After finding enormous success with the serialized Scarpetta novels, crime writer Patricia Cornwell launched a new detective in 2006 with the stand alone book "At Risk." Arguably one of her least beloved novels, curiously she decided to follow it up with "The Front" in 2007. Both novels were tiny (about 200 pages), disjointed, and a relative disappointment to long time fans. So what to do? I've got an idea--why not turn them into a Lifetime Network movie event. Airing on successive weeks, these television movies introduced an unscrupulously ambitious Boston District Attorney and her personal cop (I know, I didn't really get it either--but he seems to work completely outside normal law enforcement channels). In truth, my expectations for network made-for-TV movies (especially on Lifetime) don't rate very highly--but at least these are colorful and entertaining. It's like TV comfort food. As long as you don't try to apply too much logic--these will pass the time in a relatively harmless, but sometimes silly, way. For the purpose of this review, I will comment on both as they were made and released together.
The principle characters are played by Andie MacDowell as the driven D.A. and Daniel Sunjata (Rescue Me) as her armed errand boy. Fans of Diahann Carroll will be pleased to see her here as Sunjata's wise but daffy grandmother. MacDowell has fun with her over-the-top role, but is rarely believable. She has some amusing moments, but the screenplays provide little consistency for her character. The choices that she makes (especially in The Front) defy every indication that she's supposed to be smart. Sunjata does well enough. Given the limitations of the plot, he carries the films despite their implausibility. And Carroll does the supernatural shtick and appears mildly ridiculous, but still manages to retain her dignity and presence.
At Risk (3 stars): As MacDowell prepares a run for Governor, her platform includes a new forensics lab that will revolutionize crime solving in the city. As a kick-off, she decides to solve a prominent cold case. The movie would have you believe that an ambitious Boston politician would choose a case from Knoxville, Tennessee. That'll really impress the constituents in Massachusetts, won't it? She's set to put Sunjata on the case, but when her life is threatened--he stays in town to investigate. Luckily, Annabeth Gish (always an asset) plays a Knoxville cop, has flirted with Sunjata, has no work of her own, and can spend the entire movie solving the cold case. Of course, the two subplots will eventually merge. The crime's solution is rather superfluous implicating characters that we don't really know in any depth. But it all clips along briskly, if not at all believably.
The Front (3 1/2 stars): This proves the old adage, if someone on TV appears creepy--you can bet there's a reason! It's even more ludicrous than its predecessor, but slightly more entertaining on the bad movie scale. Again the movie revolves around a cold case--one that might have ties to the Boston Strangler. With a current murder of similar design, might the notorious serial killer still be alive? Sunjata teams up with a local cop, Ashley Williams, which automatically ups the witty banter quotient. MacDowell's political machinations are hilariously misguided--no way this is the successful professional we've gotten to know slightly. She literally risks her entire career in a series of increasingly bad decisions. The plot, in this case, revolves more closely around our principles as Sunjata picks up a stalker and MacDowell's life is again on the line.
Let's face it, both movies are riddled with happenstance and plot conveniences. Both lack reason and logic in the most pivotal of circumstances. And yet, they are relatively well made. With a decent (but aggressive) score, sweeping camera shots, impressive locales (the Body Farm, a massive Hall of Records, a high school turned to apartments, and MacDowell's telegenic home), and a game cast trying valiantly--I've certainly seen worse. You might want to try to catch these first on TV before committing to the DVD purchase. I'm sure some might love them, but some will hate them as well. For me, they were harmless enough. KGHarris, 6/11.