When a movie opens with three pot-smoking teenagers exchanging nonsensical lurid jokes while driving on a freeway, the impulse is to cry, “Not again!” and flee from the movie theater. But when a few minutes later, you see state trooper Thorny (director and actor Jay Chadrasekhar) coming up to their car looking like he just walked out of a 1970s B-movie, you realize that Super Troopers is not just another Hollywood attempt to dumb down the American audience, but instead, a rather witty and self-conscious film. While it does not pretend to be anything more than a largely plotless, gross-out comedy, it nevertheless has some appeal, as an indie tribute to American popular culture of the 1970s.
In the film, the five-member, real world Broken Lizard Comedy Group portray a band of highway patrolmen who play tricks on the citizens they are supposed to protect, smoke confiscated “reefer” (of course they use this retro term), and race each other around the roads they should be policing. The other troopers include the overweight, stupid, and pugnacious desk clerk Farva (Kevin Heffernan), who picks losing fights with schoolchildren and fast food servers; Mac (Steve Lemme), who orchestrates most of the group’s pranks; the Rookie (Erik Stolhanske), the usual butt of their jokes; and Foster (Paul Soter), in love with the cute, blond local police dispatcher Ursula (Marisa Coughlan), whom the guys constantly refer to as “Charlie’s Angel.” Their captain (Brian Cox) tries in vain to keep these boys in check, to demonstrate their “necessity” to local politicians and save the unit from being shut down due to budget cuts.
The super troopers, you see, are in competition with the local police, who will get the highway patrol’s share of the budget if the separate unit is closed. This rivalry comes to a head when a woman’s body is found in a Winnebago on the side of the road, and after a fight for possession of the body, the highway patrolmen are forced to relinquish the evidence and jurisdiction. The troopers, however, choose to continue their own covert investigation into the murder mystery.
In their investigation, the troopers come upon a truck full of “reefer,” the bags all bearing the same icon as the tattoo on the dead woman’s back — this is the image of Johnny Chimpo, a raunchy character from an Afgani rip-off of Japanese anime. After screening some “Afghanistanimation” as research and discovering additional Chimpo-branded reefer bags in the Winnebago, the troopers devise a plan to keep their jobs and get famous by uncovering the pot-smuggling ring and delivering the bags to the governor on TV.
Super Troopers is filled with nostalgic references to popular culture of the 1970s, including a cameo appearance by Linda Carter as the Governor of Vermont — Carter, of course, played Wonder Woman in the popular 1976 TV series. Throughout, Broken Lizard’s hijinks recall the hilarious 1980 disaster movie parody Airplane!, and like that film, Super Troopers culls from the present and past of American popular culture for its jokes. For instance, although the film is set in the present, Thorny has a hippie girlfriend, and at one point the troopers pick up two nymphomaniac German tourists who look and act like shaggy-haired flower children. If no longer relevant, these caricatures still have cultural currency, even if only for humor.
The comedy group, originally formed at Colgate University in upstate New York, has tried to maintain its ties to the alternative college scene. In addition to the usual publicity blitz, Broken Lizard has been touring the college circuit to promote their film, which may put them in the same category as the quirky annual Itchy and Scratchy campus cartoon festivals. Heffernan told the LA Times about the tour: “It lets students feel they’re part of something fun and underground, which makes [seeing the film] seem more worth their while.” This campus tour, including the bus, hotels, and food, has cost less than half of the cost of a 30-second prime-time TV spot. And it’s an unusual way to promote a film, because it is hard to put all members of the cast together for an extended tour, and of more direct concern to studios, it’s uncertain what marketing success a tour like this will have.
Nonetheless, these untraditional marketing methods show Broken Lizard to be as much of media underdogs as their “super trooper” characters are in the police world. The Lizards’ first film, Puddle Cruiser (1996), was never even picked by a distributor — how underdoggy can you get? After a midnight screening at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, however, Fox Searchlight paid $3.25 million for distribution rights for their next film, Super Troopers, made for a paltry $1.3 million budget. This doesn’t make the plot any more coherent or the jokes any smarter, but it helps one appreciate the group’s effort to stay “indie.” But the real enjoyment to be had from the film is how it reflects Broken Lizard’s encyclopedic knowledge of American TV and B-movie history, as well as how the standard tropes of both have become part of common pop cultural vernacular.