Patrick Swayze makes a triumphant return to our screens in A&E’s “The Beast”. A damn fine cop show, sadly cut down before its time, which now sees a welcome DVD release. Available to own from today.
Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel) is the FBI’s latest young recruit. A former army sniper, he arrives on the scene already with a little baggage, and now he’s all too eager to get out on the streets and fight crime. But he’s hot-headed and doesn’t know the job nearly as well as he thinks he does. Enter Charles Barker (Patrick Swayze), an FBI veteran who for twenty years has preferred to work alone, but who now finds himself assigned the task of training up a rookie who’s not quite ready for the road ahead. When they’re handed their first case by their section chief Conrad (Kevin J. O’Connor) they’re lead into the world of arms dealing, which eventually sees Barker take matters into his own hands. Ellis soon learns that he’s partnered with a man who doesn’t play by the book.
Soon enough Ellis is visited by an FBI colleague named Ray (Larry Gilliard Jr.). He informs Ellis that for some time the FBI has been investigating Charles Barker on the grounds of misconduct; that he has a questionable past which may relate him to a group of rogue agents presumably hiding within the bureau. Naturally they want Ellis to tail Barker and report back with any findings. But Ellis is a man of scruples and flat out refuses to go behind his partner’s back. And if things couldn’t already be worse, the sheer amount of investigative work soon takes its toll on Ellis’s private life, just when he’s found the perfect girl in neighbour Rose (Lindsay Pulsipher). Things soon heat up as Barker continues to solve cases through his own means, and as new information is presented to Ellis, he soon begins to wonder just whose side he’s really on.
With gritty cop shows being everywhere you turn these days you’ve got to wonder if there’s anything left for any more to offer. The Beast, which recently finished airing in the states, might not be an entirely original concept, but it’s certainly distinguished enough to have it stand well on its own merits. Here we have a show which conforms to the usual episodic detective routine, in that each week our twin protagonists find themselves up against a new enemy setting up shop on their turf, but in doing so it also seeks to explore familiar themes, taking few pains to reiterate immediate social concerns. A tad predictably one or two cases deal with narcotics and weapons smuggling, while others such as standouts “Nadia” and “Mercy” work themselves around the unfortunate reality of sexual slavery and post-war trauma and remain excellent character-driven pieces. The series even throws in some larger-than-life efforts which naturally evoke mini movie-like atmospheres, with geo-political plots involving foreign nuclear threats; Infernal Affairs style undercover work – another noted episode in “Capone” – and even a fun storyline set within the confines of a poker arena, which affords some welcome humour that can otherwise be found scattered throughout the series in the form of light banter. From time to time these episodes do fall into cliché, and the series’ inspirations can be spotted far and wide, but there’s no denying whatsoever at how confidently it’s all staged.
Set in foggy Chicago, Illinois, The Beast provides the perfect setting with which to carry out these tales, helping to create a strong amount of tension and uncertainty throughout. This also helps immeasurably with what is undoubtedly its greatest strength in the pairing of Ellis and Barker; the lesser predictable nature of the series which naturally holds all the intrigue. While it might seem convoluted at first to have various plot strands running in tandem, each episode proves to be well balanced in interweaving its stories. It’s one of The Beast’s more clever aspects in that it’s written well enough to allow the main case files to further shake up the relationship between our leads without ever becoming detrimental to solving the actual crimes themselves. We still get to enjoy a good ol’ detective mystery week in, week out, while also being able to slowly piece together the clues which will uncover Barker’s past. For certain there’s a good amount of second guessing to be had with the overall arc, but it’s always of the fun variety, and just when you think you have something down, something else will crop up to scupper your assumptions.
When The Beast began airing in the U.S. critics were already praising Patrick Swayze, who was by then already undergoing chemotherapy, for delivering the finest performance of his career. I can certainly concur that it’s up there, but then that’s not especially hard a statement to make when looking back on his film career and seeing that it hasn’t been incredibly prolific. The late 80s to early 90s saw him at his peak, and while he starred in some wonderfully entertaining flicks he never exactly enjoyed many meaty roles in which he could sink his teeth into. The Beast sees Swayze glide into television with ease; a medium in which he seems all so perfectly adapted to. Here he’s given a character to play with, whose skin he can really get under, leaving us with someone whom we can constantly think about. Swayze literally loses himself in the role of our hardened anti-hero; a man with twenty years of field expertise to his name. To say that Barker is unorthodox in his methods is an understatement. He’s unpredictable, fearless, worn and perhaps a little crazy, but he gets the job done. The series is delightful in a way that for every questionable deed he acts out we’re there to cheer him on, wondering if he can possibly top the last stunning feet in the next episode, and sure enough he never disappoints. Swayze gets so emotionally entangled in the role of Barker that he subsequently – and masterfully so – blurs the line between fantasy and reality, particularly whenever he’s assigned to go undercover to become anyone from a drug-abusing nut-case to terrified war veteran. So dedicated to his craft he shows off an amazing emotional range, which has us buying into his self-created personas just as easily as the criminals he’s trying to take down.
