Monday, November 18, 2013

Waiting for Sherlock Season 3?

Jack Taylor, TV3 Ireland
Jack Irish, ABC1 Australia

The worldwide success of Moffat and Gatiss’ Sherlock hasn’t gone unnoticed by other film producers. Particularly the ninety-minute feature format, which permits greater character development and delightfully creepy slow-burn tension. So while we giddily anticipate Sherlock’s third-season debut in January, consider these two international mystery film series, which utilize a similar format.

“Galway is the graveyard of ambition.” So moans Jack Taylor (Iain Glen, latterly of Game of Thrones) in the first of three feature-length films. Taylor, a former senior lawman, drinks himself numb to squelch the realization that he’s only marginally above the criminals he pursues. People hire this desperate ex-copper to find what they cannot, because he’s good; but they hire him out of desperation, because he destroys and saves in equal measure.

Based on Ken Bruen’s novels, Jack Taylor follows its hero through Galway, Ireland, a city roughly the size of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and about that far outside the mainstream. Bruen’s Galway is deeply divided between its workaday masses and its casually violent undercurrents. These undercurrents include both organized crime and the Garda Síochána, Ireland’s nationally centralized police, whose omerta culture chillingly resembles the criminals they’re sworn to apprehend.

Taylor has a talent for finding what others want hidden. So when somebody asks him to uncover, say, a missing daughter, he accidentally uncovers the links between a Galway philanthropist and Sarajevo’s bleak history. Or when he tries to track a name the Catholic Church wants bleached from the tragedy of the Magdalene laundries, he reveals the secret his own mother shrouds behind cynical bluster and casual wrath.

Iain Glen as Jack Taylor
While Taylor resembles conventional noir detectives in certain ways—drunkenness, suppressed rage, frank sexual swagger—he lacks certain boilerplates we’ve come to expect. He isn’t a skilled fighter, for instance, and tends to get his ass kicked. He can’t act remorselessly, and tends to flagellate himself for unavoidable circumstances. And his practiced cynicism cracks under pressure. This makes him more volatile than stereotypical PI’s, and victory is never completely certain.

Jack Irish avoids Taylor’s suffering by not pretending he has his shit together. Guy Pearce (Felicia from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) plays Irish as a fragmented amateur, a relic who can’t reconcile himself with his past. Yet some vestige of his former honorable self keeps poking through, and when common decency calls, he acts. Unfortunately, his actions inevitably put others in harm’s way.

Jeffrey Walker’s feature-length adaptations actually make Peter Temple’s first two Jack Irish thrillers less bleak than the novels. Though that may be hard to believe: these movies present Melbourne, Australia, as a seething cauldron of official corruption, far-reaching secrets, and daring daylight violence. But Walker also elides portions of Irish’s personal history that might be too painful for television. Which says plenty, since Walker doesn’t hesitate to torture Irish, or by extension us.

Guy Pearce as Jack Irish
A former criminal attorney, Irish maintains his license, but spends his days collecting mob debts and fixing horse races. At night, he’s apprenticed to a local master woodworker. All this to numb the pain of his wife’s murder by a disgruntled client. Irish admits being a former alcoholic; now his intensive work schedule lets him maintain his protracted “dry drunk.” Not that anything actually numbs the pain.

Irish wants to forget his former life. But  intrudes upon his present, reminding him that debts don’t vanish just because he reinvented himself. When an old client dies clutching exculpatory evidence, he must revisit the law career he’s tried to obliterate. And when a family friend needs help finding a dissipated son, Irish discovers connections between his own history and Australia’s deep secrets. Nothing in Jack Irish’s world is ever simple; crimes’ connections run to the very bottom, and very top.

Both these film series brim with adult themes, including violence, language, and sex. Jack Taylor politely demurs from showing excessive skin, but Jack Irish revels in Australia’s well-known love of shock, and uses nudity as cinematic sucker-punch. That’s why you’ve never seen these movies on American TV, and why they aren’t suitable for young children. But their rich story development and savvy cinematic storytelling make them great grown-up fare after bedtime.

American networks once had smart movie-length mysteries like Columbo and early Quincy that accomplished the same artistic goals these series do. Yet somehow American TV hasn’t heeded Sherlock’s clarion call like other nations have. We’d love more elaborate storytelling with more fully realized characters, too! Well, until our networks recognize this unmet need, we’ll continue shopping globally for intelligent, ambitious thrillers like these two.

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