Who says the British can't make 1960s adventure shows anymore? Not Appellate Judge James A. Stewart, who was impressed by this season of Hustle.
"I thought we were ruthless con artists. When did we change to Robin Hood and his Merry Bleeding Men?"
When last we met the grifters of Hustle, they were doing "a runner" to avoid paying their tab at a posh hotel. As Hustle: Complete Season Three begins, the gang's discovering that they can't get a new suite from which to run their scams.
Hustle: Complete Season Three builds on what by now is a fantastic working relationship between its stars and a familiarity the audience has with its gang of con artists.
Facts of the Case
Hustle: Complete Season Three features six episodes on two discs:
• "Con Two"—It's a boring afternoon at home with the gang, until Albert proposes a competition between bickering Danny and Mickey.
• "Con Three"—American con artist James Whittaker Wright III (Richard Chamberlain) ropes the gang into his plan to take a bank for millions with a stock scam. It's revenge on the bank that went after Wright's grandfather.
• "Con Five"—Stacie's friend jumps into the Thames after The Weekend World accuses her of defrauding her charity. The grifters scheme to convince the editor that the Queen Mum died during World War II.
• "Con Six"—"You're the crooks. I'm the police officer," the cop who planted cocaine on the grifters says. Still, he needs the gang's help to nail Adam Rice, a thief known as "The Ghost."
The first con of the season fits Hustle's familiar pattern: find an unworthy target, learn his soft spots, and take him for big bucks with an elaborate long con. A violent twist that puts the grifters at risk of physical harm adds more suspense than usual, but their audacious solution is part of the standard playbook.
With the second episode, about "the Henderson challenge," the second season shifts into high gear, however. The episode starts with the gang sitting around on a boring day. Mickey's annoyed by Danny's incessant chatter, and Albert proposes a challenge to see who's the top con artist: drop Danny and Mickey naked in the middle of London, and see who comes back with the most loot.
The normal careful planning goes out the window, showing us how Danny (seconded by Stacie) and Mickey (seconded by Ash) think on their feet. The result is an hour full of character moments, with cocky Danny supplying comedy as he runs as many short cons as possible and methodical Mickey putting his "rainy day" scam into play while he considers his future. We find out the motive behind Danny's eagerness for "the Henderson challenge" ("I want him to respect me as an equal, and to do that, I'm going to have to beat him," Danny tells Stacie) and see Mickey having doubts about staying with the gang.
The gang's Robin Hood credo of only targeting big-time villains goes out the window in ways small (Mickey stealing overalls from a construction site) and large (Danny conning tourists into boarding a barge, thinking it's a tour boat).
Actors Adrian Lester (As You Like It) and Marc Warren (Dracula) get to show off the characters' personalities instead of the fake personas created for the scams. Lester lets us see a little bit of doubt behind Mickey's unruffled style, while Warren goes for broader belly laughs. Both are effective in making their characters seem human rather than above it all.
Stacie (Jaime Murray, The Deaths of Ian Stone) gets caught up in the excitement of working cons with Danny, even as they end up running away throughout the day. Ash (Robert Glenister, Persuasion) is still mostly a mystery, but his quiet personality makes him a good listener as Mickey gets reflective and wonders if the challenge is a sign that he should get out. Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) comes across as both an ever-playful scam artist and an avuncular father figure as he teaches the two bickering grifters a lesson.
Even Eddie (Rob Jarvis, Heartlands), the long-suffering barkeep, shows his motivations as the two cons are tested. Turns out he's entranced by the grifters and wants to know how they do it.
Several guest stars stand out in Hustle: Complete Season Three, in stories that make the gang seem a little bit more human.
Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds) as James Whittaker Wright III proves a worthy adversary for the grifters even as he gets close to them. Chamberlain and Vaughn have great rapport as they trade barbs and hatch schemes together. Two bankers (Stephen Campbell Moore, Terence Harvey) who hatch a dirty scam of their own because they dislike oilman Danny provide excellent support with their comic deviousness.
A less-known actor, Silas Carson (Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace) goes a bit deeper than usual to play the sweatshop owner targeted by the grifters in their Bollywood movie scam. His personality change as the grifters play to his dreams and desires is one that'll be hard to match.
It's also worth noting that Hustle's at least as much a comedy as a caper drama. This season, Hustle makes fun of rap music, silent movies, Bollywood musicals, the stock market, and Britain's obsession with the royals in the process.
As usual, Hustle creates its atmosphere with great sound and visuals that come across well on the transfer. The slick cuts and glistening sets help put viewers into the con, while viewers are taken, say, to Bollywood or back to the past in flashbacks with spot-on music choices.
The bonus segment, "It's Just Like Playing," previews the season. It has spoilers—not of the plots, but of the comic set pieces. Adrian Lester talks about how much fun it was to do a Chaplin parody in a bogus flashback, while Jaime Murray enjoyed doing a Bollywood dance in a fantasy sequence. Cast bios are also included, again with the playing card motif.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
How does the gang get away with this stuff? Don't think about Hustle too much; the writers just want to entertain you. Logic just doesn't apply in the world of Mickey, Albert, Danny, Stacie, and Ash.
Hustle improves on itself not by pulling off bigger and bigger scams, but by fleshing out the characters more and putting them in situations that test their mettle. Hustle still comes across as a pumped-up version of classic 1960s shows like The Avengers or The Saint. With the writing and characterization getting sharper as well, it's now a worthy successor. I'm impressed—and surprised—that Hustle gets better as it goes along.
For all the twists and turns of the stories, Hustle doesn't have the continuity complications that would keep you from starting with Hustle: Complete Season Three and going backward if you like what you see.
Everyone involved is guilty, from Mickey and the gang, to the marks, to Eddie the barkeep. Hustle: Complete Season Three, on the other hand, is free to go—provided Hustle comes back at least as strong in Season Four.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• "It's Just Like Playing"
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