Monday, October 10, 2011

A Simple Excuse To Bring Everyone Back: Homicide: The Movie

The Good: Moments of character, Concept isn't bad, Moments of acting
The Bad: Most of the characters don't contribute, Plot is somewhat obvious, Lack of DVD bonus features.
The Basics: A disturbingly blase film that closes off the plot of "Homicide: Life On The Steet," Homicide: The Movie returns all of the credited characters for one last case.

As I finally finish the last disc of Homicide: Life On The Street, I find myself feeling a strange sense of relief. The series has its highs and lows and on DVD, fans will be glad to get everything all together with the complete series pack (reviewed here!), but for those whom the show seldom sparked, the final production in the series is simply an almost pointless epilogue. That disc, that final episode, that final act is Homicide: The Movie.

Billed as "The case so important, everyone is back," Homicide: The Movie is a few minutes of substantial storytelling surrounding a much longer collection of cameo appearances, flashbacks, references and unfortunate dead ends in plot threads. The story is straightforward in its plotting, but obtuse in the execution because the film has to accommodate so many characters being brought into the mix. So, rather than being a love letter "good-bye" to Homicide: Life On The Street, Homicide: The Movie is a clumsy collection of characters and actors waddling in the vicinity of a murder mystery story.

Al Giardello is running for Mayor of Baltimore and on the eve of what appears to be a landslide victory with the electorate, he is shot at a rally. As Giardello lays dying, all of his former subordinates converge on the homicide unit he used to run. Run now by Gharty, the Homicide Unit mobilizes with the help of the still active detectives, like Kay Howard, John Munch (who comes in from New York), Falzone, Stivers, and the suddenly-back-from-sabattical Bayliss. Retired detectives Frank Pembleton and Bolander show up to lend a hand. While Michael Giardello sits by his father's side waiting for him to get better or die, the detectives past and present get to work on solving the (attempted) homicide.

Unfortunately, Captain Gaffney - still nursing old wounds against Pembleton - rears his head to express disdain for Gharty's command style, despite the fact that Pembleton and Bayliss seem to be making progress. When the case hits a dead end, Michael Giardello - accompanied by Kellerman - goes on a rampage through Little Italy in search of a potential suspect. As Pembleton and Bayliss move in on the killer, though, Bayliss finds himself at a crossroads that compels him to break down to his old partner.

Ever emotionally fragile, Tim Bayliss left in the seventh season finale after a murderer who was released on a technicality was killed and there was some ambiguity about who the murderer was. Homicide: The Movie removes that ambiguity. Bayliss is shaken up from the moment he sees the murderer's name on the whiteboard and fortunately, the movie makes an effort to explain his emotional reaction by providing grainy black and white flashbacks of what was in the series finale.

This is worth mentioning because despite the appearance of everyone - including deceased detectives Beau Felton and Crossetti - the movie quickly becomes another Bayliss and Pembleton case with the other members of the squad only peripherally involved. As well, Jason Priestley plays a new detective whose sole purpose in the episode seems to be to give Gaffney something to lord over Gharty. In an episode already mixed up with far too many characters - Falzone, Munch, Howard and Bolander essentially show up (even Brody has a more important moment than them!) - the new character does little to make the film more meaningful.

Instead, Homicide: The Movie suffers because it is already packed and it attempts to squeeze everyone in. Stivers and her partner are essentially relegated to watching video tapes of the crime scene for most of the movie and the usually-interesting Lewis is sent with Sheppard to investigate a few racist white pride organizations that could, possibly, be involved in the assassination attempt.

The thing is, the nature of the story could go one of two ways: either there is a massive conspiracy and the combined talents of all of the detectives and former detectives must be pooled to allow each to reveal a clue that is vital to putting the larger puzzle together or all but one pair of detectives is off chasing red herrings. Sadly, Homicide: The Movie opts for the latter tact and it is not a surprise to anyone who watched the series that it is Bayliss and Pembleton who are the pair of detectives that are on the right path. So, while the others chase down loose ends, dead ends or just sit around (I swear, outside showing up and staring at a television for about ten seconds, I can't recall a single thing Kay Howard did!), Frank and Tim head out to solve one of the biggest cases of their careers.

Fans of the series will be pleased by that. Those who never saw an episode of Homicide: Life On The Street will be utterly baffled. There is absolutely no connection or emotional resonance with anyone other than Michael, Al, Tim or Frank in this film. Moreover, because it is an esoteric film based upon a very esoteric series, it is entirely inaccessible to those who do not know the backstories. Otherwise, the things that serve as reminders to the fans - like Michael's brief statement about his role in the final season of the television series - come off a simply glib, lame attempts at characterization.

Because most of the plot elements focus on weak dead ends, there is very little in the way of actual character development in the movie as well. Instead, the work of this movie is largely to wrap up the dangling plots of Homicide: Life On The Street and provide a more satisfactory good-bye for the fans and to the relationship between Frank Pembleton and Tim Bayliss.

Unfortunately, even for the power of the revelations that Bayliss has for Frank, there is not so much character development as there is plot resolution in the act of Bayliss confessing to Pembleton. This finally puts to rest their turbulent relationship, which lasted six of the show's seven years. Bayliss is still essentially the fractured character who opened the seventh season alone and departed it empty at the end of the series. Fortunately for Homicide: Life On The Street, as Bayliss wigged out and became more broken and monolithic, Meldrick Lewis stepped up to become much more interesting. The disappointing aspect of Homicide: The Movie is that Lewis is almost completely relegated to the back burner after doing much of the heavy lifting of the latter seasons of the series. The movie reasserts the idea that this is the story of Tim Bayliss (and Frank Pembleton).

This is not to say that just because most of the character appearances are essentially cameos that there are no meaningful performances. As one might expect, Andre Braugher returns to the role of Frank Pembleton with an apparent effortlessness that allows him to resume the mantle of the character he left after six years in order to give him a proper sendoff. Pembleton opens the movie as a teacher and Braugher infuses that part of the role with a reality that makes it seem the most natural leap for the character. And once back investigating, it is Braugher who sells the audience on the believability in the character's sense of moral absolutes. Pembleton has always been an intriguing character, but it is Braugher who transforms the dogmatic words on the page into a vital, believable character.

Similarly, Kyle Secor's return as Tim Bayliss is pretty wonderful. Secor has shed the later season's slightly effeminate mannerisms (which coincided with the character realizing he was bisexual) in favor of a very generalized broken quality which makes Bayliss appear deeply wounded, shaken to his core. Secor manages to do this with a blank stare and a quiet delivery of most of his lines, leading up to his final scene.

But even the quality of the two lead actors' acting is not enough to recommend this film. For sure, it ties up the last of the essential questions from Homicide: Life On The Street, but it truly does nothing more than that.

For other works with Zeljko Ivanek, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
True Blood - Season 3
True Blood - Season 1
Heroes - Season 4
Heroes - Season 3
The West Wing - Season 5


For other television movies, please be sure to visit my index page here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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