This set of lackluster movies makes Judge Maurice Cobbs want to head to the library, not the video store.
Our review of Ceremony (Blu-ray), published June 29th, 2011, is also available.
For the first time ever, the four top-rated Spenser movies in one explosive collection!
A famous mystery writer, I believe that it was Raymond Chandler, was once asked by a dinner guest if he was upset at how Hollywood had destroyed his characters. The writer got up in a panic, rushed to the book case, and flipped through a copy of one of his novels. "Don't worry," he said with relief. "They're right here, and they're just as I left them."
Thank goodness the same can be said for the powerful and complex characters created by Robert B. Parker in his series of Spenser novels!
Facts of the Case
Robert Urich (The Lazarus Man) returns in one of his most popular roles as Boston shamus Spenser—"With an 's', like the poet"—in four Lifetime TV movies based on the best-selling novels by Robert B. Parker. In Ceremony, Spenser's soul mate, Susan Silverman (Barbara Williams, Krippendorf's Tribe), asks him to locate 16-year-old April Kyle (Tanya Allen, Silent Hill), a troubled teen who may be surviving on the streets as a prostitute…but why are so many powerful people, like crime lord Tony Marcus (Henry Gomez), so interested in this particular case?
In Pale Kings and Princes, one of Susan's patients, a reporter for the Boston Herald, turns up dead while investigating a massive drug ring in the small, quaint town of Wheaton. But when Spenser steps in, he finds that the killing may have had less to do with cocaine and more to do with the reporter's sexual exploits.
The Judas Goat finds Spenser in the midst of international terrorism as he is hired by wealthy industrialist Hugh Dixon (Leon Pownall, Wiseguy) to hunt down the terrorists who accidentally killed his family in an attempt on the life of African leader Winston Boyko (Ardon Bess)—but being away from Susan (Wendy Crewson, The Piano Man's Daughter) is causing a strain on their relationship.
Finally, in A Savage Place, ambitious TV reporter Candy Sloane (Cynthia Dale), an old flame of Spenser's, asks him to help her uncover a movie producer who may be using his studio as a front for criminal activities. But no matter where Spenser finds danger, her can always count on his mysterious friend Hawk (Avery Brooks, Deep Space Nine) for backup.
TV staple Robert Urich died of cancer in 2002, but he left a rich and popular library of work for us to enjoy, despite his having missed out on being Han Solo; whether you remember him as Jim Street from S.W.A.T., or Dan Tanna from Vega$, or from his later work on The Lazarus Man or Invasion: America, there are many memorable characters that have been given life by Urich's nice-but-tough-guy style. Perhaps his most popular and enduring role was wisecracking Beantown private eye Spenser in the TV series Spenser: For Hire, which ran from 1985-1988 on ABC. Although the series never reached the resonance of Robert B. Parker's novels, it nevertheless developed a large fan following; a spin-off series, A Man Called Hawk, centered around the adventures of Spenser's mysterious and dangerous best friend (who'd relocated to Washington D.C.), but failed to find an audience and was cancelled after only one season. After Lifetime Television picked up Spenser in syndication, and when ratings were consistently strong, the network decided to produce a series of movies with stories taken directly from the novels (the show never did, except for the pilot, which was based on the novel Promised Land, the fourth in the series of books and the first appearance of Hawk).
Unfortunately, these television movies resemble the novels that inspired them in only the loosest possible sense; the filmmakers take every available opportunity to dumb down the stories, rip every bit of complexity from the characters, and produce a flavorless pap of bland offerings that are frankly interchangeable with any other TV detective show or made-for-TV movie. This is tantamount to a capital crime, considering the rich tapestry of colorful, complex characters that inhabit the novels. It hardly seems possible, but it's true: these movies are even less representative of Spenser than the series. Although Robert B. Parker and his wife Joan are listed as writers, don't be fooled—though their impact can be felt in the first two features, that impact is barely discernable in the last two.
