Mantegna steps in as gumshoe

Preview: An actor with real screen presence plays Robert Parker's private eye, Spenser.

July 17, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If you like your men in frilly aprons with a snub-nose .38 holstered on the belt, has A&E got someone for you.

Spenser, Robert B. Parker's tough-talking private eye with a penchant for quoting the Great Books, is back in "Small Vices," a deliciously parboiled, modern-day, made-for-cable film noir premiering tomorrow night at 8 on the Arts & Entertainment channel.

Joe Mantegna, who will next be seen in Barry Levinson's movie "Liberty Heights," plays Spenser. And while readers of the "Spenser" books might find him a little small for the role, he more than makes up for it in attitude and screen presence. Compared with Robert Urich, who played to generally good reviews in ABC's "Spenser: For Hire" a few seasons back, Mantegna is nothing short of a giant.

And anything you might find lacking in Mantegna is made up for in bushels by a great soundtrack, feature-film-quality direction from Robert Markowitz ("Tuskegee Airmen") and the performances of Shiek Mahmud-Bey as Spenser's friend Hawk and Marcia Gay Hardin as Susan Silverman, the Harvard Ph.D. who keeps Spenser in those frilly aprons and a state of near-constant arousal. Hardin is the perfect Silverman. If that's not enough for you, the script is written by Parker himself, and he does a cameo as a deep throat in an underground parking garage.

"Small Vices," which is based on Parker's 24th Spenser novel, opens with Spenser jogging on a bridge on a wintry Boston day when a man in gray approaches and starts firing a handgun at him, point-blank. As the private eye tumbles over the bridge and into the icy water, death seems only seconds away.

But, as the seconds tick off, Parker turns back the clock to show us how Spenser came to this moment on the bridge. The shooting is the result of Spenser's ongoing investigation of Ellis Alves (Wood Harris), an African-American with a long criminal record who was convicted in the rape-murder of a white honor student at an elite private college in Boston. Alves' attorney isn't sure of his client's guilt, and, after nosing around for a few days on retainer, Spenser is downright certain Alves is innocent.

As mysteries go, the story of who killed the co-ed is not a great one. A hint: With Spenser, like Columbo, rich guys are almost always on the side of evil.

But the mystery is not what matters here. A&E spent the money to make an American mystery movie that is every bit the equal of the Brit mysteries on A&E, PBS and BBC America that critics like me drool over. If nothing else, "Small Vices" proves American TV can do an "Inspector Frost" or "Inspector Morse" if it really wants to. In fact, Hardin's Silverman is better than any female character I've seen in either of those series.

Mantegna and Hardin are splendid together. At the end of the film, on a bridge at night walking their dog, Silverman, the shrink, starts recounting the adventure they've just survived. "What do you feel about all of that?" she asks.

"As little as possible," Spenser responds.

I guess opposites really do attract.

`Small Vices'

When: Tomorrow, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and 10 to midnight

Where: A&E cable channel

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