You can tell that Robert Collins wants to be a film director for the big screen, not just for television.
If he makes it to the bigs, Collins will be able to have shallow characters walk through a vapid plot so he can show off all the tricks he can do with cameras, lights and set design. Isn't that what making a movie in the '90s is all about?
However, since Collins is stuck for the moment, or at least for Sunday night, in television, where the current belief -- "Miami Vice" not withstanding -- is that the small screen can't be used to overwhelm the audience with visual pyrotechnics, he had to have a story. Or at least a reasonable facsimile.
The result is "In the Arms of a Killer," NBC's Sunday night movie -- on Channel 2 (WMAR) at 9 p.m. -- executive produced, written and directed by Collins. The film tries real hard to be a stylish, post-modern film noir, but instead it is just muddled and confusing.
In the opening scene, fog obscures the screen, foreshadowing the confusion that lies ahead. Next thing you know, you witness what looks like a drug deal gone bad, concluding with a shotgun blast through the torso of some poor unfortunate soul, letting you know that the weeks of warm-hearted holiday movies have ended.
There's only one problem. If, two hours later, you can figure out why this scene was important to the plot or the rest of the movie, then you've already gotten to Level Five in Super Mario Land on the Game Boy your kid got for Christmas.
Actually, it is related to one of the subplots, but generally, when a movie starts like this -- and the next scene has a subtitle that says "One Year Later" -- then the brutal murder is going to play a crucial, not just a tangential, role.
In this instance, it was an excuse for Collins to show that he can stage a bloody crime for the cameras.
In any case, a year later, we get our unlikely pair of police partners investigating yet another murder, this a mysterious drug overdose that takes place during a party at an art-laden loft, the first of many look-what-our-art-director-can-do sets.
The principal pair is played by miniseries queen Jaclyn Smith and John Spencer, Tommy Mullaney on "L.A. Law."
She's a BMW-driver from blue blood but married a cop who was killed in action and now has taken up his mantle. Spencer plays an old-fashioned veteran of the streets who's long-time partner (played by Gerald S. O'Loughlin, the best actor in the cast) just retired. It's oil and water between these two, and the fact that they don't end up between the sheets is one cliche this script misses.
Their dialogue has that cute, self-referential, post-modern tone. As he questions what a classy dame like her would be doing slumming in a job like this, you can hear Mullaney asking Smith what a beautiful leading lady like her is doing playing a homicide detective, a role that usually goes to tough-talking character actors like Mullaney.
Turns out that one of those present at the party is a hunk of a doctor played by Michael Nouri, more to a blue-blooded homicide detective's taste.
He and Smith hit it off and fall into bed. Hmmm, name of the movie is "In the Arms of a Killer." Think Nouri's doctor might be the bad guy?
Smith starts thinking so, and keeps trying to prove it even though Mullaney has the case wrapped up neatly and tells her not to let the suspicion that her lover is a murderer get in the way of a good relationship. Take it from a guy who knows.
The problem is that the doctor is not the killer.
Ordinarily, that shouldn't be a problem. In fact, that should just make things more interesting, but by the time all this becomes evident -- this guy isn't just a red herring, he's more like a fuchsia moray eel -- you have long since ceased paying attention to the dribs and drabs of developments that make up this flimsy excuse for a plot. Thus, you have no chance of unraveling this allegedly complex, tangled story.
And wait until you see what skeleton scriptwriter Collins has put in this doctor's closet. Let's just say the odds are that you've never visited a physician with this particular problem hidden on the side.
The final resolution to the crime is not only odd and improbable, but apparently disconnected to everything you've been asked to watch for the previous two hours. So, even if you were paying attention, it probably wouldn't have helped much.
But, hey, you weren't supposed to be watching the movie, you were supposed to be watching the film -- the moody lighting, the overlapping dialogue, the reflections in car windows, the nice camera angles, all that important stuff.