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Happy to be conned by 'Hustle'

January 13, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Hustle," a BBC series about a team of lovable con artists abroad in the flash, buzz, purr and pow of shiny new 21st century London, gets its American premiere Saturday night on AMC. (Broadcasts are in widescreen format, with full-screen repeats on Wednesday and Friday for those who rate size over integrity of image.) From its style as well as its content, it is as clear as freshly polished plate glass that the model for this venture is Steven Soderbergh's stressed-out remake of "Ocean's Eleven" (and sequel), whose acid-jazz, contempo-retro aesthetic it freely adopts.

Yet, as written by Tony Jordan (of the popular Brit-soap "EastEnders"), it betters its big-screen model. (I am of the opinion, I admit, that this is not saying much.) It does so, in part, because the plot holes and improbabilities seem less gaping and bothersome when they are not produced at enormous expense and blown up across a 40-foot screen, but also because the mechanics of the cons are not so impossibly convoluted and the characters, cartoons though they be, are more fully realized. Neither does stylishness, which is mostly contained in some clever transitions from scene to scene and the occasional slow-motion shot and breaking of the fourth wall, substitute for sense. Once you get past the relatively stiff opening episode and everyone relaxes and starts having fun, "Hustle" is an undemanding good time that manages to rack your nerves even when you know better.

"We're not crooks," declares Mickey "Bricks" Stone (Adrian Lester), who leads the team of colorful and variously capable cons. ("Mission: Impossible," which was essentially a show about con artists with foreign dictators and such as the marks, is another touchstone.) "We're miners -- we mine people's greed." As in most con or caper films, the criminals are the heroes, which means that their victims must be the worse villains. "You can't cheat an honest man," says Mickey -- I understand the point, though a minute's reflection shows this statement to be untrue. Still, they leave the honest alone, as a matter of karma, and life's less fortunate are off-limits as well. "This crew isn't about conning little old ladies out of their pension," notes a police detective.

"He's an objectionable little man with the morals of an alley cat," says Mickey's mentor, old pro Albert Stroller, of the first episode's target, and subsequent marks all play variations on that theme: rich, grasping, bigoted snobs any reasonable person would want to see taken down, if only because it so rarely happens in real life. Albert is played by Robert Vaughn, whom viewers of a certain age or a nerdish disposition will remember as "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." (I could have told you what that stood for once.)

Mickey "is in a class by himself," according to the authorities (who don't even bother to show up in later episodes, so far is he beyond capture), and possibly the last practitioner of "the long con" -- a dying art in this hectic modern world, like so many other things that take time. Along with the jewel thief, the con artist is the most lovable of criminals, following a trade rich in tradition and lore. (Lovable in literary terms, I mean, although we often regard the world in literary terms.) We accord the con artist the same delighted respect we give the magician or the actor, whose pursuits his own incorporates.

Also on the team, in best Impossible Mission Force fashion, are Danny Blue (Marc Warren), the new kid, wild and cool in the old Terence Stamp mold; Ash Morgan (Robert Glenister), who does things with gadgets and wires, like Greg Morris used to, though he has also thrown himself in front of cars for insurance money; and Stacie Monroe (Jaime Murray), the Sexy Girl, whose job it is to Work That Thing, in a post-feminist way -- that is to say, she's in charge of her allure.

It does seem highly unlikely that this gang of five could roam around London pulling job after job and continually escape the wrath of the police and of powerful victims. (Especially since everyone in town seems to know their business and where to find them. They hang out in the same bar every episode, and they're the only people in it.) Everything falls into place for them just a little too easily. But this is a fantasy and, notwithstanding some moments of pathos that are the more effective for being underplayed (stiff upper lip and all that), fundamentally a comedy. A pretty good one too.



Where: AMC

When: 10 p.m. Saturday

Ratings: TV-14 LV (may be unsuitable for children under 14)

Adrian Lester...Mickey "Bricks" Stone

Robert Vaughn...Albert Stroller

Marc Warren...Danny Blue

Robert Glenister...Ash Morgan

Jaime Murray...Stacie Monroe

Executive producers: Jane Featherstone, Simon Crawford Collins. Writer and creator: Tony Jordan.

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