Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky plays good cop/bad cop with Michael Mann's cult favorite.
"Let me tell you something, pal. Half the time, we don't know which side the law is on. That's the way the wheels of justice turn in this town. And they're the only wheels we've got."—Lt. Michael Torello (Dennis Farina)
The secret is out: Michael Mann's neon-cool '80s were really the neon-cool of the '60s…with more synthesizers. The proof: Crime Story, Mann's testosterone and chrome follow-up to his trend-setting Miami Vice.
Lt. Mike Torello (Dennis Farina, Law and Order) looks like a cop but talks like a gangster. He runs the Major Crimes Unit in Chicago, 1963. His main adversary is pompadoured Ray Luca (Anthony Denison, The Amy Fisher Story), an aspiring gangster looking for the big score. To nail Luca, Torello lies, kidnaps suspects, intimidates witnesses, and generally behaves much like the crooks he is trying to catch. He might have walked out of a James Ellroy novel. Luca, by comparison, is only slightly worse, since he actually goes the next step and kills people. But he also gets comedic sidekicks (Ted Levine as a rockabilly wannabe and John Santucci as a paisano clown), which give his scenes a lighter tone than the grim and craggy Torello can manage.
Over the years, Crime Story, which ran for two seasons beginning in 1986, has gained a cult following, with fans clamoring for its release on DVD. Finally, Anchor Bay has obliged, although without any extras and middling production value. I missed the show during its original run, but my father was a fan, so I looked forward to checking out what some people asserted was a lost masterpiece.
Unfortunately, Crime Story starts off looking more like amateur hour than breakthrough television. Chuck Adamson developed the show based on his experiences as a Chicago cop. As the lead, he brought along his former police partner, Dennis Farina, with Michael Mann's approval. (They also brought Santucci aboard, who had been a Chicago crook frequently pinched by Adamson. A real family affair.) These men may have been good cops, but their inexperience in television is apparently throughout much of the first season of Crime Story.
The first half of the season is awkwardly structured, with endless recaps (reaching 6 ½ minutes in one episode), flaccid editing, and rambling storylines. An example: "Abrams for the Defense," a courtroom drama spotlighting series regular Stephen Lang as conflicted attorney David Abrams. Ving Rhames guests as a man named "Hector Lincoln" (how allegorical is that for a black character?) who beats up his mean landlord—and spends much of the episode making painfully preachy and melodramatic speeches. Lang spends much of his time trying to channel the spirit of Atticus Finch as he pontificates in front of the white jury. The entire business is uncomfortably patronizing, more like some, well, early '60s live television play. The only high point is that the episode marks the start of a love affair between Abrams and a crusading reporter played by Pam Grier. I mean, who could turn down Pam Grier?
The show's weak acting does not help the weak writing. Many scenes in these early episodes have a stage-bound quality. Characters walk into a room, hit exactly the marks you expect, and pause to wait for somebody to begin a line of dialogue. Then a beat. Then the next line of dialogue. Even when they are angry. Or frustrated. It is maddeningly slow. And awkward. Add to this bare sets (doesn't anybody on this show know how to accessorize?) and the technical glitches (lighting is flat, and you can frequently see modern cars in the backgrounds of driving scenes). The very '80s synthesizer music (which is used much more frequently than the better period tunes) tends to distract from the scenes as well.
On the plus side, the first season was unusual in its time for its serialized focus on a single major villain and its parallel storylines, tracking Luca's rise to power and Torello's increasingly obsessive quest to topple him. It meanders quite a bit through the first half of the season (compare it to Wiseguy's noticeably tighter Sonny Steelgrave arc a year later), as if looking for its focus. That focus finally comes around episode fourteen, when an extremely stupid U.S. attorney (Ray Sharkey, Sonny Steelgrave himself) goes after Torello for corruption with an unreliable witness and no actual evidence. The whole subplot is completely illogical, but it serves a valuable purpose in the show: it sets the stage for a major narrative turn that refreshes the entire premise.
One of the key problems with Crime Story in the first half of Season One is how far outside the audience is from the world of these cops and crooks. We meet Torello as an already established presence in Chicago, and his brutal tactics, while realistic for the time (and refreshing for television, especially in 1986), make him a little unsympathetic. While Luca starts at base level in the mob, their world is sufficiently alien enough to the audience as to make it difficult to empathize with him either. And the "gritty" Chicago setting is fairly remote—it being 1963—to keep the audience at even more of a distance. Plus, it is hard to see exactly what Luca is going to gain from taking over the Chicago mob, since we never really see the goal as anything more than abstract (bookmaking operations that appear only on maps, for instance). The show as set in Chicago does not have the energy it is clearly trying to muster.
Welcome to Las Vegas. The final arc of Season One moves everyone to Sin City, as Luca takes over a casino and Torello and his team join the Justice Department with an eye toward bringing their nemesis down. The series reboot means flashier visuals (all that neon looks great on camera), better clothes, and more focus. Now Luca's grand plans have clear payoffs—not just more jewelry store robberies, but the glitzy Vegas lifestyle. And even Farina and his fellow cops seem looser. "I think if we're moving with this much energy in a month," Torello tells his "strike team," "we might make a case." Or they might save their show. The final six episodes of Season One feature Torello and company pushing Luca to the limit, with the stories getting more, well, like the crazy flash of Vegas. I suspect Adamson and Mann saw the ratings (even after the Vegas move, they continued to slip) and decided to go out with a bang—the biggest one they can find. Season One ends with a wild finale in which Luca is caught in an atomic bomb blast.
