‘Knight’ is stuck in the ‘80s

Times Staff Writer

NBC should have just gone ahead and called its “Knight Rider” remake “Son of Knight Rider.” Sure, it might have given away a plot “twist” (protagonist Mike Tracer is -- surprise, surprise -- the son of the old Michael Knight, hero of the show’s previous incarnation, and David Hasselhoff showed up in the final scene to prove it), but at least it would have put viewers in the appropriate B-movie frame of mind, softening the blow just a tad.

As it was, the new “Knight Rider,” starring Justin Bruening as the new Mike and Val Kilmer as the voice of KITT, the uber computer car, was a bit of a shock. The two-hour (!) movie/pilot/extended Ford commercial crept by Sunday night like a glacier with turbo-revving sound effects. (No advance screeners were available, never a good sign.) “It’s pretty talky for a show about a cool car,” concluded my 9-year-old son, and he pretty much nailed it.

A barely there plot drove the action and got everyone up to speed (terrible puns totally intentional): Though it’s been 25 years since the original KITT ruled the road, Knight Industries creator Charles Graiman (Bruce Davison) has not been idle -- when a band of unidentified thugs (one with that requisite vaguely British accent) attempt to steal Graiman’s various “codes,” it becomes clear that what Graiman now knows could, in an instant, destroy the world. (In which case you really would think he’d have better security than a cardiac-challenged old guy, but never mind.) Believing they have accidentally killed Graiman, the band o’ evildoers goes in search of his comely daughter Sarah (Deanna Russo), who is blithely teaching at Stanford just as if the Fate of the World did not rest in her hands.


To her aid comes KITT, now the Knight Industries Three Thousand, as opposed to the Knight Industries Two Thousand, and a Ford Mustang instead of a Pontiac Trans Am because, you know, it’s 25 years later and sponsors change. With Kilmer channeling Mr. Spock (at one point he actually says “that is logical,” which I think may constitute copyright infringement), KITT takes Sarah back to Tracer, a former super soldier who served in Iraq (or, as he pronounces it, “EYE-rack”) and Sarah’s old flame.

All of which reads much more interesting than it plays on the screen. Because like it or not (spoiler alert for NBC executives!), the ‘80s are over and they ain’t coming back. There, I’ve put it in writing, let the chips fall where they may. Cars these days do actually talk (marriages have ended over the “it’s the Navi-or-me” debate), 8-year-olds can pull up computer graphics as they tool down PCH and “The Transformers” and “Herbie the Love Bug” have explored whatever the depth of the modern auto-emotive relationship might have.

Also, and I will stand by this to the death, Val Kilmer is no William Daniels. As the voice of the original KITT, Daniels was testy, hilarious and endearing. I’m also pretty sure he’s still available. (Though between this and Paul Giamatti’s upcoming HBO portrayal of John Adams, a role Daniels made famous in “1776,” Daniels must feel that some evil organization is attempting to steal his identity. Which would make for a much more interesting show than “Knight Rider.”)

In a desperate attempt to make the now-clunky conceit mod-ern, writer David Andron apparently rifled the TV Writers Emergency Preparedness Kit and pulled out everything he could find -- a little bit of camp (when Mike drops a potato chip in the car, KITT’s screen flashes the weeping Native American from the old anti-littering PSA); a little bit of cable (good guy FBI agent Carrie Ruvai is not only played by Sydney Poitier’s daughter Sydney Tamiia Poitier, she’s also -- gasp -- a lesbian); a smidge of Oprah (at one point, KITT tries to get Sarah to talk about her grief); a dash of Coen brothers (a hapless motel clerk is gunned down for no reason); and a lot of footage from car commercials. We even get several cheesy shots of the Vegas Strip, though surprisingly (and mercifully) no Sinatra singing “This Town.”

As Sarah, Russo (“CSI,” “The Young and the Restless”) manages to scrape together something of an actual character despite having to badger Mike about why he dropped her during their college years, while gun-toting thugs threaten to kill her and everyone on the planet. But the rest of the cast were just handed cardboard cut-outs and left to move them around. Which is harder than it sounds, what with having to get in and out of the car all the time.

All of this is fixable, of course, with sharper writing and perhaps even some recasting -- personally, I don’t believe the baby-faced Bruening could have survived two minutes in EYE-rack -- but unfortunately “Knight Rider” faces that invincible foe: time. As with “Bionic Woman,” technology has out-stripped what was once science fiction. For KITT to have resonance in today’s world, the vehicle would have to be equipped for space travel or time travel, read minds or at least have nuclear capabilities. Instead, this car’s big claim to fame is it can change colors. Whoopee.


As far as heavy action goes, KITT’s a pacifist, programmed to preserve human life. And that’s so retro it just doesn’t make sense.