By the time he was done watching this dud, Judge Jeff Andreasen wished he was stone cold.
Assault with a dawdling weapon.
May 8, 1988, was a dark day for Tom Selleck fans. After eight successful seasons and 155 episodes on CBS, Magnum P.I. left the airwaves for good. That wasn't the end for Tom Selleck, of course, but after duds like High Road to China, Lassiter, and Mr. Baseball, his career was left—dare I say it?—stone cold.
Now he's back, once again as a lawman and once again on CBS. Stone Cold originally aired on February 20, 2005 as a two-hour made-for-TV movie, garnering solid ratings and critical acclaim, and providing popular star Selleck a new vehicle with which to get back into the mainstream.
Facts of the Case
Jessie Stone (Selleck) is the main character in five Robert B. Parker (the Spenser series) novels, the fourth of which is Stone Cold. Stone is an alcoholic womanizer who was drummed out of the Los Angeles Police Department due to his drinking problem. Offered the job of police chief in tiny Paradise, Mass., by town elders convinced he'll be a pushover, Stone makes the trek across country and takes up his new position, surprising everyone with his competence and un-pushover-ness.
As Stone Cold opens, Stone is well-established in his new home when he is summoned by his dimwitted, Barney Fife-like deputy, Luther "Suitcase" Simpson (Kohl Sudduth, Grosse Pointe, The Banger Sisters), to the scene of a murder he discovered whilst relieving himself upon the rocky beach. The corpse, ventilated by two .22 bullets to the chest, is whined over by the unlucky victim's sorrowful dog, which Stone sees fit to claim as his own. Other murders follow, each body expelling fluids through .22 caliber holes neatly drilled into their chests. One of these victims is Stone's girlfriend, attorney Abby Taylor (Polly Shannon, Daydream Believers: The Monkees Story, Harvard Man). Uh-oh. Now it's personal. Stone gets serious and finally brings the evil thrill-killers to justice. Along the way, he must deal with some pesky high school boys who go for some extra credit in sex ed, and a nymphomaniac defense attorney who shows up to offer Stone some extracurricular activity of her own.
The situation here is an old one: worn-out cop moves to dreary burg to get away from checkered past. He likes the sauce, though from the indications in Stone Cold, Jessie Stone is not an alcoholic, as there is never a scene with him drunk and the only allusions to any problem are from his time in Los Angeles, long before the present story. He doesn't have to "face his own demons in order to solve the crimes," as the box blurb says; he's already solved them before it even begins to become personal! In fact, the lazy pace of the film and Selleck's world-weary delivery make it hard to believe this ever really does become personal.
There are doubtlessly legions of Robert B. Parker fans out there who will sentence me to 10 minutes in a locked room with Hawk for such blasphemy, and maybe the novel "Stone Cold" is a crackling example of hard-boiled detective fiction at its best. But this telefilm is a yawner. There is absolutely no suspense in the main plot. The yuppie killers (Jane Adams, Wonder Boys, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Reg Rogers, Runaway Bride, Analyze That) are revealed early and have absolutely no personality. They are exactly the elitist, disdainful, and hapless yuppie scum you expect them to be. But no more. And their nameless victims do nothing to fire the viewer up with lusty visions of vengeance. The teen girl (Alexis Dziena, Broken Flowers, Invasion) raped by thuggish high school peers subplot is equally stale. If you watch this show thinking you've seen all this a million times before and grow bored, try thinking of the name of the Law & Order episode you last saw it on and the time will go more quickly.
More lamentable is a common malady of hero-driven narratives from Star Trek to Batman: the establishment of the idol's superiority by making everyone around him a moron. In Stone Cold, Jessie Stone is immediately established as the main man in town, and, to Stone, his new home must seem oh-so-perfectly named. The town councilmen who thought him a drunken dullard are no towering intellects themselves, his number one deputy makes Nigel Bruce's Doctor Watson look like Hercule Poirot, and the biggest case to come his way involves preening dopes so loudly advertising their guilt they couldn't put one over even on Scoob and Shag. It's no wonder Jessie Stone seems bored stiff throughout the proceedings.
