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Spike offers babe-free TV

The network of battling martial artists, car shows and similar bits rolls out a quality eight-hour series, `The Kill Point.'

July 21, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Spike TV is not usually where my eye lands in the search for original quality programming -- the menu that divides its website into "Shows," "Babes" and "Rant" (which can often involve babes) is an accurate enough reflection of that network's concerns, the shape of its aesthetic, the breadth of its philosophy. All the more reason, perhaps, to point out when something good airs there, by which I mean something to interest more than the habitues -- if such a word may be reasonably applied to the viewers of "Ultimate Fighting Championship" and "Trucks!".

The limited series "The Kill Point" -- an "eight-hour event," to quote the Spike publicity department -- is not going to change the world. Not even your own small world. It's a genre piece: "crime," subset "hostage situation." But (to judge by the first two of those eight hours, which air Sunday night) its occasional small failings are the shallowest potholes in what is a fundamentally smooth track, in which unpredictable twists and blind hairpin turns give way to straightaways made for speed. It's the sort of thing that gives popular entertainment a good name.

Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo star, one might say, as Bruce Willis and Al Pacino. Wahlberg, whose character has been given the pulp-fiction name of Horst Cali, is the ace hostage negotiator whose impressive record cuts no ice with his self-important superiors -- but I think you know who's going to be proved right when the dust settles in Hour 8. (He has also, for some reason, been made a grammar freak, for whom a misplaced apostrophe is like a knife in the heart.)

Leguizamo is a disgruntled Middle East wars vet who leads his old unit in an assault on a Pittsburgh bank; something goes awry, naturally, and the would-be robbers find themselves holed up inside with tellers and customers and a critically wounded FBI agent.

We've seen many of these characters before, if not necessarily in one place all together: The arrogant superior officer (Mike McGlone) whose insistence on doing things his way (and not our hero's) has the usual fatal consequences; the self-important zillionaire (Tobin Bell, the villain in the "Saw" movies) trying to bend circumstances to his will; the brave old man, the loose cannon, the bullying boss revealed as a coward. But there is time enough here to play some variations on the old themes, make unusual connections and build sympathy all around.

Created by James DeMonaco ("The Negotiator," "Assault on Precinct 13"), co-written with frequent partner Todd Harthan and directed by Steve Shill, "The Kill Point" gets down to business quickly and efficiently. Once the initial gun smoke clears, the series shifts to a pace that, if not exactly real time, reflects Cali's insistence that resolving a hostage situation is a long, slow business.

There is, appropriately, a lot of talk, which especially suits Leguizamo, who has a background in one-man shows -- that space where theater overlaps stand-up comedy. He gets an "Attica" moment early on, out in the street (and in his underwear yet, to show his battle scars). "I want a flak jacket for every soldier in Iraq," he declares, "and I want the son of every senator who voted yes for this war to sign up for active duty." Which elicits cheers and whistles from a crowd that has been let improbably near the scene of an ongoing crime.

There are only a couple of possible outcomes in stories such as this. (The moral order that regulates mainstream entertainment, not to say our lives, requires that the hostage-takers will either be captured or killed.) But you might say as much of a game of chess: Someone wins, or nobody does -- that's about it. What matters is how you get there -- the unexpected moves, the bold sacrifices, the clever misdirections, the mutually intensifying alternations of fast action and quiet reflection. And if the filmmakers can get you emotionally invested, even a little bit -- just to like the characters enough to care whether they live or die, as is the case here -- you can have a good old tense time watching it all go down.


`The Kill Point'

Where: Spike TV

When: 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

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