Anchor Bay // 1986 // 1033 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // December 15th, 2003
After the huge success of Miami Vice, executive producer Michael Mann (Thief, Heat) harks back to a different era, when crime was an obsession on both sides of the law and people weren't afraid to be bold and violent.
For two all too brief seasons on NBC, Crime Story was a high quality show that had a loyal following (but not big enough for the bean counters) that still exists seventeen years later.
It's a shame that the transfer isn't up to snuff. The show is a genuine masterpiece that deserves much better.
Lt. Michael Torello (Dennis Farina), head of Chicago's Major Crimes Unit, is a man obsessed. Tormented by the death of close friend Johnny O'Donnell at the hands of small time thug Ray Luca (Anthony Denison), Torello wants only one thing: revenge. Armed with detectives Danny Krychek (Bill Smitrovich, Life Goes On), Walter Clemmons (Paul Butler), Joey Indeli (Bill Campbell, Once and Again), and Nate Grossman (Steve Ryan), along with the support of public defender David Abrams (Stephen Lang, Manhunter), it's only a matter of time before Torello gets his ultimate wish.
It isn't going to be an easy road for the MCU. Luca has decided to graduate from thug to high-class gangster and is now under the tutelage of kingpin Manny Weisbord (Joseph Wiseman). Partners with crime boss Phil Bartoli (Jon Polito, The Crow) and flunky Pauli Taglia (John Santucci), Luca unveils his grand scheme: to control the bookmaking in the entire country from a Las Vegas headquarters.
Of course, there are many bumps along the way and unfortunately, just as many tragedies.
It is not very often that I rave about a television series. Then again, not every program is Crime Story.
The show is based on the life of Chuck Adamson, a veteran of Chicago's Major Crimes Unit. Mann met Adamson while preparing his 1981 classic Thief. That film was based on a novel by Frank Hohimer, a career criminal who happened to be captured by Adamson's MCU unit. Adamson was brought on board as a consultant and a friendship began. (On a side note, also hired as a consultant on Thief was John Santucci. He was a former career criminal captured by Adamson's unit in the late 1960s. Now reformed, he was cast as Luca's sidekick Taglia.) After the wild success of Miami Vice and asked by NBC to create a new show, Mann decided what better than to bring some of his friend's stories to the screen?
Crime Story is extremely realistic, maybe the most realistic police program since Dragnet. This is no doubt due to the incredible experiences of Adamson's tenure in the MCU. But we must also acknowledge the up close research of co-creator Gus Reininger. A stockbroker turned writer, he actually went undercover inside an authentic crime family. Combine both, and we have a show that goes into incredible depth from both points of view.
The fact that Crime Story is set in the early '60s is a major benefit. Miami Vice, mired in the '80s, hasn't dated very well. Even the good episodes don't play like they used to. By taking a historical approach to Crime Story, it still remains fresh and potent today.
The show is brilliant on all levels. Sometimes the word can be overused, but I cannot think of any other word that describes Crime Story. For the first nine episodes after the pilot, there was a serialesque quality to the program. The cornerstones of the old time serials, such as a cliffhanger ending, a brief recap at the beginning, and brisk pacing made for exciting television. Unfortunately, after a strong start on Friday nights, NBC moved the show to a 10PM Tuesday slot. What happened? Moonlighting slaughtered it in the Nielsen ratings. In a rare show of support, NBC moved the show back to Fridays and the ratings perked up. After that brief scare, the plan was made to create "standalone" episodes. The main story line would still be followed, but the recaps and cliffhangers were gone. The writing is excellent in every episode. There is a good feel for dialogue and character. Also, they never resort to the predictable and remain engrossing all the way through.
The acting is flawless. Dennis Farina was a member of Adamson's MCU squad who became friends with Mann while working on Thief. Originally hired as a consultant, he was then promoted to actor. The acting bug bit, which led to his retirement from the police force. He was the perfect choice to play Torello. First, he lived the life shown in this series. He brings natural instincts to the role. Farina's acting style isn't fancy; despite his character's short fuse, he resists overacting. Instead, he takes a low key, natural approach to his performance that will resonate long after viewing the last episode. Anthony Denison is appropriately menacing and naïve as Ray Luca; he is the perfect complement to Farina. Stephen Lang recalls the earnest mannerisms of Jack Webb's Joe Friday. The show is well cast with good, solid actors straight down the line. Special mention goes out to Andrew Dice Clay, surprisingly good in a straight role. Too bad he threw a promising career down the toilet with his overly vulgar stand-up.
Crime Story has received a rather unusual presentation on DVD. The 90-minute pilot is presented on Disc One while the remaining twenty episodes are spread out over the remaining four discs. On a scale of zero to five badges:
Torello sets a trap for Luca but he somehow manages to escape. Johnny O'Donnell (David Caruso) is involved with Luca's small time scores and ends up in a place where he doesn't want to be. Directed by Abel Ferrara (Cat Chaser, Bad Lieutenant).
Madman Pernell Rendell goes on a killing spree. Luca takes advantage of the depleted police presence by staging a big heist.
Luca has stopped participating in the scores he plans. However, during a home invasion, one of his henchmen murders a woman. Also adding to his headache is an oddsmaker book that he needs to launch his grand scheme in Las Vegas.
"St. Louis Book of Blues"
Luca sends Frank Holman (Ted Levine, best known as "Buffalo Bill" in The Silence of the Lambs) to St. Louis in order to steal the book from bookmaker Jack Ganza. Holman succeeds but is captured by Torello and the MCU.
