Who loves ya baby? Judge Victor Valdivia, that's who. Now please love him back. He's desperate.
Our reviews of Kojak: Season One (published April 6th, 2005), Kojak: Season Two (published September 27th, 2011), Kojak: Season Three (published March 8th, 2012), Kojak: Season Four (published May 9th, 2012), and Kojak: Season Five (published September 2nd, 2012) are also available.
Who loves ya, baby?
Telly Savalas had been a respected character actor, with appearances in such classic ensemble films as The Dirty Dozen and Kelly's Heroes, when he took on the role of an NYPD police inspector in a made-for-TV movie in 1973. The result would be one of the most enduring TV characters of the decade and beyond, even extending to TV movies until the late 1980s. That character, however, was better served in the series that was built around him rather than the TV movies in Kojak: The Complete Movie Collection, which, while never awful, don't really show him off to full advantage.
Facts of the Case
Here are the movies compiled on this set:
• The Belarus File (1985)—When Kojak's friend (Max Von Sydow, The Exorcist) disappears mysteriously, Kojak and a state department employee (Suzanne Pleshette, The Bob Newhart Show) team up to find out how he's connected to a cover-up involving escaped Nazis hidden in America.
• Ariana (1989)—A drug lord (Hector Elizondo, Pretty Woman) seeks his revenge on Kojak by using a young girl to entrap him.
• Flowers for Matty (1990)—When one of Kojak's oldest friends is murdered, the investigation leads him into a plot involving art thieves, gun runners, and the IRA.
• None So Blind (1990)—An aging department store magnate (Rip Torn, The Larry Sanders Show) is at the center of a murder case that leaves a witness (Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock) terrified of a Mafia hit man (James Remar, Dexter).
When The Marcus-Nelson Murders first aired on TV in 1973, viewers got their first look at Inspector Theo Kojak, the gruff NYPD cop who isn't interested in easy answers but in trusting his own unfailing instincts. In that TV movie (based on a real incident), Kojak showed his uncanny ability to ferret out the truth, even if the rest of the NYPD was more interested in earning media praise for supposedly solving an infamous murder case. The audience responded favorably to Savalas' strong performance and the result was one of the most iconic TV characters ever created.
That character, however, is really best served on the TV series that aired for five seasons. These movies actually don't really do him that much justice. It's not that they're terrible, although one or two are rather on the low end of average. It's that they're less Kojak stories and more standard TV mysteries with Kojak as their protagonist. Consider that The Price of Justice was originally an unrelated novel by mystery writer Dorothy Uhnak that the movie's producers shoehorned Kojak into. Similarly, The Belarus File was taken from John Loftus' nonfiction book The Belarus Secret about Nazi war criminals protected by the U.S. State Department, which has nothing to do with Kojak or, for that matter, the NYPD.
These changes don't make these movies unwatchable. The Belarus File is a pretty solid mystery, The Price of Justice doesn't shy away from examining the issue of how the media pressure the police to solve celebrated cases, and the other movies have some pretty good performances and moments of suspense. They are not, however, really all that typical of the TV series. What made Kojak a success was that it was one of the few series that captured the gritty, street-level work of a NYC police detective and that was actually shot in NYC, with real NYC actors. These movies are all much slicker and more like typical TV mysteries set in any major city, with little of the New York flavor or edge that made the series so popular.
It's disconcerting, moreover, that so many of these are centered on millionaires, tycoons, and the upper-crust of Manhattan society. One or two might be fine, but virtually every one of these movies is set in the upper-class world of New York in the late '80s. That's probably some sort of reflection of what was considered popular TV in that era (it was the time of Dynasty and Dallas, after all) but it's still not nearly as compelling as watching Kojak deal with street crimes and characters who aren't stock "rich white people" from every other late-'80s TV drama.
The only real exception is The Marcus-Nelson Murders. It examines (with some dramatic license) one of the more controversial cases in NYPD history, one that predated (as opening and ending crawls specify) the Supreme Court's Miranda decision, which allowed suspects to know their constitutional rights before being interrogated. It's an earnest and ambitious movie but it suffers from two crucial flaws. For one thing, the pacing is glacial, even by early '70s standards. Clocking in at 140 minutes, it meanders along slowly and suffers from some scenes that are needlessly padded to twice as long as they should have been. Even worse, for this collection at least, is that Kojak only appears in about half of it. Most of the story centers on the other cops, the teenager's defense attorney, another suspect, and a dealer turned informant. When Kojak is onscreen, he seizes the show, but that only occurs part of the time, meaning that this movie, like the others, pales in comparison to the subsequent series.
Technically, the set is solid. The movies alternate between full-screen and anamorphic widescreen and mostly look fine, though a couple do seem washed out in spots. The stereo mix is acceptable as well. The only extra is a featurette titled "Who Loves Ya Baby?" (31:46). Containing interviews with various cast and crew members as well as Savalas' family, it does give a decent, though not detailed, look at the series, even if it doesn't really discuss these movies all that much.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One reason that these movies are not so bad as to be unwatchable is that the caliber of actors is generally pretty high. From such character actor stalwarts as Ned Beatty (Deliverance) and Jose Ferrer (Lawrence of Arabia) in The Marcus-Nelson Murders to Max Von Sydow and Rip Torn in the later movies, these movies have some pretty good performances that are at least worth seeing. Homicide fans will especially appreciate Braugher's presence in the last few movies. Though he isn't given as much to do as he was in that series, he does have some great scenes here, especially in It's Always Something.
Kojak fans will be pleased to have these movies on DVD finally, but if you've never seen Kojak before, this is not the place to start. They're less representative of the series than they could have been, and are really only for fans, although fans of '80s detective dramas (or some of the actors involved) might also get some enjoyment out of them. As TV mysteries, they're not bad. As Kojak stories, they're not great.
Not guilty, but not essential, either.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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