Robert Urich, while certainly a pleasant and affable screen presence, is only a passable Spenser. Then again, while he is nowhere as…interesting…as his literary counterpart, he is not terribly offensive, either. He is, in fact, rather bland, practically interchangeable with any other TV sleuth—you could pluck Urich's Spenser out of any one of these movies and plop him right down in the middle of any given TV thriller and not miss anything at all…except, of course, for the powerful presence of Avery Brooks.
If Robert Urich is a bowl of Corn Flakes, Avery Brooks is your Complete Nutritious Breakfast. From the minute that Brooks appears, he dominates the screen—and I'd expect no less from Hawk. Never has a character been so fully realized from page to screen. At the risk of swooning hyperbole, I'd even say that these movies are worth watching just to appreciate Brooks and the tremendous energy and style that he brings to his part—he's the Samuel L. Jackson of the small screen. Any of Robert B. Parker's principal characters could be as dynamic, but Avery Brooks is the only performer who makes the most of his role. And let me tell you—that's about the only thing this otherwise lackluster movies have going for them.
To be fair, the fault is not entirely Urich's. None of the directors of these movies seem to be making even a cursory effort at presenting anything other than standardized prime-time fodder; perhaps they were distracted while daydreaming about projects they'd much rather be working on. On the other hand, it would be hard to be inspired by the tepid writing; the best of these movies, Ceremony, is only mediocre, while the worst, The Judas Goat, is downright unwatchable.
The best of these movies also happens to be the first of them, but even Ceremony is a less-than-stellar effort, lacking much (although not all) of the bite of the novel. Granted, the controversial ending of that book might have been too much for the average Lifetime viewer to digest, but the movie version is so limp and predictable that "anti-climax" hardly seems to describe it. Still, there are some well-translated moments, and while Barbara Williams is not perfect as Susan Silverman, she is at least as adequate to the role as Urich is to Spenser. The next feature, Pale Kings and Princes, also manages to suck the majority of the tension and complexity out of the material it was based upon, and with comparable results, including a rushed and clichéd climax.
However, The Judas Goat manages to set new levels of banality, even for television. Hugh Dixon, the crippled tycoon seeking justice for his murdered family, becomes onscreen Hugh Dixon, the two-dimensional cardboard cut-out corporate villain. The sexually-depraved, masochistic terrorist and white supremacist Katherine Caldwell becomes the helpless, timid, shrieking damsel in distress Cloris Caldwell. London, Amsterdam, and Montreal become…Toronto, Toronto, and Toronto. At least the extras didn't have to hide their accents anymore. Don't even get me started on how disgustingly insipid A Savage Place is…really, it's depressing. For these final two movies, Barbara Williams has been replaced by the less-than-adequate Wendy Crewson—even Urich later recognized this as a bad decision.
This DVD collection gets the release that it deserves from Ryko, which is to say, perfectly average and unremarkable. The picture is average—mostly clean, but for the occasional glitch or speck. The sound is average—the best that I can say about it is that you can hear all the dialogue. There aren't any special features—no interviews, no commercial spots, no "making-of." No subtitles, no captions, no languages other than English. There is an "extensive Spenser essay," which is actually four short essays printed on the inside of the DVD covers—they are actually good reading, quite interesting.
Robert B. Parker had always been somewhat ambivalent about the TV Spenser; he said that his main commitment to the series was to cash the check each week. "Some of the differences between their Spenser and my Spenser are dictated by demands, real and imagined, of an enormous mass market," he wrote in a 1987 TV Guide article. "As I watch the somewhat different characters on television, am I influenced to change the books? Their Spenser, Robert Urich, is big, graceful, good-looking, and young (a runner-up in the Robert B. Parker look-alike contest). Will I change my Spenser to match? No. The books are mine. They were here before the series, they will be here when it's gone."
Unfortunately, I cannot be as forgiving, or a philosophical, as Dr. Parker.
Urich is charming, Brooks is amazing. But the liberties taken with these characters and stories are inexcusable. Feed them to the Sharkticons.
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