‘John Sandford’s Certain Prey,’ certainly
USA TV movie has first of a franchise written all over it
November 4, 2011
USA’s new made-for-TV movie John Sandford’s Certain Prey not only fits snugly in its time slot, 9 to 11 p.m. this Sunday, Nov. 6, but is also a perfect vehicle for Mark Harmon, who is handsome and charming enough to be a TV star but not quite handsome and charming enough to fill a movie theater. The writing, directing and acting have a light touch that keeps us involved in the outcome but never anxious.
The movie is based on one of a series of 20 crime novels by John Sandford, all of which have the word Prey but not the author’s name in their titles. It could serve as the launching point for a TV-movie franchise in the style of CBS’s Jesse Stone movies, which star another telegenic if not cinemagenic star, Tom Selleck.
The novels recount the sleuthing adventures of Lucas Davenport, a deputy chief of police for the city of Minneapolis who made a lot of money designing computer games and simulations. In voice-over, he says he’s not rich but does use a private banker. We see the two of them sipping martinis on what looks like a penthouse roof while a pretty girl swims in a lap pool. It’s unclear whether she’s Lucas’ current girlfriend or a very expensive aerator.
The ’60s series Burke’s Law featured a similar hero who was rich but kept his police job because he loved the work. Burke was chauffeured around in a Rolls-Royce that had a working telephone in it. Lucas, disappointingly, drives himself and has a plain old mobile phone. Worse, his house is nothing special.
Lucas’ wealth may be a plot point that’s intended to help us believe that he’s so successful at womanizing. As the script acknowledges several times, Mark Harmon is handsome, but he’s getting on in years.
Lucas sometimes sounds like a Mike Hammer wanna-be. In voice-over, he describes a defense attorney named Carmel Loan (Lola Glaudini), as a lot like the Jag she drives: long, sleek, expensive and a pain in the ass.
In Certain Prey, Carmel, who is one of the few female lawyers in the Twin Cities who haven’t slept with Lucas, hires a professional killer to murder the rich wife of a real estate lawyer with whom she had a quickie years ago. Lucas is on to Carmel early; the mystery is how he and his team, including one of his former conquests, a detective named Marcy (Athena Karkanis), will prove she did it.
In order to cover their tracks, Carmel and her hired killer, Clara Rinker (Tatiana Maslany), wind up killing a string of potential witnesses. The FBI, who Lucas calls the Feebs, come into town to inform Lucas that they’ve been on the killer’s trail for years.
Carmel, whose sociopathy has until now been largely limited to legal maneuvering, discovers that she enjoys terrorizing and murdering people. She and Clara form a bond that is briefly played for titillation but mostly played for mild comedy.
Right at the start, we see that Lucas will break the rules if it will help him crack a case. Since he’s roguish enough, traditional police-procedural fans will cry foul. Part of the fun of a procedural is seeing the good guys win without crossing the line.
Though both guilty and innocent people die throughout the movie, the direction keeps us from taking all the slaughter too seriously. Clara is more sympathetic than one might assume, partly because she’s so cute but mostly because she first got into the murder business when she took revenge on the man who raped her.
The light touch also helps us overlook a few logical leaps in the plot and in the bad guys’ behavior.
The supporting characters have the sort of backstories and traits that are used in place of real characterization in TV series. Besides Marcy’s past affair with Lucas, one of the male detectives on the case says that he’s gay.
Many elements in the movie seem to exist only to help set up a potential Prey franchise. One character, introduced halfway through, has little to do except persuade us that we might like to see her in the next movie. At the end of this movie, Lucas is left with someone whom a more old-fashioned script would have called a worthy adversary.
Most younger viewers wouldn’t be caught dead watching this sort of show, but they may enjoy it anyway. Older viewers, on the other hand, will be checking listings for that next installment.
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