November 17, 2003
Starring: Dennis Farina, Anthony John Denison, Bill Smitrovitch, Steve Ryan, Bill Campbell, Paul Butler, Stephen Lang, John Santucci, Johan Carlo, Patricia Charbonneau, Andrew Dice Clay, Ron Dean,
Fresh from the success of Miami Vice in the mid-1980’s, Michael Mann used his powerful clout to produce a new TV show entitled, Crime Story. It was a pet project that he developed with good friend, Chuck Adamson. Like Vice, Crime Story was a cop show but set in the early ’60s and with a grittier, darker edge as opposed to the stylish, brightly-lit pastel look of its predecessor. To this end, Mann not only cast Hollywood outsider, Dennis Farina (whose unconventional looks must’ve terrified NBC executives), but had exploitation filmmaker, Abel Ferrara (The Driller Killer and Ms. 45) direct the pilot episode. The result is a lean, mean drama that features politically incorrect police officers battling it out with nasty criminals.
Crime Story begins with a daring restaurant robbery gone badly. Del Shannon sings “Runaway” (re-recorded especially for the show) as the hold-up turns into a hostage situation. Three police detectives led by Mike Torello (Farina ) race to the scene (blink and you’ll miss a young Michael Rooker as a beat cop). No words are spoken between the men as they calmly check their guns and get ready. As the criminals are about to take off with their hostages, Torello leans in menacingly and says to one goon, “you hurt anybody else, when this is all over I’m gonna find what you love the most and I’m gonna kill it. Your mother, your father, your dog. Don’t matter what it is — it’s dead.” Welcome to the world of Crime Story.
It turns out that the criminals are working for local wise guy, Ray Luca (Denison), a vicious thug with a short fuse and an awesome pompadour that defies gravity. This guy isn’t afraid to smash bottles and furniture over hapless underlings to get his point across. Luca plans to steal some valuable European royalty jewels from the Lakeshore Museum but Torello intends to link the restaurant robbery to the thug and stop the heist from going down.
It’s a testimony to Mann’s reputation at the time that Crime Story was even greenlighted. NBC would have never gone for the casting of Dennis Farina, with his pockmarked face and lack of acting experience, had Mann been a neophyte producer with no proven track record. The choice of cult film director Abel Ferrara must have also freaked out network execs. His previous films included a deranged psycho gruesomely killing people with a power tool and a rape survivor viciously killing the men who attacked her with a .45 pistol.
And yet, the final product proves that Mann’s instincts were right on the money. Farina delivers the hard-boiled dialogue with the perfect amount of intensity (Farina orders a loose cannon cop, “why don’t you get unconscious for awhile.”). You can see it in his eyes and the way he barks out orders that this a no-nonsense guy who isn’t going to let anything get in the way of his job. In many respects, he is the prototype for Al Pacino’s equally driven cop in Mann’s Heat (1995). Farina’s Torello is the prototypical Mann protagonist: professional and a perfectionist, all at the expense of everything else.
Ferrara directs with the same proficient skill of crime auteur, Don Siegel. Like Siegel’s two best crime films, Charley Varrick (1973) and The Killers (1964), Crime Story depicts a harsh world where life is cheap and characters will do anything — even if it means bending or breaking the law — to achieve their goals. Crime Story would provide the blueprint for Ferrara’s later forays into urban crime movies like The King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992).
One of the most striking aspects about Crime Story is that it feels like it was ripped right from the pages of a James Ellroy novel. It is even more surprising that this show was done before Ellroy had written his famous L.A. Quartet of books that features L.A. Confidential, which Crime Story most closely resembles. The author claims that he hadn’t seen the show until after he wrote these novels but he does admit to being a fan since then. In an interview with Paul Duncan, Ellroy said, “I think Dennis Farina as Lieutenant Mike Torello is a force of nature. When the hatred between him and Anthony Denison fuels the plot, it’s great, it’s epic. but after a while it just goes to hell.” This, of course, begs the question, when is someone going to reunite Farina and Ferrara to do a proper Ellroy adaptation? Having them tackle White Jazz or American Tabloid would be a dream come true.
None. This is really disappointing. No audio commentaries from Ferrara or Mann (both of whom have done them before), or even the show’s creator, Chuck Adamson. A retrospective featurette would have been nice but instead we are left with the big nowhere.
If you are willing to overlook the appalling lack of extras and are a fan of Michael Mann or James Ellroy’s fiction then this is definitely worth checking out. Hopefully, the folks at Anchor Bay will redeem themselves with the first season of Crime Story that their website says is due out in July of this year with the second season coming out in December. In the meantime, fans will have to make due with this DVD and re-runs on T.V.