Thursday, February 24, 2022


 The first thing the creators of the Amazon Prime series Reacher did right was to cast Alan Richson as Reacher. Not that Richson is the second coming of Laurence Olivier. He doesn’t need to be. He looks like Jack Reacher, facially and physically. No offense to Tom Cruise, who is a fine actor, but Lee Child’s books work because Jack Reacher carries an obvious level of physical intimidation with him. That requires someone who is at least close to Reacher’s description of 6’ 5” and 250 pounds. Wikipedia has Cruise as 5-7, and he's obviously not a millimeter taller. That nearly a foot is hard to make up.


I don’t mean to dismiss Richson as an actor. I’ve never seen him in anything else, and Reacher doesn’t stretch his range. He does the low-key banter well, as well as the deadpan humor. His speeches are a little robotic, but anyone who’d read the books knows Reacher doesn’t let out any more emotion than he has to. This may be how they’ve chosen to portray that.


What all Reacher Creatures want to know is how well the series captures the tone of the books. Rest easy. They nailed it. I’ve read several Reacher books and tend to look upon them as guilty pleasures. I don’t mean that as a pejorative, but let’s face it: Reacher is a superhero. You can’t read the books – or watch the show - and believe any of this could actually happen. That’s all right. We need a little escapism once in a while, and Child was smart enough to provide enough depth to Reacher’s character that one is never sorry to have spent time with him. He’s just not going to provoke existential discussions afterward.


The supporting cast is okay. The primary villain is a bit over the top, but for the most part everyone carries their water faithfully. The standout is Willa Fitzgerald as officer Roscoe Conklin. To paraphrase The Beloved Spouse™, Fitzgerald can be cute as a button and hard as nails almost simultaneously.


There are some iffy parts. Margrave, Georgia seems to have forensic capabilities Gil Grissom would be proud of. There is also a disconnect as to who Reacher should have trouble beating up, and who is a worthy adversary.


Those are quibbles. The producers didn’t set out to reinvent Deadwood or Braking Bad. It’s a 21st Century Western, where the lone stranger rides into town (albeit on a bus), get sweet on a local girl, kicks serious ass, sets things right, and rides off into the sunset. No one is going to teach college-level classes on the social relevancy of Reacher like those inspired by The Wire. That’s okay. The show knows what it is, and it does that very well. The world could use more of that attitude. I’m looking forward to Season 2.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Movies and TV Since the Last Time

 The Courier (2020) Benedict Cumberbatch in an excellent retelling of the Penkovsky spy situation that took place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cumberbatch plays a British businessman recruited my M.I.6 to act as the go-between with Penkovsky. A perfect example of how to build and sustain tension and suspense without blowing shit up.


Green Zone (2010) Based on another true story, this time set in the early days of the Iraq War. Matt Damon plays a warrant officer caught between politics, the media, and the CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson) who’s trying to make things come out right. Lots of shit blows up here, but never gratuitously. Well worth your time.


Galaxy Quest (1999) I forget how many times I’ve seen this*, and it’s always fun. If you haven’t seen it, you should, especially if you’re a Trekkie and have a sense of humor. (* - Note to Mike Dennis: Not as many times as L.A. Confidential.)


Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary (2019) First time for this one and it changed my attitude about cosplay. The film not only tells much of how Galaxy Quest was made, it explores the word of cosplayers with a humorous, yet sympathetic light. Galaxy Quest devotees will probably enjoy it more, but, then again, shouldn’t everyone be a Galaxy Quest fan?


Bad Santa 2 (2016) I didn’t even know there was a Bad Santa 2 until I stumbled onto this while searching streaming services for the original. The rare sequel that’s as much fun as the original, with humor at least as outrageous.


We Were Soldiers (2002) Maybe the best film I’ve seen about what it’s like to be a conscientious military commander. Closely based on a true story, the movie shows the Vietnam War battle for Ia Drang, the first time helicopters were used to ferry infantry to and from a battlefield, and all the plusses and fuck-ups that entails. Mel Gibson and Sam Elliott are excellent as the commander and his sergeant major; Greg Kinnear shines in one of his first dramatic roles as a chopper pilot. Fair warning: this is not the easiest movie to watch, as it’s horribly gruesome in places.


