MPI // 2004 // 279 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // December 20th, 2006
"All right, I'll tread lightly. As lightly as I can." -- Inspector Jack Frost
That's not very lightly, but British audiences have known that for years. A Touch of Frost recently began its 13th season of sporadic two-hour (actually 93 minutes without commercials) mystery stories. As the DVD case boasts, this is Britain's top-rated crime drama. Still I'm coming in very late to this one, since this two-DVD set is A Touch of Frost: Seasons 11 & 12.
Inspector Jack Frost (David Jason, Only Fools and Horses) is a veteran copper in Denton, a mid-sized industrial city in England. Although I didn't actually see the smokestacks, its atmosphere brings smokestacks to the imagination. He fights budget crunches and by-the-book superiors as he solves murders and other crimes.
As the season opens in "Another Life," Inspector Jack Frost is facing the board for assaulting a child murderer during an arrest. He's been on leave for seven months -- since last season's finale. Like many a season finale cliffhanger, this one is resolved quickly so the audience can get on with the three episodes in this set:
A man seen at several places along the river on a rainy day is seen one more time, washing up dead. He's got £6,000 in fifties in an envelope on his body and two stab wounds to the heart that almost were missed by the morgue. Even the discovery of the man's credit card in the possession of a young tough deepens the mystery rather than clearing things up.
Meanwhile, a refrigerator graveyard has turned out to be a final resting place for the man who set off a feud before a ballroom dancing competition. His body's been hacked apart -- "A bit of DYI dissection," Frost opines.
Through all this, Frost is dealing with a toothache and an impending root canal, thanks to a defective lollipop he appropriated from a community policing program.
"Dancing in the Dark"
A body is found in a rubbish tip. The man's wallet was returned to his pocket empty, so it wasn't a typical mugging. If Frost had any doubt about that, the fact that the man stopped to clean his teeth -- as evidenced by the toothpaste under his dentures -- confirms his suspicions.
Meanwhile, a businessman hires a prostitute only to find out that she's his daughter's best friend. When a Polish woman is picked up with an altered stolen passport, it turns out that the friend of the family is also into immigration rackets -- and she's pressing her bosses for more money.
As he untangles these cases, Frost also contends with a recent Oxford grad assistant -- "a tailor's dummy" -- and tries to get into shape, only to have the fitness instructor upset when he misses sessions to follow leads and even more upset about catching Frost in a diner with a greasy meal. Does she actually like him?
"Near Death Experience"
Although Jack Frost and his partner for this episode, a Surrey detective known as "Razor" Sharpe, will both be injured by the time the episode is over, the near-death experience of the title is that of friend Toolan, who falls while he and Frost are trying to coax down a jumper. As Frost's friend lies unconscious in the hospital, his colleagues -- and the man's wife -- blame the reckless Frost for the accident.
Meanwhile, a priest arrives at a crime scene before the police, finding a dead woman and her unconscious daughter. Sharpe recognizes the M.O. from a case two years earlier on his usual turf and soon he and Frost are in pursuit of a serial killer, aided by pretty profiler Martine Phillips. Frost doesn't trust Martine -- "She's too keen" is his psychological analysis of her -- and suspects she's making romantic overtures toward Sharpe so she can use him to get information. After all, there's a book deal at stake.
If that's not enough for Frost -- or audiences -- to handle, there's also a humorous subplot about the police having to temporarily decamp to an abandoned brewery because of asbestos removal.
You can probably deduce from these plot descriptions that the people who make A Touch of Frost like to juggle a lot of story elements; surprisingly, they don't drop many in these three episodes.
A Touch of Frost is put together well, with an attention to detail that creates a lot of nice touches. Just watch the way the coppers' cars are seen leaving along separate branches of a fork in the road as the detectives inside head off to pursue separate leads. The opening scenes which set up the story (except in "Near Death Experience") have a moody, noirish flavor, backed up by a jazzy score. The images of a lone man looking out over the water from a bridge just before he's murdered or the body that has just landed on a pile of rubbish have an ominous quality that set them apart from your typical TV mystery opening.
I noticed that the directors have a fondness for factory tours, as evidenced by the frequency of shots which track someone -- often, but not always, Frost -- walking through a factory. There's a pharmaceutical factory, a candy factory, an unknown maze of machines and pipes, and a skills center for juveniles. It seems to be part of their way of establishing the fictional Denton as a mid-sized smokestacks city; while it gets repetitive, it does beat simply showing us lots of smokestacks.
Frost, as portrayed by longtime comedy actor David Jason, is the rumpled, plodding copper you'd expect -- a sort of downbeat version of Lt. Columbo. The widower lives alone, eating chips in front of the telly and using instant tea bags to prepare his morning beverage. He also drops quite a few bad puns among his wisecracks, referring to a ballroom dancing case as "dance macabre," for example. Frost's a little bit grumpy as he surveys the prices on gym shoes for his fitness regimen, and he's a lot grumpier when his coppers miss obvious clues or he doesn't buy a suspect's story. He also cuts corners, sneaking evidence away from scenes for further perusal or recklessly risking his own life.
As with any good TV detective, though, Frost is interested in the truth, even when things are looking tidy enough that a lesser copper -- such as his superior, Mullett -- could walk away satisfied with a closed case. Frost leaves subtle indications of tension between Frost and Mullett, but doesn't hit you over the head with it. The stories use Frost's tenacity to advantage, depending on misdirection that starts you thinking one way before showing you that the answer's in a different direction. This probably no longer fools fans of the show, but will probably stump a newcomer for a couple of episodes.
The show can be graphic at times, since it's awfully fond of focusing on blood trails and bodies in the morgue, a la the CSIs, and the plots leave plenty of room for sexual discussion. Thus, A Touch of Frost isn't as cozy as Columbo; Jason's Peter Falk-style turns make Frost more like CSI with more personality. If you want escapist puzzles, this isn't your show.
The directors are creating a drab milieu, but the cinematography is crisp and clean, only occasionally losing faces in the shadows. I noticed the occasional line of British-accented dialogue getting lost in the ambient noise or music, but the sound was mostly done well.
The package has no extras; it's aimed at fans of the series who just want to catch up on Frost's latest cases.
A Touch of Frost is great entertainment, but you probably don't want to invest in this one blind. The set's pricy for only three episodes, and it comes late in the long-running series.
When I surfed to track down where Frost airs in the United States, comments online indicated that it was dropped by A&E, but I couldn't find out how far back. The show seems to have disappeared with little notice.
A Touch of Frost doesn't break new ground in television crime drama, but its production team and cast does an excellent job. It makes an interesting bridge between the personality-based cop shows of earlier years and the case-based CSI-style shows that have been thriving in recent years. If you can't get enough of police procedurals, you might like this one.
Not guilty, though I'll leave it up to you whether you want a Lt. Columbo messing around in CSI-type cases.
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 279 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: David Jason