New 'Columbo' abandons old wrinkles

March 15, 1992|By Mark Dawidziak | Mark Dawidziak,Knight-Ridder News Service

New "Columbo" episodes usually don't offer much reason for comment. What's the point? After 24 years and 59 cases, we know the routine.

We see an elaborately planned murder. We know who the murderer is. When our sloppy hero finally shows up, we try to guess how he will catch the supremely smug and confident killer.

Well, here's a real mystery for you. Why would Peter Falk completely revamp the successful "Columbo" formula that has been working since he started playing the wrinkled-raincoat detective in the 1968 TV movie "Prescription: Murder"?

Yes, there are new wrinkles in Lt. Columbo's 60th case, "No Time To Die," which ABC will premiere tonight at 9 (WJZ-TV, Channel 13 in Baltimore).

Perhaps the raincoat was getting too comfortable. Maybe it was tough finding writers capable of mastering the tricky "Columbo" formula.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Falk and his production team decided to shake up the recipe. To that end, they purchased several stories by crime novelist Ed McBain (pseudonym of Evan Hunter), author of the "87th Precinct" books.

But Mr. McBain's by-the-book police-procedure style fits Columbo about as comfortably as a newly pressed uniform.

More influenced by the British drawing-room mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, "Columbo" is an elegant fantasy that matches a wealthy murderer against a scruffy, blue-collar detective.

For the first time, there is no murder to solve. This time, Lt. Columbo is asked to solve the kidnapping of his nephew's wife.

Lt. Columbo never interacts with the criminal this time, so there's no verbal chess match. There's just police procedure and procedure and procedure.

Stark and straightforward, "No Time to Die" is director Alan Levi's awkward attempt to move "Columbo" into a new area. It lacks the delightful humor and the richness of character we've come to expect from these mysteries.

Robert Van Scoyk's script doesn't shake up the "Columbo" formula, it abandons the essential ingredients. Keep reminding yourself that you're watching a "Columbo" movie, because "No Time to Die" plays out more like a two-hour "Dragnet" episode.

At least we finally get to meet one of those hundreds of relatives Lt. Columbo always talks about. The lieutenant's nephew, policeman Andy Parma (Thomas Calabro), is getting married to top fashion model Melissa Hays (Joanna Going).

She's kidnapped on their wedding night, and Lt. Columbo quickly organizes an investigation.

The slow and excruciatingly deliberate "No Time to Die" comes off as just another cop story with a woman-in-jeopardy angle. We don't want Lt. Columbo to act like every other policeman on television.

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