The Chicago Syndicate: Crime Story Season Two DVD Review

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Crime Story Season Two DVD Review

Crime Story had a notorious history, protested by police unions as too violent and negatively portraying law enforcement officers. Composer Todd Rundgren left the show after four episodes, digusted with the brutality. In its unlikely second season (shows this innovative - and suffering from such low ratings - rarely get renewed), "Crime Story" kept up the fist fights and gunplay, but seemed to lose focus.

The season premiere opens with three shadey looking guys in a vintage car loading guns. Moments later, they're busting in doors and roughing people up. These are the good guys, members of a Justice Department task force sent to Las Vegas to bring down the mob. Producer Michael Mann (Miami Vice, "Heat") would tell you he was just showing you the gritty truth, and co-creator Chuck Adamson would back him up. After all, Adamson had been a Chicago cop and these were his stories, drawn from his experiences.

Set in the early 1960's in Las Vegas (and ideally shot in 1980s Las Vegas, before the era of the mega hotels), the show oozed style and ambiance. Dennis Farina (Law & Order) led the task force, which included Billy Campbell ("The Rocketeer" - back when he still insisted on being called "Bill" Campbell) and Bill Smitrovich (Life Goes On). They were charged with taking down the criminal organization of Ray Luca (Anthony John Denison). The cast was filled with with Adamson's associates from his years on the Chicago police force. Farina - in his first acting role - had been Adamson's partner. And the dopey criminal henchman Pauli Taglia was played by John Santucci, a real life ex-con taken down by Adamson's MCU Squad. True to form, Michael Mann filled guest starring roles with big name stars on their way up. In the second season premiere, Kevin Spacey plays a U.S. Senator doing his best Bobby Kennedy impersonation.

But all the great acting talent couldn't help a storyline fraying at the edges. While I'll often protest television series cut down in their prime, Crime Story should really have lasted only one season. Plotlines were cliched, relying too often on storylines seen before on Miami Vice. You wonder if the show was intentionally trying to be campy or if it's just become campy in light of the darker, grittier shows of today. But then you get the odd episode that focuses dramtically on one of the supporting characters (another Miami Vice plot element) and you realize that they were really trying to be serious. It was just too hard to take things seriously with amateurish musical cues, a narrator promising "Tonight..! On Crime Story," and dialogue that used insults along the lines of "You big dummy!"

In terms of camp, the second season of Crime Story played well, lifting elements from contemporary culture (just months after the Iran-Contra Hearing, the show had it's own disgraced Marine Lt. Col. testifying before Congress). And when the task force invaded a small Latin American country near the end and started shooting up drug convoys and raiding compounds, you have to admit the A-Team twist was entertaining (albeit desperate - you could tell producers were trying anything to increase ratings). By the time slapstick cliffhanger came around, though, you were glad it was over, and more than a little disappointed.

Bonus Material

We've come to expect very little in terms of bonus material when it comes to Anchor Bay DVDs, but this is absurd! The disc doesn't even include language options or scene selections (a real pain in the butt when you have to stop watching an episode in the middle and start over later). The only real "extra" is a very well written insert telling you about the legacy of Crime Story and it'd be a great extra if it wasn't just a rehash of the same insert found in the season one box.

Video quality is hit and miss (mostly miss). Some of the earlier episodes look OK but by the end, it's looking like every single frame is coated with a thin film of dirty cellophane. Some of the night scenes in the final block of episodes - which take place in Latin America - are entirely unwatchable. Sound quality is better than video, at least, and we're thankful for it since the musical score to the series is well above average. The show's theme was a modernized remix of Del Shannon's classic "Runaway" and - another Michael Mann trademark - episodes were peppered with hit songs.

In the end, the second season of Crime Story suffered from style over substance. The set designers did their job faithfully. Latin America and it's 1960s beaters looked so authentic, you have to wonder if producers took the entire production to Cuba. But the storyline just couldn't keep up. This is a series better left in the dark recesses of memory.

Thanks to The Trades

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