Don’t Look Up (2021) Don’t look at this piece of shit at all. I lived through the eras of such brilliant satires As Dr, Strangelove, Catch-22, M*A*S*H, Wag the Dog, and Primary Colors, and have unfortunately lived long enough to see this ham-handed effort to point out what’s wrong with the world today. It’s been a while since I saw so much acting talent wasted like this. I suppose everyone felt good about coming down on the right side of this discussion. If only they’d decided to make a good movie while they were at it.


Gladiator (2000) Made when Russell Crowe was arguably the biggest star in Hollywood, Gladiator is among the reasons he earned the spot. Joaquin Phoenix is repulsively squishy as the new emperor and Connie Nielsen as his equally scheming sister, but everything in the movie revolves around what to do about Maximus (Crowe). A damn near perfect example of telling a compelling story in a compelling manner. Was I not entertained? Damn right I was.


The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window (2022) Not a movie, but a short (3 ½ hours) streaming series from Netflix. IMDB lists the genres as “Comedy Crime Drama Mystery Thriller.” If you think that combo equates to a mess, you’re not far off. It’s presented as a comedy, but much of the early “humor” derives from a woman who is going insane from grief, which has about as much comedy potential as AIDS. (Things get rolling at 30 seconds into the video.) The comedy picks up as the show goes along, but even then it’s too more clever than laugh-out-loud funny.


Striking Distance (1993) Never watch a movie because you learned a fifteen-second scene took place a mile from where you grew up. This one’s a stinker from the get-go, despite the formidable supporting cast of Dennis farina, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Sizemore, John Mahoney, Andre Braugher, and Robert Pastorelli. The film gets the Pittsburgh look well, but not much else. The plot is a mess, the dialog is typical of the renegade cop genre, and the excellent cast is given little to work with.


Gorky Park (1983) William Hurt plays Arkady Renko in this adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s novel. I saw it in a theater during its original release and thought it would be a nice palate cleanser after the disaster that was Striking Distance. Alas, it did not hold up well, despite the best efforts of Lee Marvin and Brian Dennehy. The film leaves too many plot particulars to the imagination, especially the key reveal of the plot behind everything else, which Dennehy hands to Renko on a platter with us having no idea how an American detective operating as a tourist in the USSR could have discovered it. These back-to-back failures got me suspended from picking movies for a while.







Thursday, February 10, 2022

City on a Hill

 I have been less than flattering about my recent crime show experiences on both HBO and Showtime. (How American Rust keeps showing up on lists as Showtimes best crime show is beyond me.) Just as I was beginning to wonder if I’d reached the age where nothing new appealed to me, a friend told me to check out City on a Hill.


Now, this is a good show. Better than good, even.


The show is set in Boston, right after the Charles Stuart controversy. (Stuart was a white man who killed his pregnant wife, then called the police to say a Black carjacker shot her. Mayhem ensued when Boston police started rounding up Black males with inappropriate enthusiasm. More details here.) City on a Hill focuses on the racial tensions that flared after the Stuart case fell apart.


CoaH leaves this in the background, telling its stories through two main characters. Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon, in a stunning performance) is a corrupt FBI agent living off the reputation he built for taking down a Mafia crime family. It’s never made clear, but the implication is he was the beneficiary of information provided by Whitey Bulger as part of Bulger’s plan to take over Boston organized crime by working as a federal informant. Jackie is a detestable human being, but he’s also charming as hell, and Bacon plays him with a likeability that will often make you feel uncomfortable.


Jackie’s foil/partner/antagonist is DeCourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), a Black state’s attorney despised by most of the Boston police for having worked on the federal task force charged with finding justice for BPD’s racist handling of the Stuart case.


Season One focuses on Jackie’s efforts to muscle in on an investigation of an armored car robbery that led to the execution-style killing of three guards. That leads us to the criminal side of things, where Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker) runs a small crew with his wife (Amanda Clayton) as the money manager and his brother Jimmy (Mark O’Brien) as the fuck up. The dynamic there is fraught with tension, as is the relationship among the branches of law enforcement.


This could deteriorate into a sensationalistic soap opera pretty quickly, but the people in charge know what they’re doing. City on a Hill is a Tom Fontana/Barry Levinson production (Homicide: Life on the Street) created by Chuck Maclean that has all the elements one needs in a well-told story. Unlike the other shows I have recently been critical of, City on a Hill, for all its bleakness, is laugh out loud funny in places, just like real life. Jackie in particular has a sardonic, often inappropriate sense of humor that lends a feel of realism to the events. (Easter egg: Fontana got his start writing for St. Elsewhere. The primary hospital used in City on a Hill is St. Eligius.)


I could go on for a while, but I don’t want to inadvertently spread any spoilers. City on a Hill gets my highest recommendation. If you subscribe to Showtime, watch it. If you don’t subscribe to Showtime, look for a deal, get it, watch City on a Hill, then opt out if you want. That’s what we did. At least till Season 3 releases, when it’ll be time to start looking for another special.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

The Problem With Writing Cops Today

 My Penns River books are police friendly. My cops aren’t perfect, but they’re basically decent, well-intentioned people, just like all of the cops I know. Alas, it is impossible to pay attention in today’s society and assume all cops are like this. Some days it’s hard to assume even most cops are. I’m not talking about corruption per se, though it figures in. I’m talking about an increased tendency to see interactions with civilians as “us versus them” situations. We are not, and should not be, antagonistic forces. Both civilians and cops are safer if both sides cooperate, but it takes both sides giving a little.


Some of the problem comes from the growing mantra among police departments that their primary job is to go home safely. Let there be no misunderstanding: I want all cops to go home safely every night, but that’s not what we pay them for. They have sworn oaths to keep protect those of us not entitled to use lethal force, and that involves some risk to them. Sometimes great risk. When I hear of a cop – or, more likely, a union official - say their job is to go home in one piece, my first thought is “This guy’s in the wrong line of work. Is Paul Blart’s job open?”


Since I brought up police unions, they worry me more than individual cops. To pick a current controversy, many police unions around the country are protesting vaccination and mask mandates, often claiming these rules violate the officers’ “bodily autonomy.” Pardon me for snark, but I’ve yet to hear a word about bodily autonomy from a police union after a cop shoots someone, or beats them senseless. They took oaths and signed contracts to work for whichever government they work for. They need to be bound by the same rules as everyone else.


Standing by everything I said above doesn’t mean I have a millisecond’s time for any “defund the police” bullshit, and that’s exactly what it is: bullshit. We need to move the funding around to enhance training, counseling, and understanding how PTSD affects officers on the job. We also need ways to weed out those who lack the disposition to be cops while encouraging the recruitment of people who would be good at it. Just because I said above that going home safely shouldn’t be the only priority doesn’t mean I don’t advocate going to great lengths to ensure everyone, cop and civilian alike, arrives home in the same condition they left in.


Why am I posting this in a blog dedicated to writing? I have become uncomfortable with how I depict my cops. I don’t feel I provide a nuanced enough picture, which isn’t fair to anyone. Good cops should stand out, and they don’t if everyone is a straight up “good cop.” Hell, definitions of what makes a good cop differ. In the outstanding documentary The Seven-Five, I learned there was a time (maybe even still is) when for an NYPD officer to refer to another as a “good cop” meant he wouldn’t say anything about improper conduct.


That’s also bullshit, and it has to stop. My personal issue is that, in my universe, it doesn’t exist. I need to find a way to be fair without whitewashing things – which I may have done in the past - or throwing everyone under the bus. It’s a balancing act, but if I pull it off, the books will be better for it.


Don’t be surprised to see more on this topic down the road.