I expect the producers were surprised, after their apocalyptic finale, that Crime Story was picked up by the network for a second season. This might explain why the first few episodes of Season Two skirt the edge of camp. Kevin Spacey (not yet ready for his breakthrough on Wiseguy—notice how that show seems such an obvious comparison to this one?) turns up as a Kennedy-esque senator, and Torello has an affair with Marilyn Mon…oh, I mean Pamela Palmer (Jenny Wright). Then, Ray Luca is brought back with nary a scratch thanks to government mad science. He almost stands as the embodiment of the show's new survival ethic: he has become an amoral supervillain with plans for a global empire. Think Lex Luthor with lots of hair gel. His new goal is right out of the mid-'80s of Miami Vice: he makes a deal with the U.S. government to run guns to Central American rebels in exchange for drug-smuggling concessions. Very Iran-Contra.
Fortunately, Season Two benefits from better performances all around—Farina evolves into a sharp actor throughout the season—as well as tighter editing and direction. Series creators Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger disappear from the story credits, and the show settles into a more conventional cop show groove. In "Robbery, Armed," the strike team races to stop a heist. A big gun battle ensues. In "Little Girl Lost," a dead private eye leads the strike team on a hunt for a missing girl. A big chase scene ensues. In "MIG-21," the strike team must baby-sit a defecting Soviet pilot. Lots of nods to The Last Detail ensue. Oh, and a chase scene. None of this is deep or terribly inventive, but it is entertaining and relatively free of the glaring flaws that made the first season, as "fresh" as it was trying to be, hard to watch. Compare the two-parter "Moulin Rouge" and "Seize the Time" in their treatment of racial politics to "Abrams for the Defense." The Season One episode was preachy and derivative. In this Season Two tale, the strike team investigates a firebombing in a black-owned casino, then must outmaneuver the mobsters who try to take control in the aftermath—African American mobsters. The plot is more action-oriented, the portrait of race in the '60s is far more complex (in Season One, Ving Rhames was almost angelic; here we see both sides of the business world: blacks as legit business owners and as mobsters), and there is a great cameo by jazz legend Dexter Gordon (and lots of jazz throughout the story). Pam Grier even returns as reporter Suzanne Terry, although by this point in the series, David Abrams has joined Luca's side, giving their relationship some necessary tension.
But Crime Story took one final turn in its last half-dozen episodes. In an apparent effort to continue the show's evolution into a '60s version of Miami Vice, executive producer Michael Mann and company break up Luca's U.S. operation with a Senate hearing (a year before the real Iran-Contra scandal went before Congress), then send Luca fleeing to Central America. Apart from the cars and a reference to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, you might easily forget that this is still supposed to be the '60s. In fact, one of the characters (Bill Smitrovich as Torello's teammate Danny Krychek) even calls somebody "homeboy." Anyway, Torello and the strike team head for Central America for the final few episodes for lots of gunfights, some awful-looking day-for-night shots, and open war against Luca—leading right into a cliffhanger only slightly less absurd than the atomic bomb that finished off Season One. Only this time, the show was not rescued from cancellation.
Until Michael Mann decides to bring back Crime Story with the inevitable theatrical remake (hey, he did it to Miami Vice!), fans of the show will have to content themselves with the two Anchor Bay DVD collections. The downside is that the production on these sets is lackluster at best. Season One is poorly mastered, with many episodes suffering from soft color and fading. Audio is weak and flat, with some dialogue hard to understand (no subtitles or even closed captioning either). I have read that the show was originally broadcast in stereo, but this mix appears to be in mono (or so flat as to be practically the same thing). Anchor Bay released Season One a couple of years ago, and DVD Verdict's own Bill Treadway aptly described it like "cheaply recorded VHS." The packaging, a foldout box with digipack inserts, kept falling apart on me. Season Two fares much better. The color saturation stands up well to all those Vegas lights without noticeable bleed, and the audio is much clearer (and we get closed captions, but no subtitles).
Crime Story was innovative for its time, even if it had to make a lot of compromises to stay on the air. But in retrospect, it took too long to find its footing, and its tendency to change directions for the sake of survival ultimately weakens it in comparison to shows that more successfully worked the serialized-drama premise in later years. It tried to switch gears among gritty, Untouchables style cop drama to earnest "message" stories to flashy Miami Vice clone to outright camp. When it is good (as in the Season Two two-parter about the black casino I discussed above), it was very good. When it was bad…Newcomers to the series may want to begin with the second season, which feels more polished and focused. If you like what you see, go back and try the first season, and keep in mind how much the show was feeling its way along.
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Scales of Justice, Crime Story: Season One
Perp Profile, Crime Story: Season One
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Crime Story: Season One
Scales of Justice, Crime Story: Season Two
Perp Profile, Crime Story: Season Two
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Crime Story: Season Two
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