen) signed on, in addition to newbies Rob Lowe and Emmanuelle Chriqui. Meanwhile, three years passed before Super Troopers 2 would get off its couch and into theaters and, at least according to this weekend’s estimates, over performed. Bully for everyone!
From its opening, the new Super Troopers acknowledges the curious passage of its legacy through time, as two fresh-faced patrolmen (Damon Wayans Jr., Seann William Scott) pull over a Winnebago housing the band “Cracklin’ Bacon” (one of the better band-name jokes I can remember), who turn out to be the original five troopers, having happily adapted to the joys of celebrity, much like one would imagine happened to the Broken Lizard team following the original film’s success. The vehicle is awash with marijuana smoke, scantily clad women, and '70s-fashioned rock, a pastiche of what the 2002 film was something itself already a pastiche on.
But the wish-fulfillment fantasy--where even death is fun (after a car accident, we see a corpse with a haughty smile)--is a dream. The old Troopers are now scattered about, either working construction or chopping wood (keeping continuity with the original film’s ending: the highway patrol was shut down, but after the local cops were found to be linked with a murderous drug smuggling ring, their jobs were taken by our heroes, whose pranks moved from pulling over stoned drivers to crashing college keggers. Anyway, we find out they were fired some time back for a grievous accident involving Fred Savage; and so…they build houses and chop wood. Moving on!). If time has been kinder to Broken Lizard than the characters they portrayed, it’s less than Super Troopers would have augured. Modeled as a stoned, fratty, American Monty Python, the troupe’s talents as performers—in even the basic assurance of actory gesture—should have at least produced a prodigious resume of small character roles. But with some marvelous exceptions (Heffernan as a TiVo guy in Curb Your Enthusiasm comes to mind), there’s not much outside of the Broken Lizard catalogue of Club Dredd, Beerfest, and the straight-to-DVD Slammin’ Salmon. Chandrasekhar, arguably the most talented of the five, found some success as a journeyman director. There was the feature stint of The Dukes of Hazzard (a modest hit), but he thrived in some of the better regarded television comedies of the last ten years, such as Arrested Development, Community, and Psyche. Fittingly, his character Thorny has wound up somewhat apart from the rest of the group (having bade farewell to his mustache, he's the one in solitude chopping wood).
The set-up finds the United States claiming a block of land in Canada, which means there's a fresh precinct for Vermont state troopers. The gang thusly have a new employment opportunity and gets back together, but must acclimate to the born-and-bred Canucks who now find themselves "occupied." The displaced mounties (Tyler Labine, Will Sasso, Hayes MacArthur) become the antagonists, tacitly backed by Mayor Guy LeBlanc (Lowe), a former hockey player who loves to play up Canada's laxness regarding cultural mores of drugs and sex when compared to the new policing occupiers. The action plays out as the most benign of colonial narratives with residents resentful of their American occupiers, all of whom, with the exception of Farva, perhaps willing to be deferential to Northern freedoms and hospitalities. But like most historical occupiers, recalcitrance leads them to draw hard-stance strictures. Conflict, and hilarity, is set to ensue.
And for a goodly portion of the film, things are pretty funny. The troopers fend off a hungry bear, assume mountie personae with French accents, and "test" assorted drugs to find out what local substance problems they may be dealing with (particularly amusing, just as some viewers may find grossly offensive, is Thorny's newfound addiction to estrogen; also I am 12). Elsewhere there are callbacks to the original, such as a replay of the "meow" gag (wherein the officers insert "meow" for "now" when conversing with a befuddled Jim Gaffigan, here returning), or Farva finding unexpected affection for Canadian culture upon discovering common usage of "liter a'cola" in local restaurants.
The nostalgia, however, plays like filler fan service, which may be one of the perils of Indie GoGo funding, where one is less at the mercy of a studio than of the hungry audience. Indeed, something feels a little worn in crowded scenes, such as rowdy city hall meetings and stuffy bars, where the background isn't necessarily filled with extras, but apparently hundreds of Indie GoGo funders (whose contributive perk was to be an on-screen extra), something with effects perhaps reaching into the editing room as the grateful team is careful to include every face in the final cut.
The story is another problem, because it's grounded on a one-note joke that grows increasingly strident: the Canadian "otherness" stressed by the accents, is good fun (and even a welcome political commentary, as the mounties, however ostensibly dopey, are wise to the value of universal healthcare, gun control, and science education) that threatens to be as annoying as Farva's insistence to Thorny in the first film that they become "Car RamRod." Lowe is a solid celebrity face in a low-budget movie, but he and his mountie cohorts have a yuk quotient that pales in comparison to the original film's adversarial corrupt police officers led by the late character actor Daniel von Bargen: a group of dirtbag assholes, sure, but who never devolved into the perspiring cartoonishness of the sequel's antagonists. When von Bargen's Chief Grady apologizes for dousing Farva with lye--which portly Farva instantly recognizes as "delicious" powdered sugar--his accommodating and personable guile strengthens the roving framework of the whole comedy, all the more so when he doesn't skip a beat in explaining to Farva, wise to the sugar, that "the lice hate the sugar." Super Troopers 2 has no such grounding in its reality, which is too broad to become enveloped and relaxed within (to be fair, a joke among the mounties involving the screen credits of Danny DeVito is very good stuff). Thorny's estrogen habit is a reliable joke, but is strenuous. On the other hand, the first film's maple syrup chugging--while hardly advisable, and possibly quite dangerous--works because it's realized by Chandrasekhar and his players so naturally.
