When there's an adventure show about Appellate Judge James A. Stewart, it's more likely to be called Amble.
"Don't shed any tears for them, my dear. The guy is a nasty piece of work."
The concept of the lovable rogue in British literature dates back at least to Robin Hood. Since the Outlaw of Sherwood Forest took on Prince John, British writers have churned out stories about characters like the Saint, Raffles, and The Four Just Men, who work outside the law to do what the authorities cannot.
In the 1960s, the idea of the lovable rogue became intertwined with a British genre of the television era—the lightweight, breezy high-concept adventure show—in The Saint.
Combining those two British traditions has helped the BBC do what CBS could not: create a workable caper drama around slick criminals. The British have a fourth season of Hustle in the works, while the American Smith sunk like a rock without completing its first 13-episode order. Smith had big-budget chases, but Hustle has the concept of rough justice on its side.
Edgar Wallace had Four Just Men putting the touch on the untouchable. Hustle raises them with Four Unjust Men and a Lady—veteran con artist Albert (Robert Vaughn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), cool plotter Mickey (Adrian Lester, Primary Colors), hotheaded Danny (Marc Warren, State of Prey), chameleon-like Ash (Robert Glenister, Persuasion), and sultry, distracting Stacey (Jaime Murray, Taming of the Shrew). They specialize in the "long con," audacious, big-money schemes designed to keep viewers on the edges of their seats.
Smith may or may not turn up on DVD to recoup costs, but the BBC's release of Hustle: Complete Season Two on DVD certainly won't be the last. Hustle will soon enter its fourth season on the Beeb, having helped "reinvigorated" overseas sales the way shows like The Saint did for British networks in the 1960s.
Facts of the Case
Hustle: Complete Season Two has six episodes on two discs:
"Con Two"—Albert, posing as a priest in confessional, hears the one regret of celebrity chef Johnny Keyes—that he never found his long-lost son, kidnapped as a result of his earlier gangland career. Enter Danny, who has a lot of heart but not a lot of culinary aptitude.
"Con Three"—Danny takes young grifter Trevor Speed under his wing as the gang targets Anthony Mgube, a torturer and arms dealer with a fondness for collecting antique bank notes. Danny's partners in crime don't seem too pleased by his new friend, especially when the kid screws up.
"Con Five"—The gang's about to move in on a mark in a casino, but Stacey backs off. The guy's her estranged husband, who left her with nothing. The gang decides to take the full-time gambler at Texas Hold 'Em, but it looks like Stacey still has a soft spot for her ex.
"Con Six"—Mickey wants to pull off the Crime of the Century, stealing one of the Crown Jewels. As the gang's putting the plot into motion, however, Mickey's fence is nabbed for receiving stolen goods—and he offers the gang up to a police officer who's itching to nail Mickey.
Hustle lays on the style thickly, quickly distancing itself from cozier BBC output like Ballykissangel or Lovejoy. When the cons first return at the start of this season, there's some mimicry of Catch Me If You Can, with Danny arriving back in London with a flight attendant on each arm. Did he even fly the plane, as he says? The show is loud and glitzy, with pulsing music and video-like montages as the gang gears up for its long cons. You'll notice lots of shots that track some beautiful woman as she walks by. The actors smile at the camera a lot, letting you know that it's all a show, and the show is full of surreal techniques like freeze-frames—in which the other characters freeze as the gang discusses its cons—and brief flashbacks to let you know what's really happening, or has already happened.
The actual substance of the show is based on misdirection; stories are written to keep viewers in the dark as well as the marks. This means that there's always one more twist; "Con Two," which worked fantastically all the way through, actually was diminished by the last twist or two, since they kind of invalidated the character twist of Danny actually starting to bond with a famous chef while posing as the man's son. The gang does get caught in a scheme in one episode, though, so their record isn't totally perfect; when they do, it's almost a relief.
