TNT has already established quite the profitable brand for itself as home to the kinds of square-jawed, retro dramas that the broadcast networks stopped making a long time ago. So it stands to reason that the channel would eventually try getting into another business the networks have largely abandoned: the made-for-TV-movie. And if they can be the kinds of movies that fit comfortably alongside “The Closer” and “Rizzoli & Isles,” so much the better.
Over the next three weeks, TNT will be airing a half-dozen mystery movies, all based on works by best-selling authors like Sandra Brown and Mary Higgins Clark, all starring actors who are past their career peak but have the ability to make you stop channel surfing to say, “Oh, I like him/her.”
The movies kick off tonight at 9 with “Scott Turow’s Innocent,” a very belated sequel to Turow’s “Presumed Innocent,” which was made into a hit 1990 film starring Harrison Ford as prosecutor Rusty Sabitch, who was accused of murdering his mistress, only for it to be revealed (21-year-old spoiler alert!) that his scorned wife Barbara had done it and framed him for the deed.
The new “Innocent” is set two decades after the original. Rusty (now played by Bill Pullman) is an important judge, Barbara (Marcia Gay Harden) has been taking medication to deal with the mental condition that turned her into a calculated killer, and when Barbara dies under mysterious circumstances, Rusty’s old nemesis Tommy (Richard Schiff) puts him on trial for murder once again.(*)
(*) Because the set-up is so similar to the original story, and because Barbara was previously played by Bonnie Bedelia (aka Holly McClane), I kept thinking of that line from “Die Hard 2” where Bruce Willis mutters, “How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” (Or, better, Ben Stiller as Bruce Willis in “Die Hard 12: Die Hungry” being told, “Your coincidental appearance at every terrorist attack on Christmas eve grows tiresome!”)
By bringing back most of the important players from the original story – Rusty is once again defended by the charming Sandy Stern (Alfred Molina) – and dealing with a lot of 20-year-old business, “Innocent” assumes a level of familiarity with the earlier book/movie that I’m not sure is fair. Twenty years is a long time, and while “Presumed Innocent” was both a success and critically praised, it hasn’t endured in the public consciousness in the way that, say, “The Godfather” did before we got the much-belated “The Godfather Part III.”(**)
(**) This makes me wonder a bit how NBC’s upcoming “The Firm” series, also a sequel to an early ’90s legal thriller – albeit one where less time is supposed to have passed for the characters – will handle the same issue.
The only strong memories I had of the original movie as I sat down to watch the new one was that the wife did it, and that Harrison Ford took a lot of public/critical grief for a haircut that George Clooney would make wildly popular only a few years later. So as we see Rusty and Barbara rehash the same old arguments about his infidelity, and see Tommy Molto worry about the career impact of prosecuting the same very public figure twice, it was hard to connect with any of the emotions of it, even as the dialogue tried to ladle on as many expository reminders as possible to allow for people like me (much less people who never saw/read “Presumed Innocent”).
Beyond the problems of time and memory, there’s the way that “Innocent” feels trashy, overwrought and disposable.
This is director Mike Robe’s third time adapting a Turow novel, having previously made “The Burden of Proof” for ABC and “Reversible Errors” for CBS, and while he and Turow are clearly comfortable working together, he’s not able to elevate the source material in the way Alan J. Pakula was with “Presumed Innocent.” The actors are mostly phoning it in – though Schiff comes off best, and not just because he’s replacing the least prestigious actor from the original in Joe Grifasi – and Marcia Gay Harden chews enough scenery that she might want to secure her Oscar before the movie Academy thinks about repossessing it.
But then, when the actors have dialogue like, “Sixty is a tough age to reach knowing that love is for other people” and “Try, Rusty: try to be happy,” there’s only so much they can do.
Most of the books being adapted for these movies are, like the Tess Gerritsen novels that inspired “Rizzoli & Isles,” the sort usually saved to be read on the beach or an airplane – light, easy and familiar. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The start of this new TNT series, though, is simultaneously too familiar (by rehashing the plot of the first film) and not familiar enough (by depending on the audience to remember and care about material from two decades ago).
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org