Monday, January 26, 2009

Last Templar – So Bad It’s Actually Bad

Nobody in network TV really "gets" the miniseries anymore. In fact, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that the only person with power in Hollywood who actually "gets" the miniseries anymore is Tom Hanks. Take a look at the series that Hanks has done: From The Earth To The Moon, Band Of Brothers, John Adams, and the upcoming Pacific. What they all have in common is that they are epic stories. And that's what the mini-series should be – epics. Look back at the great mini-series from the '70s and '80s and they were epics – Roots, Rich Man Poor Man, Shogun, Centennial, The Winds of War, War And Remembrance. Somewhere along the line though, the networks and the producers lost the idea that a mini-series should be an epic. What they turned into was a dumping ground for stories that couldn't be contracted into a two hour TV movie but weren't strong enough for a feature movie. And because there were so many of these bad stories – presumably because the broadcast networks weren't willing to allocate multiple hours to epics. They were, on the other hand, perfectly happy to give over two 2-hour slots from time to time to show the latest pot-boiler from someone like Judith Krantz (not that I have anything against Judith Krantz; she was a close friend of someone I had tremendous admiration for, and the lady did write a really good sex scene). And that, more than anything else is what eventually killed the mini-series on broadcast TV. Not that they're above trying them from time to time. CBS had Comanche Moon last year which wasn't half bad. It was a hundred times better than the latest effort from NBC, The Last Templar.

Let me just come out and say it. It took me less than ten minutes to decide that this thing sucked pond scum. The defining moment in that time was after the four horsemen in chainmail armour burst into the museum (after one of them beheaded a cop who thought the whole thing was a publicity stunt) and smashed the display cases, grabbed various items from a collection of artifacts from the Vatican, and started to ride off. Tess Chaykin, played by Mira Sorvino, starts to chase after them and shout – I kid thee not gentle readers – "Hey, come back here! That doesn't belong to you!!" I mean just the absolute stupidity of shouting out that line at the backs of four people on horseback who have just beheaded a cop and grabbed the mayor's wife; are we are supposed to believe that she expects them to come back and return the things that they have taken? At that very moment I could have turned the TV off without any compunction, if I didn't feel obliged to write this review. The things I do for you. Then again we don't have TNT in Canada so I really couldn't review something like Trust Me, much as I would have liked to (and trust me I would have liked to).

Okay, so Tess Chaykin is a cut rate Laura Croft, an adventuring archaeologist who has set aside her digging boots now that she has a daughter (she doesn't want to subject her kid to the long absences that she had to deal with from her father). Since she's played by Mira Sorvino we don't have Angelina Jolie's face and boobs – and acting talent – to look at. Tess immediately abandons her English friend Clive to chase after any of the "knights in shining armour" that she can find, but preferably the one who stole the Cross of Constantine – an artefact that her father dug up during one of his many archaeological expeditions. She grabs a convenient brass (or gold) crosier, mounts a conveniently placed police horse and charges off to Central Park to joust with the knight who took the cross. Wearing Manolo Blaniks. Tess that is. And what does she get for capturing a thief and murderer and recovering the loot, and ruining her Manolos? Why she gets arrested of course, with more guns pointed at her than at the guy in the shining armour. No wonder people don't want to get involved.

Of course the arrest isn't totally without its compensation, because it's in the police interrogation room that she meets the male lead, and obvious source opposite attraction and unresolved sexual tension (at least until the end of the miniseries), FBI Special Agent Sean Dailey, played by Scott Foley (from The Unit, nearly unrecognizable in a show where he has actual hair instead of head stubble). While Tess is at best and agnostic, Sean is a believing Catholic who has given up coffee for Lent – along with swearing and a bunch of other indulgences – who quickly clears Tess. Of course it is painfully obvious that Tess and Sean are going to be bumping heads very quickly (and bumping uglies eventually). Because after all Tess feels that she has to get involved even though she's recovered the artefact that her father had found. Sure enough, after Sean has delivered a replacement pair of Manolos (he didn't know what they were; his partner tells him "if you don't know what they are you can't afford them"; and actual, deliberately funny line!) Tess heads for the hospital to question the man she defeated in single combat. She dresses as a doctor (in high heels) to get past NYPD security around the patient, because obviously there isn't a list of doctors who are allowed to go in to see the prisoner and gets the information she needs by pretending to be an FBI agent dressed as a doctor. As she leaves another man enters the hospital room, posing as an FBI agent. He has a foreign accent and a lot more severe interrogation technique than Tess's – he gets the information and ends up torturing the guy to death. It's left to poor Sean to be the third person in the door. She's less successful in getting to the second "knight"; the man (appropriately named Bronko – I swear I'm not making that up) who supplied the horse for the group was gotten to by the mystery man and ended up being hung.