Once you've got a couple of episodes of Hustle under your belt, though, the twists will become easier to spot. Just remember: The gang always goes after a baddie, and they've taken everything into account. If you've watched some of those Honor Blackman and early Diana Rigg Avengers episodes, the twisty style will seem even more familiar.
In "Con Five," you even get a three-handed version of a common Saint scene—the one in which Roger Moore as Simon Templar talks to the camera to explain some casino rules or other facts that will be pertinent to the plot—as Albert, Danny, and Mickey offer viewers a brief tutorial on Texas Hold 'Em. Even with the added flash, I half expected the trio to sprout those animated halos. Skip to "Con Six" if you want to see how Jaime Murray looks in a skintight catsuit a la Emma Peel.
There's also a tendency to dip into the stock of typical light action drama plot elements. You know, things like Stacey and Danny posing as a couple and getting stuck in the same bedroom for a night. Of course, one of them will end up sleeping on a chair.
Completing the sense of unreality here, there's a hint of Columbo-style caricature in the marks. When the grifters look at the jacket of their bad-boy celebrity chef target's book, it evokes a shorthand picture of Anthony Bourdain, while the ruthless developer in the opener has a hint of Donald Trump in him.
The characters are all archetypal, although good acting and a fast pace obscure most of the sketchiness. There are undercurrents of tension within the gang, as up-and-coming grifters Mickey and Danny both try to prove themselves the leader of the pack, and Stacey seems to play Danny, Mickey, and Albert the way she plays marks. This tension fuels subplots such as the one in which Mickey and Danny bet on the success of a scheme and provides comic relief when the bent lady copper tows the pair around London, but these tensions don't appear to be going anywhere in the long term, since the writers are more concerned with those plot twists.
The star player here is Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) as Albert, who's had a long career as a gentleman con man. He may be out for the money, but he loves what he does, as you see when he's mourning a friend who died while posing as a dentist and was buried under the wrong identity. His classy bearing helps disarm marks and his tutelage helps hone the skills of his gang. The three actors—Adrian Lester, Marc Warren, and Jaime Murray—who play the young grifters are all excellent; you're likely to see them graduate to big-screen roles like Roger Moore and Diana Rigg did in the 1960s. Robert Glenister's Ash is described as an "enigma" on the BBC site; it seems purposely so, since the show needs one character who can don disguises without being utterly obvious.
I was watching a screener disc on this one, but all the slick sights and sounds seemed okay on this one.
There's one major extra here, but it's a good one, as Hustle creator Tony Jordan explains how he comes up with these stories. "The Big Finish" also takes viewers through the creation of one set piece action scene from the season finale. "Con Six," which was being portrayed as a stunning finale, turned out to be just another Hustle, though, despite a few more action scenes and a slightly higher budget. Not bad, but hardly as mind-blowing as billed. It would have been nice to see Jordan and Adrian Lester, who comments extensively in this featurette, do an episode commentary, though. There's also a trailer encouraging people who liked this set to watch the upcoming episodes on AMC (United States) and CBC (Canada), and cast biographies with nifty graphics and type that's too small.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Think of poor Eddie! The guy who runs their favorite hangout gets scammed or hurt (physically, in one case) in just about every episode, and he's a friend. Although the main target is usually one of the ungodly, the gang's always scamming, so some innocent people are bound to find themselves on the wrong end of a trick. There's also a tendency here to "use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut," as Mickey puts it when Albert and Stacey put into play an elaborate plan to swindle a bank manager to get revenge because he was unsympathetic about her overdraft.
Hustle's characterizations and motivations are shallow. While it's a great ride, don't expect to develop much attachment to these characters. If you're looking for a breakthrough in television thrill rides, like Lost or 24, you'll probably want to keep on looking.
Looking for a modern take on those 1960s adventure shows that the British kept churning out? Then you'll probably at least like Hustle, perhaps because it plays like The Saint with a new coat of shiny paint.
This gang of grifters is as guilty as they come, but the adeptly-written Hustle acquits itself well as a slick action drama in fine British tradition.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• "The Big Finish" Featurette
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