Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Coyote Waits

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2004 in Jay's Living Room (American Mystery! Speical)

Although the second Chee/Leaphorn movie has a more complicated story than the first (Skinwalkers), it feels like a more streamlined movie. It's certainly more focused; where its predecessor ran off in several different directions, Coyote Waits is first and foremost a murder mystery. Running a close second is how it follows up on Officer Jim Chee and Detective Joe Leaphorn; the travails of living on a Navajo reservation are a much more distant third than they were in Skinwalkers.

These elements are not totally absent; they're quite present. For instance, Leaphorn (Wes Studi) does a bit of speechifying about how if he had one wish, he'd eliminate booze, having seen how it changes people, especially Indians. And this isn't a story that could easily be dropped into any other environment; the peculiar jurisdictional issues that arise from the semi-autonomy of the reservations figures in. These issues are simply treated as part of the environment in which Leaphorn and Jim Chee (Adam Beech) live, and they are important in terms of how they affect the investigators going about their work, not as points for the audience to be made aware of.

The movie takes place some time after Skinwalkers, and things have happened to Chee and Leaphorn in the meantime. Mrs. Leaphorn's cancer seems to be in remission, for example, and public defender Janet Pete (Alex Rice) has declined a job in Washington, presumably because of Jim Chee. As the movie opens, Chee is heading into the station, but stops to pick up a college student hitch-hiking to work. Because she's in the car, he doesn't follow procedure and immediately render aid to a fellow officer; when he does arrive, the officer's car is on fire (Chee burns his hand badly enough to be taken off active duty), and an old man with a gun and a bottle of thirty dollar whiskey is stumbling away.

It's an open and shut case, except that the man is part of the same clan as Leaphorn's wife, and she asks that he investigate. When Alex draws the case, Chee begins to investigate, too, to make sure he made a good collar. What both end up realizing is that, no matter who did it, the crime is definitely more complicated than an old man doing something stupid after getting liquored up. A license plate leads to a Vietnamese professor at the local university, while a tape of oral histories leads to another member of the faculty. And then the FBI steps in...

Coyote Waits is, first and foremost, a solid franchise mystery. We've been introduced to our detectives, so let's put them on a case and let them run. The mystery story plays fair with the audience, not giving Leaphorn or Chee access to information that gives them an unfair advantage in solving the case over the audience at home. The case itself has the requisite number of red herrings, strange revelations, and intriguing motivations to keep the viewer guessing, and leads up to a nifty conclusion.

The biggest improvement between the first and second movie is in the character of Jim Chee. Where I think the first film suffered from a desire to cast Chee a sort of ideal, this movie lets us see his imperfections more. He doubts both his abilities and worthiness as a medicine man, isn't nearly so confident in his dealings with Alex, and spars with Leaphorn when they're approaching the case from different sides. Being a less-perfect protagonist agrees with Adam Beach; he actually shows some chops when he has to make Chee a bit of a self-pitying jerk rather than the noble Indian in touch with both the old ways and modern life who can do no wrong. Wes Studi still blows him off the screen when they share a scene, but what can you do? Studi's a better actor with an older, more experienced, more multi-faceted character.

The quality of the production is something of a surprise, not just because it is a co-production of a PBS station and Britain's Granada TV, but because of the people involved. Writer Lucky Gold's career is mostly soaps, which prizes generating large amounts of acceptable writing quickly more than a solid hour and a half. Director Jan Egleson is a veteran of TV-movie filler. They're dependable workhorses, but don't come with the repuation Chris Eyre brought to the first movie in the series. Still, they get the job done, and stay focused on the mystery elements.

Thus far, PBS's American Mystery! series isn't bad; I hope it's getting enough of a response to increase production from more than one movie per year (and perhaps take on some other detectives).

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