Tuesday, December 28, 2004

A Thief of Time

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 December 2004 in Jay's Living Room (American Mystery! Specials)

Sometime, over the last ten years, I stopped getting my murder mystery fix from books and started relying on procedural TV series like Law & Order. There were several reasons, but one that stands out is my developing skepticism with continuity. It was fun to see Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn get married, and reading "The Adventure of the Empty House" without "The Final Problem" is kind of pointless, but I was young and catching up on a hundred years of detective fiction - even if the order mattered (which it generally didn't), I could inhale the books one after the other at the library. Once I was caught up to the point where I had to wait for Sue Grafton's latest alphabet murder, the recurring characters and continuing threads started to become a nuisance; I just didn't remember them well enough from the last time I was immersed in this author's world, twelve months earlier. And if you've read them out of order, well, you probably won't have the guilty party spoiled, but you can cross some people off the list of suspects.

That's what seems to have happened with A Thief of Time; though it's the third Leaphorn & Chee movie produced for Mystery!, it appears to take place between Skinwalkers and Coyote Waits. Or maybe not, but the way Jim Chee (Adam Beach) flirts with local attorney Janet Pete (Alex Rice) and talks about a possible transfer to Washington that is a source of bitterness in Coyote certainly suggests it. So does how Emma Leaphorn (Sheila Tousey) mentions her chemo will leave her bald despite stating her hair had grown back in the previous movie. Thus, when Graham Greene shows up as hustling Christian preacher "Slick" Nakai, who also appears in Coyote Waits, it certainly seems unlikely that he'll be heading to jail this week. In addition, Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi) finds a link to someone from an old case (Peter Fonda), and the reveal feels like it should be familiar to the audience as well. Perhaps it's from one of Tony Hillerman's early Leaphorn solo stories.

It's not just the continuing story that's familiar from Coyote Waits; the individual mystery seems similar, too. Once again, there's a missing archeologist/anthropologist on the trail of something extraordinary (this time, support for a theory on how the advanced Anasazi tribe disappeared) somehow connected to a crime Chee was unable to prevent in the opener. Everything here is initially much more muted, though - I don't think we have an actual corpse until halfway through. The low key nature of this investigation figures into the subplots: Leaphorn, a former big-city detective, is semi-retired and unfulfilled by a job which frequently has him merely serving summonses; he feels guilty when one of the academics flirts with him. Meanwhile, Chee's apparent lack of drive to go on to bigger and better things frustrates his girlfriend Alex.

Chris Eyre is in the director's chair again, and he maintains a tighter focus than he did with Skinwalkers. The movie mostly sticks with Chee and Leaphorn as they investigate, and doesn't make a whole lot of diversions into "Navajo life in general". The weakness comes from the writing, though it's unclear whether Alice Arlen's script or Tony Hillerman's novel is at fault. The link to Leaphorn's old case feels shoehorned in, and since that drives much of the novel's last act (telegraphing the final confrontation far too clearly), it kind of feels like a cheat. And if there's one thing a mystery story can't even seem to be doing, it's cheating.

And yet, if WGBH and Granada produce another Leaphorn/Chee movie next summer, I'll be all over it. Wes Studi is just too good in this role to pass it by. Maybe if some enterprising studio exec were to talk to Hillerman about a weekly Leaphorn series...

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