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Fighting his demons to a standoff

As a negotiator trying to secure hostages' release, Donnie Wahlberg walks a fine line in 'The Kill Point.'

August 26, 2007|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

To call Donnie Wahlberg the Mickey Rourke of our generation solves only half the problem. Rourke is an icon and a shell, self-righteous sleaze incarnate, and a relic of louche, early '90s cologne-drenched masculinity.

Which is to say, he's set a high bar for on-screen tragic figures.

It should be a tough act to follow, especially for someone who wasn't even the sex symbol in '80s boy band New Kids on the Block. But Wahlberg has been a quick study. While Rourke radiates a desperation that has only lately coalesced into something approximating depth, Wahlberg, more than a decade his junior, has been quicker to give his inner sadness full rein. He has perfected a sort of beleaguered doggedness, from the "Saw" movies to the recent "Runaway" to his role as Capt. Horst Cali on "The Kill Point" (Spike, 9 p.m.), which concludes its eight-episode run tonight.

"The Kill Point" revolves around a hostage standoff -- former soldiers have tried, and failed, to rob a Pittsburgh bank. Cali is the negotiator tasked with freeing the hostages safely. Cali is a master of precise movements. He walks ramrod-straight in a tight shirt and in crisply pressed pants. He insists that a grammatical error be fixed on a sign in his command center before he can properly proceed with the negotiation. He is uptight but not stiff -- his presentation, one senses, comes from a need to control his less socially acceptable urges. If he's not effecting calm, he might snap.

Wahlberg first honed this style on the short-lived NBC alt-cop show "Boomtown," in which he played Joel Stevens, a detective given to emotional minimalism. By and large, it's thankless work for an actor -- seldom is Wahlberg's character the traditional hero. Any attraction to him is psychological and sinister, not pheromonal.

Even on this show, Wahlberg's not the true star. That role belongs to John Leguizamo, who plays Mr. Wolf, the lead bank robber. He gets the poetic monologues, the righteousness of purpose (the robbers are "protesting" this country's poor treatment of its veterans), the apparent control of the situation.

But it is Wahlberg, and Cali, pulling the strings here. Cali's power comes from the sense that, were he to unleash, he'd easily win -- his cool is a leverage point. In addition to Leguizamo, Wahlberg benefits from a strong supporting cast -- Mike McGlone, as stiff as his near-pompadour, as Cali's boss, and convincingly bedraggled Tobin Bell, Wahlberg's nemesis in the "Saw" films, as Alan Beck, a local magnate whose daughter is among the hostages.

Thanks to his high forehead, pale skin and seemingly translucent hair, Bell's sad eyes appear to be floating in a hollow pool. When he blinks, he turns frighteningly blank.

Leguizamo's team experiences their own inner conflicts as well; his fellow bank robbers are a volatile bunch. Frank Grillo ("Prison Break") is Mr. Pig, a lech; Jeremy Davidson ("Army Wives") is Mr. Rabbit, a mentally unstable grunt; J.D. Williams ("The Wire") is Mr. Cat, a cool medic; and Leo Fitzpatrick ("The Wire") is Mr. Mouse, an artsy soul who can no longer bear the psychic burden of violence.

At the end of last week's episode, Mr. Mouse threw himself out of the bank -- it was a confession, an admission of defeat, a death wish. Eyes downcast, shoulders slumped, and nursing a gunshot wound, he'd forgotten how to maintain the illusion of control. As he staggers on the street outside the bank, Cali looks at him and winces slightly. There but for the grace of God goes he.

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