By STEVEN OXMAN
Is Robert Parker’s Spenser character really so interesting that, after having his own eponymous series, he’s now a worthy protagonist for a telepic franchise? The answer, based upon this second A&E original with Joe Mantegna as the private dick, is a resounding “not a chance in hell, man.” “Thin Air” lacks a baseline level of believability, but that’s not the primary problem. Everything here, from Spenser’s double entendres and unfunny wisecracks to the broadly caricatured villain, is numbingly hackneyed. Director Robert Mandel tries to make up for the absence of an interesting script with some noirish touches, but this film has all the atmosphere of a vacuum.
Telepic begins with two violent episodes that are apparently supposed to draw in the audience. In the first, Lisa (Yancy Butler) is abducted by her long-ago former boyfriend Luis (Jon Seda). In the second, Spenser saves his therapist-girlfriend Susan by putting a bullet between a guy’s eyes. The connection between the two incidents involves Lisa’s husband Frank, who investigates Spenser’s shooting, and then tells the legendary P.I. that his wife is missing. When Luis shoots Frank a couple of days later, Spenser gets on the case.
As Spenser investigates and peels away the facts of Lisa’s past entanglements, Luis keeps Lisa hostage in a run-down inner-city building project where he operates as a dictator. He has Lisa dress in gorgeous costume gowns and lets her know that he’s kidnapped her as his bride.
The psychological depth of Parker’s script, based on his book, reaches a nadir with the conclusion that Luis, whose mother was a prostitute and drug addict, watched too much television as a kid and has difficulty telling the difference between fiction and reality. Consider Luis a strange mixture of Stalin and Forrest Gump.
Seda (“Homicide: Life on the Street”) has evidently been taking acting lessons from Arnold Schwarzenegger of late.
Mantegna has been much praised for his work with writer David Mamet, and deservedly so. What he does especially well as an actor is to stay out of a writer’s way, leaving language unadorned and to the point. It works when the dialogue is sharp and nuanced. But his purposefully superficial style makes empty writing feel, well, empty.
It’s a relief when Luis Guzman comes on the scene as Spenser’s freelance sidekick Chollo, bringing lots of attitude to his role. There’s some decent chemistry between the two, but Parker works relentlessly at being clever and falls flat continuously.
In the end, Spenser’s not much of a character and this isn’t much of a story. It ends with a big shootout in which the bad guys can’t hit anything and the good guys can’t miss. We’ve seen it all before. There’s a seedy tone to this pic, and only some of that is intended. Tech credits are average.