The British have the luxury of being selective about which crime dramas they export, and those that do make the pilgrimage across the pond tend to be choice. That certainly applies to this creepy and compelling serial killer yarn, which evokes more than faint echoes of the film “Seven.” Buoyed by a strong cast and grisly without being gratuitous, the payoff isn’t quite equal to this sharp production’s windup, but it’s still a helluva ride getting there.
Giving away too much of the plot (written by Louise Mickery from Boris Starling’s novel) diminishes the cleverest twists, but suffice it to say chief inspector Red Metcalfe (Ken Stott) and his crack team are having a bad time of it. Two men are murdered the same day, with their tongues severed and silver spoons inserted into their mouths.
Additional killings occur as Red struggles to identify a pattern, his frustration growing and exacting a personal toll. “A man died because I don’t get it!” he thunders at one point.
It doesn’t help that Red has to grapple with his inner demons, including a recently paroled brother (Kieran O’Brien) whom he turned in after a murder years earlier and vague flashbacks that hint of a darker secret.
“Messiah” — which derives its name from the crimes’ link to the disciples of Jesus — proves weakest in exploring these personal elements, which feel a trifle hackneyed in the well-traveled terrain of serial killer lore. That the resolution finds a way to connect some of these disparate threads doesn’t quite compensate for bumps along the final leg of the investigation, but that amounts to a quibble based on the gripping nature of what precedes it.
More a U.K. version of Dennis Franz than the matinee idol type, Stott has already reprised his role once, with a third BBC go-round in the works. In his hands, Red is a fascinating top cop. While tender with his deaf wife (well played by Yank thesp Michelle Forbes), he’s clearly shaken by the killer’s brutality and given to bursts of rage at his team and the tabloid press.
The supporting players are fine as well, including Neil Dudgeon as Red’s troubled colleague, and a cameo by Edward Woodward (too bad he can’t help out as “The Equalizer”) as a stammering priest who assists in deciphering the biblical aspects of the killer’s spree.
Tautly paced and no more gruesome than it needs to be, “Messiah” possesses all the engrossing edge-of-the-couch trappings of any good TV thriller — moving at a pace that invites analysis only after the final notes of Michel Colombier’s eerie score.
For those who principally associate the Brits with genteel Edwardian costume epics, it’s also nice to be reminded the macabre appetite for bloodthirsty bastards remains unquenchable on both sides of the Atlantic.