In retrospect, director Michael Mann’s 1995 feature film Heat was noteworthy for more than just providing the first opportunity for Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to mumble meaningfully to each other on the big screen. That epic police thriller about moral rot and sun-baked shoot-outs in Los Angeles has ended up providing prominent actors for no fewer than four 2002 TV shows: William Fichtner (who played a weaselly businessman) is the star of ABC’s MDs; Ted Levine (who was part of Pacino’s cop posse) portrays Tony Shalhoub’s boss in Monk; Dennis Haysbert (an ex-con) will continue his politico role in the second season of 24; while De Niro’s right-hand Heat man, Tom Sizemore, is the front-and-center star of Mann’s return to weekly television, Robbery Homicide Division.
In RHD, Sizemore plays Lieut. Sam Cole, a predatory L.A. cop who favors immaculate suits pressed with knife-sharp creases — the sight of him thrusting his way onto a bloody crime scene makes lesser officers in his path wilt like timid maidens.
The aptly named actor, who has used his muscled bulk to intimidate enemies in films like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, is unlike any other leading man in current prime-time drama. Recent TV leads, from William Petersen to David Duchovny, achieved their effects via emotional aloofness; the 37-year-old Sizemore does the opposite. He beams out emotions through his wide, jumpy eyes and shifting expressions that flit from scowl to grin. The camera usually frames Sizemore tightly in the center of the screen; Cole’s colleagues, who include Klea Scott (Brooklyn South), Barry ”Shabaka” Henley (Ali), and Michael Paul Chan (Spy Game), tend to literally look up to him, and Sizemore’s constant forward momentum pulls them along behind him as he barges into dark nightclubs or bright law offices, barking out a disorienting question to a suspect or a curt order to one of his crew.
In the first two episodes of RHD, Sizemore and Co. investigate a drive-by shooting and the murder of a cop outside one of L.A.’s ubiquitous mini-strip malls. In both cases, we see the crime being committed, then watch Lieutenant Cole and his RHD officers hustle past the yellow crime tape to try to figure out who did what to whom. It’s good, old-fashioned dramatic structure: We know what went down and take pleasure in watching the cops make both educated and wild guesses, interrogate witnesses and suspects, and piece together the crime. There are a couple of ways in which RHD invigorates what could have been a standard cop-show setup. For one, nearly everything takes place outside, on the street — no talky station-house scenes here. For another, race matters, not as a subject for lessons against bigotry but as a complicating fact of life: One key plot point, for example, hinges on the misidentification of Hispanic suspects as Asian, a crucial error made by rattled witnesses, and it comes close to screwing up the solving of the crime. On a more positive note, the majority of Sizemore’s costars are either black or Asian, a better percentage than most other new-season dramas. In this respect, exec producers Mann and Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) use the simmering melting pot of L.A. in ways TV hasn’t before. (For the closest recent example, you’d have to look to feature film — director Antoine Fuqua’s Denzel Washington thriller Training Day.)
Another distinguishing RHD trait is that it’s shot on high-definition video, using natural light. The neon glare from a fast-food joint, the stale glow of midnight street lamps — these give the show a harsh naturalism. It’s the opposite of what Mann did when he glitzed up police stories in Miami Vice (1984-89) — rather than suffuse a crime scene with local color, he’s draining it out here. Instead of Vice’s startled pink flamingos in the opening-credit background and Phil Collins on the soundtrack, the sky in RHD is as gray as the cement upon which dead bodies bleed; even the palm trees look wan — brown and defeated. Mann has a gift for filming elaborate action sequences, whether it’s the civilians-caught-in-the-crossfire gunplay in Heat, the swirling battle scenes in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), or the audacious black-culture montage that commences Ali (2001). In his return to television, producer Mann, along with the directors on this series, among them Stephen Gyllenhaal (responsible for the terrific 1991 TV movie Paris Trout), opts for immediacy: The camera work often seems handheld, the editing artfully choppy; the writing teems with cop lingo and leaps of deductive intuition — you have to be on your mental toes to keep up with Cole’s righteous posse.
But it’s worth it. This is the most creatively daring new show of the season, and I haven’t even mentioned how exhilaratingly funny Cole’s hectoring banter can be. He knows when to bust doors down and when to hold back. When a zealous colleague suggests they arrest a suspect on flimsy evidence, Cole snaps, ”For what? Felonious eating of a cheeseburger?” Robbery Homicide Division is meaty stuff, lean yet juicy.