Sean is under pressure, and not just from his bosses. The Vatican, represented by Monsignor de Angelis (played by Victor Garber and even he can't save this) wants the artefacts recovered, although he seems so conspicuously unconcerned about a 12th century device known as a decoder and apparently built for the Knights Templar. This leads Tess to search for an old family friend who she calls Uncle Bill, played with wild-eyed abandon by Kenneth Welsh, who is an expert on the Templars. Coincidentally, it is the first anniversary of the death of his wife and daughter, so Tess finds him at their graves. It takes Tess about five seconds to figure out that Bill was the boss of the knights in shining armour. He takes Tess to an abandoned church where he has stashed the decoder. He has a document that supposedly leads to a supposed mystery of the Templars that is bigger even than the treasure that they were supposed to have taken with them. But before he can fully tell Tess about what he's found they're interrupted by the mystery man (who has disposed of the third "knight" just as Sean and his partner get to his apartment) who gets into a firefight with Bill. Tess hides in a conveniently located sarcophagus with the decoder and the document. Bill escapes from the foreign guy and heads through a secret passage. When Tess gets out of the coffin she heads out the same way. After beating down a gang intent on rape in the sewer that the passage leads her too (they're outnumbered – four of them against one of her, but it does give the chance to utter the line over their prostrated bodies: "I'm nobody's baby!"), she's captured by Sean. He found the church by searching for her car and figured out that she'd gone into the secret passage to the sewers. He just happened to be driving by the manhole that she was coming out of. She manages to escape him by claiming he's attacking her. She has to get away because she just got a call from Bill that indicated that he was threatening her daughter and wanted the decoder and the document in trade. She arrives at what turns out to be something of a party with Bill Clive and her daughter – because of course Bill would never hurt her daughter – but she gives him the decoder anyway. Soon after, Sean comes to take her back into custody.

So now we bring three of the major characters together in one of those absurd things we've quickly come to expect from this mess. Sean, his nameless female FBI boss, Tess and Monsignor DeAngelis are sitting in a huge conference room, and the four of them – the only people in the room – are sitting at the four corners of this huge conference table. De Angelis, seeming increasingly suspicious (and if you haven't figured out by now that he's behind the mysterious foreign killer, who I guess is some sort of Vatican hit man, well I'm afraid I pity you) is kind of irritated because even though he denigrates the idea of the Templar secrets, he wants to know what Bill has found and he can't do that without the document and the decoder. Well of course, as it turns out Sean knows how they can replicate the decoder (using 3-D X-Rays of the artefact courtesy of the Transport Safety Agency), and Tess has the document (thanks to the camera in her cell phone). Deus ex machina much?! The net result is that they are able to decode most of the document, which tells the story of three Templars who escape the recapture of Jerusalem by the Turks by taking a ship that sank (more on that in a moment). They took the documents to a chapel in a recently captured fortress. The name of the place is given but no one is able to find it... until Tess, in the privacy of her home figures out that the name was transcribed by the knights into Latin from the original Turkish. She isn't going to do anything with the information until her daughter persuades Tess that she's all right with her mother going off on an adventure... as long as she's home in time for her recital. Tess takes her expedition boots just as Sean arrives at the door. She avoids him somehow (no idea how she worked this one out) and gets to the airport. Sean sees her boots gone and meets her at the airport. She tries to escape him again, but he's brought his own cops this time. Still they have no reason to hold her so she gets on the plane. Also on the plane are Sean – who arranges to get the seat next to Tess – and also on the killer, who confirms his status as a Vatican hit man by talking on a cell phone with De Angelis.

I'm not going to spend too much more time on this steaming pile of crap. Actually I think I've wasted too much time on it already. It is awesomely awful, with a total disregard for the nuances of history or geography. A major point in the historical flashbacks to the history related the document that Tess decodes with the device is that the three Templars escaped from Jerusalem by sailing from the city in the ship Falcon Temple. In fact they say that they watch the fall of the city from the deck of the ship. Neat trick that, since Jerusalem is over 30 miles from the Mediterranean as the crow flies. And that is far from the only historical error in this mess. I'm not sure if this is as it is written in the original novel, which in turn is a pale imitation of The DaVinci Code, or whether the script writers have simplified the product for the market place. This is the sort of thing that no one with the slightest knowledge of medieval history would buy into. But that's not the thing that turned me against this miniseries. Nor is it the fact that it doesn't live up to what I feel is the need for a miniseries to cover epic material. If this thing was any good in terms of writing or characterization that part wouldn't bother me too much. I mean I liked a couple of those Judith Krantz minis. No what I found so unacceptable was the thoroughgoing absurdity of every situation in the piece, right from the point where the "knights" beheaded the cop outside the museum – like there'd only be one cop to guard something like that – or the coincidence of Sean being right in front of the manhole that Tess emerged from. The worst part is that they have an extremely talented cast in this. They are wasted in this material. The net result is so monumentally awful that, while it doesn't surprise me that Canwest was responsible for it – they'd do anything in a co-production if it can be manipulated to qualify as Canadian Content – it does shock and sadden me that NBC, the network that made Centennial and Shogun, actually lowered their standards to the point where they could air this mess. For shame Mr. Silverman, for shame.

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