Sure enough then Swayze is the main draw to the show, but he’s a co-star nonetheless, and it’s down to Travis Fimmel to act as the audience’s eyes and ears. He’s the man through which the story is told. Like Ellis we’re new to the game and we need that something to latch onto. Here’s a young man, himself with an ambiguous past and a little rough around the edges, who now finds himself erring on the caution of right and wrong. Every day he battles with moral dilemmas and has to make ethical choices as the deeper he digs and the closer the pieces of the puzzle get the more uncertain he becomes in his line of work. Fimmel does well to sell the role of Ellis, but it takes a few episodes for him to really reach a comfortable place. It’s quite clear early on that he’s just a pretty-boy star meant to serve as a youthful contrast to Swayze’s gruff loner, in fact the writers even acknowledge that much with a few throwaway lines early on, during which time Fimmel does little more than serve up some exaggerated – and occasionally irritating – expressions with his Brad Pitt-like face. But credit when credit’s due, by the time that Ellis starts learning some valuable “facts” he becomes an interesting foil for Barker. Fimmel has to effectively juggle two personalities here: the loyal partner, always ready to have a joking dig now and then, and the wearisome newbie exposed to police corruption, who not only has to deal with the grind of FBI work, but also soon learns that trying to maintain any kind of normal life outside of it is next to impossible. Importantly, Fimmel and Swayze share a strong chemistry, and that’s as good as you can hope for when we’re joining them for the ride.
Unfortunately, as Swayze’s health further deteriorated and viewing figures declined, The Beast found itself cancelled after just thirteen episodes. That leaves the overall series with some issues. While there is a certain sense of closure it still leaves us with questions hanging over a sour turn of events. Moreover, the finale is set up in such a way that had a second series gone into production it would have surely eschewed the episodic case format and indeed become an entirely different beast altogether, perhaps in the mould of the The Fugitive. It’s a shame that we won’t find out, unless Patrick Swayze makes a remarkable recovery and A&E have a sudden change of heart.
Presented anamorphically at approximately 1.78:1 The Beast is given a fairly solid transfer, free from compression artefacts, with the added benefit of being progressively enhanced. But it’s still a bit of an up and down offering. The series is evidently a digitally shot production which has then been passed through various filters. The result is an often dark and contrasty picture which appears slightly soft throughout. Many scenes are under-lit, presumably to create mood, and a few outdoor day scenes tend to have a greyish tone to them. Nothing particularly terrible here; it seems to be how the producers want us to view things, but it may irk some viewers.
I’m not quite sure what’s going on in regards to the audio here. My PC reads these three discs as AC3 6 channel, but they only appear to make active use of the front channels on my home cinema set-up. Checking U.S. retailers they seem to boast Dolby Surround 4.0 with sub-woofer channel for the R1 release. Certainly the series could benefit from having surround sound as there’s no shortage of action, whether it be brief moments of gun fire or explosions; here it‘s OK but hardly hitting. As it stands the DD2.0 offering is nothing exemplary, but it does the job fine. Dialogue is clear and there are no drop-outs or the like.
Sadly they’ve skimped a bit here. All we get are 2-3 minute segments which offer information relevant to a particular episode. All 13 episodes are covered across the three discs, but we don’t learn a great deal. Cast and crew members are on board to lend their voices, but these serve as little more than synopsis pieces, which hardly makes for essential viewing.
Though it won’t likely be nearly as well remebered as some of the bigger detective shows of recent times, season 1 of The Beast is a damn fine piece of entertainment in its own right; a series which goes from strength to strength thanks to some top production values and an excellent ensemble with which to carry out its intriguing mystery aspects. I’m just sorry to see it end so early, it’s not exactly the most ideal way to finish things, but it was a risk A&E took, knowing of Patrick Swayze’s illness. I’m sure many of his fans wish him well, and hope that should he recover there might be a chance of bringing back this deserving drama.
Update – 15/09/09
Rest In Peace, Patrick Swayze. Thanks for the entertainment.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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