Total Recall

Total Recall: Action-Packed TV Show Adaptations

With 21 Jump Street hitting theaters, we run down some memorable boob-tube action-fests that made the leap to the big screen.

by | March 15, 2012 | Comments

TV Action Movies

When Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum take to the screen with 21 Jump Street this weekend, it will mark the first time a television series that once starred Richard Grieco has ever been turned into a movie. But that doesn’t mean this adaptation is wholly without precedent — from cops to spies to bootleggers and everything in between, action series like 21 Jump Street have been crossing over to the big screen for decades, and this week, we’re holstering our weapons, revving our tricked-out custom wheels, and striking a series of “spontaneous” poses during the opening credits before we count down some noteworthy examples of TV action heroes who got their own movies. It’s time for Total Recall!

The A-Team


After more than a decade in development, the big-screen version of Stephen J. Cannell’s masterpiece of 1980s action cheese finally gunned its way into theaters, complete with an excellent cast that included Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, and Sharlto Copley. With all that time and talent — not to mention Smokin’ Joe Carnahan, one of Hollywood’s most action-friendly directors, at the helm — how could the 2010 edition of The A-Team go wrong? In a lot of ways, as it turned out; according to most critics, the movie was too loud, too hectic, and too poorly written to serve as a proper homage to the long-running NBC hit. But the reviews weren’t all bad: Nick Curtis of the London Evening Standard was one of the critics who enjoyed it, saying, “Joe Carnahan’s movie is loud and vulgar and disorienting, but also an exhilarating kind of fun.”

Charlie’s Angels


Nearly 20 years after the franchise jiggled its way off TV, Drew Barrymore — attached as producer and star — brought Charlie’s Angels to a whole new generation with her big-budget, impeccably cast version of the series that launched a million bedroom posters. With McG behind the cameras, and Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu kicking bad guy butt alongside Barrymore, the new-look Angels racked up nearly $265 million in worldwide grosses and spawned a sequel, 2003’s less enthusiastically received Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. According to Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter, “The good-natured humor of its three stars, who appear to be having a gas playing these ridiculous figures, goes a long way in overcoming the bad jokes and even worse plot twists.”



For decades, Jack Webb’s Dragnet was an institution, enjoying a long radio run before moving onto the television airwaves during the 1950s and 1960s — and, in the process, becoming one of the most influential dramas in history. Webb created the show, produced it, frequently directed, and starred as the iconic Sergeant Joe Friday; he also directed the first big-screen Dragnet, released in 1956. It was not a critical smash — the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther sniffed, “Just what it is this one crime thriller has that has caused it to be the darling of television chair-sleuths comes through but faintly on the wide screen” — but it retained a lot more of the show’s spirit than the 1987 version, which took a comedic approach and starred TV Dragnet vet Harry Morgan opposite Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks. Of the latter, Mark R. Leeper scoffed, “One wonders how someone can do so many parodies as Aykroyd has and still not have the slightest idea of how to do a parody.”

The Dukes of Hazzard


A thinly disguised spinoff of the 1975 film Moonrunners, the hit CBS series The Dukes of Hazzard was never regarded as, shall we say, particularly intelligent entertainment. It was harmlessly cheesy fun, the rootin’ tootin’ adventures of some good ol’ boys who never meant no harm and were just makin’ their way the only way they knew how — which was, unfortunately just a little bit more than the law would allow. In other words, it should have been relatively easy to make an entertaining Dukes movie in 2005, especially with an eclectic cast that included Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville, Burt Reynolds, and an exuberantly short-shorted Jessica Simpson. Alas, although it broke $100 million at the box office, the Dukes movie was lambasted by critics like Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post, who lamented it as “So loud, so long, so dumb.”

The Fugitive


The Fugitive lasted only four seasons during its TV run, but they cast a long, influential shadow — and they provided a strong platform for screenwriters Jeb Stuart and David Twohy when Warner Bros. decided to bring the show to the big screen. Starring Harrison Ford as Richard Kimble, the doctor forced to go on the run to prove his innocence in the murder of his wife, and Tommy Lee Jones as the U.S. Marshal determined to track him down, 1993’s The Fugitive was a huge critical and commercial hit, racking up nearly $370 million at the box office and enjoying raves from critics like TIME’s Richard Schickel, who deemed it “A first-rate thriller.” Less successful was 1998’s spinoff picture U.S. Marshals, which found Jones returning to the role to far less captivating effect. Cautioned Noel Murray for the Nashville Scene, “A team of federal cops catching crooks is the stuff of weekly TV shows, not motion-picture spectaculars.”

I Spy


It broke new racial ground, but in terms of its concept, I Spy was pretty standard stuff — the secret agent adventures of an undercover tennis player (Robert Culp) and his trainer (Bill Cosby) as they traipsed around the world stopping bad guys. The secret of its Emmy-winning success was the abundant chemistry between Culp and Cosby — not to mention the sharp writing. All of the above was lost in translation when the show made its way to theaters in 2002, despite a small army of screenwriters and the star power of Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy. The problem, according to Ed Park of the Village Voice: “Though ample time is spent mingling Murphy’s jabberjaw locutions and Wilson’s curveball spaciness, the film leaves only the bitter reek of a botched chemistry experiment.”