I've always thought it bad form to start adapting a series of books with a late entry. Too much has gone on with the character, and bringing the viewer up to speed requires so much exposition as to drag the show underwater. Here, though, a little more exposition would have been a good thing, if for nothing else than to further pad an already interminable narrative. The relationship between Stone and his ex-wife is unclear, though in the novels, she apparently is a total bitch using her former husband for her own ends. When Mimi Rogers (Someone to Watch Over Me, The Rapture, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) first showed up, I thought she was Stone's ex-wife. She might as well have been insofar as she is relevant at all to the plot.
The motives of the thrill-killing psycho yuppie couple could also have been expounded upon a bit. In the "Beneath the Surface of Stone Cold" featurette, Selleck sagely informs us that the motives of serial killers are not always known. Do we yet know the motives of the deranged D.C. Sniper? he asks. Well, the D.C. Sniper isn't in this flick, and in a movie-of-the-week, this sort of justification for lazy storytelling is, well, lazy. Still, the mannerisms of the nutjob duo, and the speculations of our hero and his merry band more than adequately fill in the blanks in this by-the-numbers blandness.
My biggest complaint, though, is the utter waste made of personal fave Stephen McHattie. I've been a fan of this guy since he was on Guiding Light in the mid-80s, and he really amped up my interest as the sinister Gabriel on Beauty and the Beast. He's been in just about everything, has an unusual and powerful delivery, is an instantly recognizable face…and is utterly wasted in Stone Cold. Shame on whoever adapted this scenario that it should be so. Or shame on the casting director for including McHattie in a role so devoid of importance and screen time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Aside from the plot and the poor usage of Stephen McHattie, Stone Cold is actually a good example of professional execution. And the DVD is pretty good too.
The performances are (almost) uniformly excellent, from Selleck's tired chief to Alexis Dziena's young rape victim. Too bad there's nothing original or interesting for them to do. Jane Adams and Reg Rogers chomp on the scenery as they bemusedly engage Jessie Stone in their game of cat and bigger cat. Polly Shannon does a solid job as attorney Abby Taylor, though she is perforated before anything really interesting is thrown her way. In fact, all of the bit players in Stone Cold turn in excellent and engaging performances. All except the poor schlubs who have the thankless task of delivering the lines cut-and-pasted for the sinister young rapist and his deep-pocketed, booster club dad. I winced as the young felon's father growled out lines even the Sci-Fi Channel has too much class to include in their scripts. For the rest, it would be nice to see some of these actors in roles that require them to do something. Actually, it would be nice to see Selleck in a role that required him to do something.
I liked Jeff Beal's (Pollock, Monk) moody score. It never crescendos into pretentiousness and never subverts the narrative with too much melancholia (no more than the narrative demands, anyway).
The disc is excellent. Dolby 5.1 Digital has good delivery on all channels, though there isn't much for the rear channels to do except provide some ambient footfalls and door creaks. All the "action" takes place right in front of you. Literally. The picture is clear, sharp, and rich; better than a lot of theatrically-released movies that come up on DVD.
The extras include the aforementioned "Beneath the Surface of Stone Cold," a 15-minute studio propaganda piece wherein everyone involved dutifully applauds Robert Parker's incredible ability and ingenuity in crafting so skillful a scenario, and praises director Robert Harmon for his unparalleled genius in getting all the nuance and angst onto the screen. For die-hards.
Stone Cold has satisfying moments, but they're utterly by-the-numbers and none too original. There's terrific acting from all concerned, but they have nothing to do. There's no mystery here…you know whodunit almost right off. There's no suspense to the murder plot because you know who's going to be whacked and when. It's frustrating that there is so little character development beyond tired clichés and worn-out dialogue. If this is a faithful adaptation of a Robert Parker novel, color me glad I haven't read any.
Nice disc, though.
Stone Cold is guilty of being dull. There has to have been more to the novel than what crept into this tepid exercise. The court sentences Tom Selleck and Robert Harmon to detention until they can craft a more expert, and more compelling, adaptation of other Jessie Stone novels. The court further endorses a closer and more collaborative working relationship between the Hollywood types and author Robert B. Parker. Even though it's said he dug this interpretation of his work, it can't be all that he'd hoped for.
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Scales of Justice
• Beneath the Surface of Stone Cold Featurette
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