Vermont's favorite troopers hope for a super opening weekend

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BURLINGTON — With a cult following, "Super Troopers" might appear well-positioned for a box office-friendly sequel. But its makers aren't taking any chances.

Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske, better known as the comedy troupe Broken Lizard, are donning their Vermont state trooper uniforms once more in "Super Troopers 2," which is set to be released April 20.

Chances are you know that already — or at least that's what the actors and their publicity team are hoping after embarking on a multi-week promotional tour to drum up interest in the sequel. Among other engagements, the group has played dodgeball with WWE stars and handed out doughnuts in Boston.

"We're getting a little punchy," Lemme said during the third week of their travels. He and his fellow Broken Lizard members were seated around a Hotel Vermont conference room table on a frigid Thursday morning in Burlington. Their film had been shown the previous night at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in front of a crowd that included journalists, law enforcers and Indiegogo backers. Thanks to more than 54,000 donors, Broken Lizard raised $4.6 million to help finance the movie.

"I know you're probably worried," Chandrasekhar told the spectators before the screening, alluding to the litany of sequels that haven't measured up to their predecessors. The director cited 37 drafts and "thousands" of tested jokes as reasons for the crowd to relax.

"We just wrote an independent story that could stand on its own," Chandrasekhar said the next day. "I mean, obviously picking up from the last one."

Released in 2001, "Super Troopers" documents the highjinks of five Vermont state troopers — Mac (Lemme), Thorny (Chandrasekhar), Foster (Soter), Rabbit (Stolhanske) and Farva (Heffernan) — who monitor a sleepy stretch of Green Mountain State highway. When a budget cut threatens their department's future, the troopers must band together to foil a drug ring, competing with the local cops to claim the glory. The pranks, memorably, never cease.

"Meow!" several in the audience yelled before and after the Burlington screening, referring to a scene in which Foster attempts to say "meow" as many times as possible during a traffic stop. Others in the raucous crowd sprinkled in less family-friendly calls.

"Super Troopers 2" certainly contains parallels to the original. It opens with a chase on the road, features a dueling law enforcement body and employs many of the same actors.

"I think the hard thing was the characters from the first movie that we wanted to bring back, but you can't bring back every character," Heffernan said.

The impetus for Broken Lizard's familiar shenanigans, however, is different. This time, a border dispute spurs Vermont's governor (played again by Lynda Carter) to enlist the rowdy, unemployed troopers in a new project: helping a French-Canadian town transition to an American one. This process includes setting up a new highway patrol station and working with local Canadian law enforcers. While it has yet to be determined if the border was drawn incorrectly (the reason for the town's potential switch in national ties), the troopers don't have any reservations about asserting their authority. Unsurprisingly, rivalry with the Mounties ensues, and scandal isn't far behind. New faces (Rob Lowe, Emmanuelle Chriqui) emerge along the way.

"Those guys came in and did incredibly well. In ways, I find their performances more fun to watch than our own," Chandrasekhar said of actors who weren't in the original.

To mesh with the Broken Lizard team, who also created "Club Dread" and "Beerfest," among other films, the additions must understand the group's rhythm and tone.

"The tone is that, as much as it's a comedy, everything in this movie could really happen," Chandrasekhar said. "There are no performances that you're like, 'Well that feels false,' at least that's the goal. And there are no jokes where you're like, 'Nobody would ever say that.' It's kind of keep it as real as possible."

While the original was shot in New York and the sequel in Massachusetts (including parts near the Quabbin Reservoir in October 2015) due to tax incentives, the films' Vermont subject matter ensures that it has plenty of fans, including law enforcers, in the state. The Burlington screeners appreciated the sequel, laughing through much of the film.

"The audiences up here — they're like educated stoners. And that is exactly our sweet spot," Chandrasekhar said.

The film's positive reception at screenings has helped buoy the group's spirits during its promotional events, according to Chandrasekhar.

"The movie is working. The audience is responding the right way, and the studio is enthused, so it makes the tour more fun. When you go into a movie that's not working as well, it's still fun, but you just know you're going to get slaughtered at the end of it," he said.

Others in the group insist that the promotional tour isn't a burden.

"We're on the road together, which is just fun. You're on a road trip with your friends," Lemme said.

"The first Hollywood thing that we did was get sent out on tour for 'Super Troopers,' ... so that was our first taste of like, 'Holy s---, we're real, actual movie makers,'" Soter recalled. "That will always be one of the greatest memories of my entire life, so this feels like a revisiting of it, to just be in a new city every day and do all these goofy events, and get on the radio and say stupid things, and make each other laugh. It feels cool to get do a thing that I wasn't sure we were going to be able to do again."

The necessity for an Indiegogo campaign underscores the difficulty the group had in getting this film made. "Super Troopers" wasn't a smash at the box office; it brought in just more than $23 million. But its video and DVD sales over the next few years totaled somewhere between $65 and $80 million, according to Chandrasekhar. For a movie with a $1.2 million budget, that was widely considered a success. The actors can't afford a repeat of that phenomenon if they want to get "Super Troopers 3" greenlighted.

"We need them to actually go into the theater to see the movie the way that they didn't watch the first one," Soter said of their fans, "because what people did on the first one is they watched years later on the couch or whatever. We don't have the luxury this time of letting it seep slowly out into the public consciousness."

Hence, the promotional tour. The movie's opening date should also help; April 20, or 4/20, is an unofficial national holiday for marijuana enthusiasts. Still, despite the early signs of positive returns, the group doesn't want to be too confident.

"It's a weird, anxious time," Soter said. "We'll do these things like show up at a brewery in Minneapolis or show up in Boston. And you're like, 'OK, well 600 people stood outside for hours to say hi and take a picture, and so you're like, 'That's good.'"

In Burlington, a line of fans outside the cinema endured a brisk wind off of Lake Champlain, hoping to gain entry to the screening. Broken Lizard has already had discussions about setting "Super Troopers 3" during the winter — if the movie happens. It's no longer in the actors' hands.

"It depends on the audience," Lemme said. "Our audience is notorious for either showing up at the very last second or not rallying at all. So, they have to come out opening weekend. And if we have a good, strong opening weekend, then we can have realistic conversations about making these movies."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.

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