Miami Vice


Unlike most of the movies on this list, the 2006 edition of Miami Vice boasted the involvement of its television counterpart’s creator: Michael Mann, who directed the big-screen adaptation and should have given it a leisure-suited leg up on the competition — in theory, anyway. In practice, Mann’s Miami Vice movie missed the mark, despite his typically absorbing visual style and a top-shelf cast that included Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx subbing in for Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. “The film, like its oddly rumbling sky, promises more than it ever delivers,” sighed Lisa Kennedy of the Denver Post. “Granted, it can look cool. But more often, as we wait for the lightning that never arrives, it frustrates.”

Mission: Impossible


Suave secret agents, dangerous missions in exotic locales, impossible cool spy gadgets — it’s no wonder Mission: Impossible has captivated the imagination for so long, first as a seven-season hit on CBS during the 1960s and 1970s, then again during a short-lived reboot in 1988-1990, and finally as the blockbuster franchise that has seen Tom Cruise repeatedly saving the world under the aegis of some of Hollywood’s most talented directors. (As of this writing, the series helmers include Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and Brad Bird — and over $2 billion in worldwide grosses.) And even after four installments, the franchise is still going strong: 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol enjoyed the best reviews of all, ending up with 93 percent on the Tomatometer and breathless praise from critics like Tom Long of the Detroit News, who called it “top-notch popcorn entertainment, chock-full of dazzling stunts and heroic moments, played out at a near-hysterical pitch.”

The Mod Squad


During its 1968-73 run on ABC, The Mod Squad was not only a moderate hit, it could be argued that the show was actually important: with its hippies-solving-crimes formula and a focus on multicultural storylines, it helped make the counterculture safe for mainstream American audiences. But it was also very much a product of its time (example: the cringeworthy promo tagline “One White, One Black, One Blonde”), and when MGM decided to give the Squad a new look with 1999’s Scott Silver-directed movie, the results were disastrous. Despite an attractive cast led by Claire Danes, Giovanni Ribisi, and Omar Epps, the updated Mod Squad petered out at 4 percent on the Tomatometer, thanks to what the Palo Alto Weekly’s Jim Shelby called “a pristine example of incoherent storyline mixed with poor editing and limp writing.”

The Saint


On TV, The Saint was an enormous UK hit that wowed audiences across the globe while proving that Roger Moore was more than capable of dashing derring-do. But nearly 30 years later, when the series arrived in theaters with Val Kilmer playing the titular globe-trotting detective, the magic had worn off; the 1997 Saint, directed by Phillip Noyce, broke $100 million in global box office receipts, but failed to break even with its domestic gross — and it was dismissed by critics like Salon’s Charles Taylor, who called it “A soulless piece of claptrap.”

Starsky and Hutch


During the mid-to-late 1970s, David Starsky and Kenneth “Hutch” Hutchinson were two of the coolest cops on TV — heck, even their informant, Huggy Bear, almost ended up getting his own spinoff series, and “Hutch,” a.k.a. David Soul, managed to score a number one pop single with “Don’t Give Up on Us” during the second year of the series’ four-season run. By 2004, when Todd Phillips directed the Starsky & Hutch movie, it all looked a little silly; hence, an adaptation that turned a hit cop thriller into a Frat Pack comedy. Still, even if the big-screen Starsky forsook its TV roots, critics found it hard to argue with the results; as Mark Halverson of the Sacramento News & Review put it, “The film is as clever as it is silly, more warmhearted than sentimental and just as irreverent as it is nostalgic.”



It ran for only two seasons and 37 episodes, but who needs a long-running series when you have characters with names as awesome as Hondo and Deacon? Not S.W.A.T., the ’70s action thriller that was reborn in 2003 as a would-be big-screen franchise starring Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, LL Cool J, and Jeremy Renner. Despite packing enough heat to earn over $200 million at the box office, it never spawned a sequel (unless you count the direct-to-video S.W.A.T.: Firefight, released eight years later), but it did win the admiration of critics like Peter Rainer of New York Magazine, who begrudgingly admitted, “There is something sneakily gratifying about all this.”

The Untouchables


The story of Eliot Ness’ crusade to bring Al Capone to justice has proven remarkably fertile ground for Hollywood, spinning off two TV series (1959-63 and 1993-94) as well as Brian De Palma’s Oscar-winning 1987 film. It’s easy to see why — everyone loves to see a real good guy bring a bad guy down, and knowing it was inspired by one of the most high-profile criminal cases in United States history only adds to the high-stakes drama — but it’s still worth noting that the 1987 Untouchables is one of the most solidly acted and slickly directed crime movies of the late 1980s. “The end result can easily pass as mindless mainstream entertainment, but make no mistake,” cautioned Jeremy Heilman of Movie Martyr. “The Untouchables is one of De Palma’s most trenchant statements about the state of America.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for 21 Jump Street.

Finally, here’s the trailer for a big-time flop adapted from an action-packed TV show — The Avengers: