Monday, January 26, 2009

Most Likely the Impact Will Kill You


I'm a sucker for heist movies, whether really good (Ocean's 11, The Thomas Crown Affair) or really terrible (Ocean's 12, The Italian Job). I like the formula of watching the plan run through twice, once in the ideal as the hoods practice it and then again in real time as complications present themselves. Steven Soderbergh did this beautifully in the first and third Ocean's films, though oddly not the second, using repeated compositions and camera angles to elegant effect. "Leverage" is the first heist-themed TV series of which I'm aware (other than the rapidly-canceled network offering "Smith," which despite a star-studded cast was as nondescript as its title). It's one of many recent cable shows that would have been prohibitively expensive even for network five years ago; CGI allows for exciting explosions and in this week's installment a cinema-worthy high-tension landing of a jumbo jet on a bridge.

The big draws "Leverage" has to offer are very snappy writing and a terrific lead, played by the forgotten Timothy Hutton with poignant relish. TNT has built an entire cottage industry around giving meaty series roles to blueblood screen actors with faces too weathered for today's Hollywood blockbusters. (Coming in 2026: TNT presents three-time Oscar winner Shia LeBeouf as... "THE AGITATOR!") Hutton is a gas to watch as a good guy turned crook-who-steals-from-crooks, a useful device which sidesteps the difficulty of making a weekly series about massive robberies play logically. Nate (Hutton) and his crew aren't looking to make that one last big score before their retirements, they're in it to serve the cause of good. They only steal money when there's extra there for them. Which is most of the time, since primarily they target mobsters and crooked corporations.

"Leverage" still has to work out some of the issues with the rest of the cast. Christian Kane, the droolworthy Lindsey McDonald from "Angel," is what drew me to checking out the new series in the first place. Unfortunately, his character is a strong, silent cipher. Kane is a very good actor for a massive hunk, with a very nasty sense of humor he barely gets to tap into here at all. The single funniest thing his character Eliot has done so far is to maim the Butcher of Kiev in front of a background of apocalyptic fire. Well, you had to see it, it was played for laughs. Aldis Hodge has a lot of energy as the comic relief/computer hacker character, but the writers haven't found a voice for him yet. Beth Riesgraf makes little impression when she's not topless, and as the group's master of accents and disguises, Gina Bellman presents a real problem. She's not even convincing as the character she's supposed to be playing, let alone her many aliases.

Still, I think I'm in for the season pass. The guest star roster has been diverse and solid, the format allows for a lot of excitement, and Hutton is really in his element -- it's tons of fun watching him run cons within cons and psychologically manipulate his underlings. Two suggestions for the writers: First, a lot of the episodes since the pilot have tended to make it appear like the crew is making it up as they go along. The writers should have more respect for their characters, and their audience, than that. A sacrifice of pace early on to explain what the con is exactly in this genre makes the viewer more engaged, not less so due to repetition. With the imaginative use of editing and technology "Leverage" has already displayed, they ought to be able to incorporate this quickly and easily. The other suggestion is much simpler. Kane needs to get a haircut, stat.

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