Criminals try not to take their work home with them, but somehow it sneaks in anyway. From the heist crews in Michael Mann’s “Heat” to murderous family man Tony Soprano, they all have to learn this lesson the hard way. It’ll be learned again in “Thief” (10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX Network), a somber but promising drama from writer-producer Norman Morrill (“The Visitor”) about hard men trying to live respectable lives of crime.
“No houses, no exceptions,” barks crew leader Nick Atwater (Andre Braugher), when his gang of fellow thieves shows up at his handsome New Orleans home to console him during a wrenching personal crisis. The crooks politely insist they were right to break the rules to help their leader. But Nick knows he’s right, and sure enough, by evening’s end, he’s washing blood off his patio with a garden hose.
This is oft-trod terrain, and tonight’s pilot, directed by up-and-coming Scottish filmmaker Paul McGuigan (“Gangster No.1”), isn’t shy about admitting it. Many of the plot twists and visual devices are familiar from previous films and TV shows, from the opening split-screen montage of a heist in progress (a gimmick perfected in the original 1968 “Thomas Crown Affair”) to the Zen pulp atmospherics (a Mann act), to the “Godfather”-style, business-vs.-private arguments that keep breaking out between Nick and his crew (a convincing bunch that includes Malik Yoba of “New York Undercover,” Yancey Arias of “Kingpin” and Clifton Collins Jr. of “Capote”).
The first three episodes sent out for review suggest the series has not yet found its own voice. But it’s getting there. I appreciated how “Thief” strikes a tricky balance between stylized storytelling (the nighttime images of post-Katrina New Orleans make it look like a French New Wave film in color) and surprisingly realistic human interactions. I believed in Nick as the unquestioned leader of his crew, but I also appreciated the writers’ intimation that Nick’s soldiers are keeping their options open in case this partnership doesn’t pan out. Despite their gung-ho camaraderie, they’re like a bunch of talented free agents who just happen to be playing for the same team—a dynamic that’s certified at the end of tonight’s pilot, when they secretly agree they’d rather hurt Nick than die or go to jail. (No honor among thieves here.) I bought Nick’s affection for his wife, Wanda (Dina Meyer), and his stepdaughter Tammi (Mae Whitman of “Arrested Development”), because he seems to genuinely enjoy their company, even when he’s squabbling with them. And I like Nick’s complicated relationship with his fence and confidant, Roz (Linda Hamilton). She insists on taking an interest in Nick’s personal problems not just because she likes him, but because she knows his work will suffer and her own income will slip if his home life isn’t stable.
But there are plenty of trouble spots. You know right away that a seemingly unrelated plotline—the decline and fall of a dirty cop, played by Michael Rooker—will eventually dovetail with the thieves’ arc. But the show takes too long setting the stories on a collision course, and Rooker’s performance is so one-note intense that it disrupts the show’s cool cat vibe. And for all its surface smarts, the series can’t seem to decide if it’s set in the real world or fantasyland. In tonight’s pilot, when Nick’s crew steals some money that belongs to a Chinese gang, he rightly worries about retaliation, but in the follow-up episode, he and his crew seem awfully cavalier about stealing millions earmarked for extra-Constitutional commando missions. (If Nick fears Chinese smugglers more than he fears the Pentagon, he’s not as smart as he looks.)
And I’m sorry to say this, but Braugher’s performance isn’t there yet. At times this phenomenal actor, who hot-wired and stole every other episode of NBC’s “Homicide,” doesn’t trust his own capacity to charm. He often seems to equate smiley-faced cheer with “likability.” But Braugher’s a sharp actor, and by the third episode, you can already see him settling into Nick’s character and honing his barbed charisma. I suspect that by episode four or five, he’ll be one of TV’s most mesmerizing characters.
Intriguingly, “Thief” shares a title and numerous plot elements with Michael Mann’s 1981 debut feature, an intense crime drama starring James Caan. Both Mann’s “Thief” and this FX show revolve around a recently incarcerated burglar who leads a gang of hardcase pals in a series of big scores while pining after a respectable family life and investing his loot in outwardly legit businesses. (Both Nick and Caan’s character own auto dealerships.) And both tales contrast the hero’s supercool, supercompetent facade and the volcanic temper that simmers just below the surface. Late in the pilot, Nick waves off Roz’s friendly inquiries by telling her, “It’s all under control.” The next shot is Nick demolishing a car with a sledgehammer. If that’s control, I can’t wait to see chaos.
Originally published in the Star-Ledger, March 28, 2006.