Holman is free, having convinced a local sheriff that he is a federal witness. Bartoli is furious with Luca over the failed theft. Abrams unwittingly gives Luca the solution to his problems. The legendary Miles Davis appears in a jazz club scene.
"Abrams for the Defense"
A poor black man (Ving Rhames) is on trial for assaulting the local slumlord after a rat bites his son. Abrams, determined to help this man, uncovers the corruption and greed of the slumlord.
"Pursuit of a Wanted Felon"
Holman once again eludes capture after the FBI bungles the arrest big time. Torello discovers that his wife is cheating on him (the chain of events and payoff were redone by Mann in his 1995 film Heat). Abrams and reporter Suzanne Terry get closer.
"Old Friends, Dead Ends"
Luca purchases a bottling factory to use as a front. Little does Torello realize that his best friend Ted Kehoe is Luca's accountant.
"Justice Hits the Skids"
Luca incurs Bartoli's wrath after leaving behind key clues. Abrams' girlfriend Suzanne Terry is savagely beaten. Torello's troubles with vindictive US Attorney Breitel (Ray Sharkey) reach the boiling point.
"For Love or Money"
Desperate to earn money to help his polio stricken wife, Howie Dressler (Gary Sinise) falls into Luca's crime wave.
Mid-season recap of the pilot and first nine episodes.
"Hide and Go Thief"
Torello and Krychek finally capture Holman in Gary, Indiana only to lose custody to US Attorney Breitel. Meanwhile, a mad gunman holds the MCU at bay, demanding TV exposure in exchange for a hostage.
Bartoli orders a hit on Luca after learning that Holman is singing to the feds. Breitel decides to indict Torello along with Luca, Bartoli, and Pauly Taglia after buying Holman's lies.
Torello is forced to testify as a defense witness. Despite that, Luca plans to whack Torello anyway. Directed by Gary Sinise.
"Torello on Trial"
Torello proves his innocence on the stand thanks to the efforts of Abrams and the MCU unit. The two rival crime families agree to merge operations...at first. Directed by Gary Sinise.
"The Kingdom of Money"
Luca makes the move to Las Vegas and is now operating casinos. Torello, Abrams, and the MCU squad are transferred to Las Vegas to become the Justice Department Strike Force.
"Battle of Las Vegas"
Union president Slim Mahoney has been murdered. It's up to Torello and Abrams to find out who was responsible. A surprise guest appears in Luca's casino: Frank Holman.
Torello discovers that Altman, his superior, has been raping his stepdaughter Tracy (Julia Roberts).
Holman manages to weasel his way back into Luca's inner circle.
"Top of the World"
Luca has been having an affair with Max Goldman's (Andrew "Dice" Clay) wife. Torello decides to use that information to his advantage. After Goldman is nearly blown to smithereens, Pauli Taglia sings to the Justice Department.
With Luca now under arrest and facing an uncertain future, the Justice Department must now protect Taglia at all costs. Of course, Luca isn't going down quietly.
As you may or may not recall, in my review of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys: Season Two, I discussed the unevenness of the video transfer. Midway through Crime Story's second disc, I was longing for the uneven quality of Hercules. The video quality is just plain ugly. First, we are treated to grain as thick as fog and many scratches and nicks in all the wrong places. Major compression problems are apparent early on. It was a mistake cramming five 48-minute episodes on each disc. The result is a transfer that resembles cheaply recorded VHS. In addition to these problems, the original color saturated photography isn't as eye blindlingly beautiful as it should be. In fact, some of the colors look far too muted. Are there any positive aspects to this transfer? There is no color bleeding present, which made me happy.
One note: in my review copy, the episode "For Love or Money" on Disc Three kept freezing at various points throughout the running time. I checked the disc for scratches or dirt but it was clean. I cleaned my DVD player, but the episode still kept on skipping. It may not apply to every set out there, but I thought you should know.
Audio is slightly better. It's in two channel mono sound and it sounds okay for what it is. The music always comes through loud and clear but some dialogue is difficult to hear. In other words, be prepared to fool with your sound system or remote control.
As per other Anchor Bay releases, no subtitles or closed captioning are included. They continue to deny the hearing impaired what is necessary.
Not a single extra is included. This is the most disappointing aspect of this set. Michael Mann has always enjoyed discussing his work. The commentaries he recorded for Thief and Manhunter are superb and the various interviews I have seen show him to be an intelligent, informative speaker. Why not give us something from Mann? Even a featurette would have been welcome. What we do get is an insert riddled with errors. There are mistakes that will become evident once you watch the episodes. Also, I disagree with the author's interpretations of the main characters. Was he watching the same series I was? To each his own, I guess.
However, I do love the packaging. It looks like a box, but the back folds out into a five-slot Digipak. It appears like the folder that appears on the cover art but it's more durable and compact. Nice.
Despite these considerable negatives, I'm (surprise, surprise!) still recommending you purchase this set. Why? I guarantee that after watching one episode of Crime Story, you will be hooked. A rental simply will not do suffice. This show will demand repeat spins in your player.
Creators Chuck Adamson, Gus Reiniger, and executive producer Michael Mann are acquitted of all charges.
Anchor Bay is given a $3,000 fine for providing a poor transfer of a remarkable series. They are urged to correct this problem for Season Two.
Review content copyright © 2003 Bill Treadway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 1033 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: Pilot
* IMDb: Series