The same may be said about the love interest, as the first film's natural push-and-pull courtship between Foster (Soter) and Officer Ursula Hanson (Marisa Coughlan, making a welcome appearance in the sequel) is replaced by woman's sultry otherness with Chriqui as a cultural attache who seduces the (!!still!!) innocent Rabbit (Stolhanske). Even replacing the fake bear that Rabbit is "fucking" in Super Troopers with a real bear in Super Troopers 2, lured by the mounties to cause havoc at the new station, is indicative of a problem where the broad slapstick--however efficacious--supplants the original's easy going role-playing (if this makes sense: there is no bear, but Rabbit is "playing" the "bearfucker," which invades the otherwise boring fictional reality). Super Troopers was set in a bored world and characters created roles out of that boredom.
However more seasoned Chandrasekhar is as a director, Super Troopers is formally more atrophied. It's an encapsulated film that flows too smoothly, its music cues and coverage shots too thorough and staid, its rhythms too deliberate and sapped of the fresh anarchy that felt undifferentiated from its characters (one wonders if not having Kevin Heffernan in the editing chair may have something to do with this; Super Troopers 2 feels burdened by professionalism's correctness). In the original, Foster and Mac (Steve Lemme) plot to go undercover as truck drivers, the Thirty-Eight Special guitars cranking up as they are suddenly wearing wife beaters, flannel, and ball caps; they can't get the semi started and the music dies--then starts again, but the two players having switched seats. Again, the truck doesn't start, and they give up.
The candid "what-the-fuckness" of everything, in scenes such as that, or when a pair of arrested German swingers are suddenly prepping for "mustache rides" at Thorny's home when they should be in jail, or Farva pumping gas he doesn't need into a trash can just so he can get a free hot dog, is what places Super Troopers apart from other gag movies. The back-and-forth banter during an equipment test has Mac, wearing the equipment in question over his genitals, inquiring about one stray bullet from Thorny's gun on an otherwise perfect gun test. "What about that little guy?" Mac asks about the bullet hole so far astray from the others close to the bullseye. "That little guy?" Thorny says. "I wouldn't worry about that little guy." Chandrasekhar's expression and delivery are perfect; he's inhabiting a character within the character. Whereas Club Dredd (Ten Little Indians meets Club Paradise) and Beerfest (Rocky III and IV for alcoholics), however both delightful, leaned more on plot, Super Troopers is about characters. And while it's great to be back with these five guys, in Super Troopers 2 the conceits threaten to take over; the relaxed nature of what made the first film so endearing (a kind of tao quality: for example, Broken Lizard understands some things are funny because they just are. Farts, for example!) is suddenly under a lot of strain. The stakes of the first film--essentially losing a job where you can afford to fuck around, but you can probably get hooked up with a new occupation in no time, with the inconvenience of relocating--are upped in the sequel to a character getting his nads sawed off. Don't get me wrong--that's pretty good, and it all winds up being pretty funny, but still it's as if we can feel the whole movie sweating. Even the film's Fred Savage coup de grace--which is uproarious--feels like a desperate maneuver, having been stolen from the one laugh-out-loud moment in the mostly-ignored Slammin' Salmon (in that case involving Will Forte).
Of course, this sequel discrepancy may be "the point." Super Troopers was concocted in what is now a seemingly impossible time of American innocence, at least when compared to what followed its production. It's weird to watch the Johnny Chimpo drug cartoon--"Afghanistanimation!"--and hear talk of the great American Satan against the Taliban Warlord, understanding how this was all written and shot in a pre-9/11 context, the film released about a year before the Iraq war, and the irreparable shitstorm after. Authority figures have been through a lot of reassessments in the meantime. When Super Troopers 2 was funded, the reality of a President Trump--which is just as well to say President Farva--was still pretty absurd. The post-Reagan American experience of privileged boredom (a "world-at-play" ignited by boredom recalls Robert Altman's MASH, but another of Super Troopers' most noteworthy antecedents, I believe, is Altman's less loved 1987 National Lampoon adaptation, O.C. and Stiggs, about two teens whose ruckus is like an invented reality upsetting the bourgeois banalities around them) is supplanted by an increasingly bizarre inversion of constant true-life spectacle and absurdity, where to be bored with the nightly news' framing of "reality" would frankly be a goddamned treat.
ANYWAY, whatever, I'll keep on watching Super Troopers and wind up seeing the sequel again. And you should too. Like bacon, Broken Lizard is probably bad for me, but I want more. So give them money.