Look for Appellate Judge James A. Stewart: Night Passage at a DVD store near you.
"I wouldn't have hired me, would you?"—Jesse Stone
Night Passage was the 30th novel from Robert B. Parker, best known for his series about a Boston private eye named Spenser. Passage introduced Jesse Stone, a former L.A. cop with a drinking problem who's lost his job and his wife. Stone becomes police chief in the Massachusetts town of Paradise. As Parker himself says, "Spenser is complete, Jesse is a life work in progress."
Stone's progressing well, though, carving out a place for himself in print and on TV, with the sixth novel and the fourth TV movie starring Tom Selleck both released in 2007.
Selleck just took a new TV role on Las Vegas, so it'll be a while before he can come back to playing Jesse Stone. In the meantime, Jesse Stone: Night Passage comes to DVD.
Facts of the Case
In Santa Monica, Calif., a police car approaches a pickup truck at 4 A.M. The officer gets out and shines a flashlight on the cab to show a basset hound inside. The cop finds the truck's owner looking out on the moonlit night.
"I'm a cop…Was a cop, I'm leaving town," the truck's owner, Jesse Stone (Tom Selleck, Magnum, P.I.), explains. He acknowledges that he's been drinking and says he stopped until he gets sober.
Soon, Stone's on his way, driving cross-country to Paradise, Mass., where he's got an interview for the job of police chief. Stone has a shot of Scotch in his hotel room to bolster his confidence for the interview and arrives wearing jeans, but somehow town council chief Hasty Hardaway (Saul Rubinek, Nero Wolfe) hires him anyway. It might have something to do with the conversation Hasty had with the departing chief, when he said, "He's just looking for a nice, quiet place to hide and I'm going to give it to him." The departing chief warned Hasty not to be so hasty about that, but it didn't sink in.
Too bad, since the situation in Paradise is about to get dicey. On Stone's first day, he heads to the scene of a domestic and delivers a kick in the balls to an ex-husband who just doesn't respect a restraining order. Turns out the ex-husband's into a crooked deal with Hasty. When the departing chief departs for good—over a cliff into the sea—there's a case that will test Stone's mettle.
This isn't exactly a mystery, since the killer and the schemes are laid out from the beginning, as in a TV cop show from the 1970s. Everything about the crime drama plot plays out predictably. I didn't read the novel Night Passage, but the summary at Robert B. Parker's site suggests that its storyline was more complex that what wound up on screen.
The best thing about Jesse Stone: Night Passage is Tom Selleck's performance. He builds on his Magnum persona and the goodwill that comes with it to make you root for Jesse Stone. Standard character moments, such as when Stone tells jokes to his dog but only points when asked questions at a pit stop or when he has a pay phone conversation with his ex, manage to be believable, likable, and touching. It doesn't hurt that the older Selleck looks like a seedy wreck as well. He makes the movie easy to watch, even when the dramatic tension's lacking, which is pretty much most of the time.
Selleck is hampered by a lot of crappy dialogue, especially in the "mystery" scenes. I was particularly stunned by a scene in which he explains to a teen who hates her father that "fathers are important," even though Stone already knows that the father in this case is a mob hitman and a wife beater. I wouldn't say the romantic banter between Stone and love interest Abby (Polly Shannon, Sue Thomas, F.B.Eye) or the suspicious banter with crime interests Hasty and Genest (Stephen Baldwin, The Young Riders) was great, but the lecture on fathers took the cake.
Viola Davis (Century City) as dispatcher Molly creates a character effectively from small opportunities, showing her loyalty to former chief Lou and her determination to become a detective herself. There's not much to say about the supporting cast members otherwise, since they don't really get much of a chance to shine.
There is one other area in which Night Passage delivers: scenery. While there's some standard camera work in here at times, the production takes the time to pan some stunning vistas. How often does a murder scene just look beautiful? And Stone gets fixed up with a splendid fixer-upper of an abode with a view that makes Robin Masters's guest house look dull. The look of Night Passage is darned good for a TV movie—even if, or perhaps because, all that beautiful scenery is in Nova Scotia, not Massachusetts. The score and ambient sound come through well, but rarely draw attention to themselves.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sometimes, the knowledge that you can see a movie over and over again on cable or DVD is a curse rather than a blessing. Back in the few-channel environment, Jesse Stone: Night Passage would have been a decent evening's entertainment, and it still kills a couple of hours nicely, but it's not likely to hold up to repeated viewing. The bare-bones release suggests that Sony didn't see much potential beyond rentals and Netflix.
Whether you like Jesse Stone: Night Passage depends a lot on whether you liked Magnum, P.I.. Tom Selleck's acting has grown more nuanced since the 1980s, even when the script isn't as sharp as the ones on his classic crime series. Halifax can be as beautiful as Honolulu on screen, though.
Tom Selleck makes Jesse Stone: Night Passage watchable, but it's still guilty of falling short of its potential.
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