By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 14, 2006
The scene: an elegant outdoor dining terrace in London. At a table for two, one man pays the tab and exits. His companion waits till he's gone, then takes the money and departs, followed by -- can it be? Yes, it's Robert Vaughn!
Cut to an animated card game in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. It's hot, people are shouting, and one of the players, a young blond cockney, is up to no good.
Elsewhere, a stunning brunette flashes her leg at a fat slob pig-dining on a sandwich in his car. She approaches him, seemingly with a proposition in mind. And on still another street, a middle-aged guy, carrying a bag of groceries, is run down by a car.
Are you confused yet? Don't be -- you've just met the cast of "Hustle," a stylish, intricate and entertaining new series about a gang of grifters in the British capital. The hour-long show (with commercials, each installment runs 75 minutes) premieres tonight at 10 with a two-episode presentation on American Movie Classics. And have faith: All plot lines will be resolved in the end.
Actually, there's yet another character -- the most important one of all. Pulling the gang together -- and pulling all the strings -- is Mickey "Bricks" Stone (Adrian Lester), a genius of the swindle who believes above all that you can't cheat an honest man. In Mickey's world, you can, however, take the grasping and the morally challenged for at least part of what they're worth.
At the outset of tonight's first episode, Mickey has joined forces with Albert Stroller (Vaughn), whose specialty is finding rich, greedy patsies to fleece; Stacie Monroe (Jaime Murray), the "hooker," who distracts a mark through her feminine allure; and Ash Morgan (Robert Glenister), the car-crash "victim," whose specialty is walking in front of moving vehicles and collecting insurance money because of a preexisting skull fracture that always shows up on the X-rays.
They're soon joined by Danny Blue (Marc Warren), the cockney cardsharp, who more or less forces his way into the group and proves a valuable addition.
In the premiere, Mickey has assembled the gang because he says he wants to make one last score, even though he looks far too young and vigorous to retire. Vaughn's quarry, the tab-grabber from the opening vignette, is the target. The guy is rich, selfish and lascivious, which sets the pattern for the show: The crooks are so much more appealing than their victims that audience sympathies really have only one way to go.
In the first episode, we also follow police investigators, who have learned of Mickey's hopes for a final payday and plan to nail him, finally, for his life of crime. (The police are so humorlessly determined to nail the gang that you cannot root for them either.)
That makes two sets of predators, one stalking the other. We think we know everything -- but still there's a stunner at the conclusion.
There are no James Bond-style gadgets in the early going, but these people do know their way around the Internet. The scam in the first episode involves computer monitoring of stock prices, and you can swallow it easily enough without really comprehending how it works.
In the second show, the mark is a casino owner whose penchant for violence has landed Vaughn's Albert in the hospital. The guy's a big movie buff, and part of the scheme involves having Stacie pose as a rising starlet named Jennifer Cole. Through the wonders of computer technology, a Web site and even a faux fan magazine are produced to keep him hooked. This one's a little harder to believe, but the glint-eyed Murray sure looks the part.
Even in the premiere, the show is all of a piece in content and tone. And it doesn't take itself too seriously, employing the occasional stop-camera techniques that let characters wink at or address the audience or have funny private conversations while the rest of the players stand frozen in time.
The actors are uniformly excellent. Lester makes a smooth, handsome, quietly commanding Mickey; his silences are nearly as magnetic as his speeches. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he won an Olivier Award 10 years ago for the musical "Company," and in tonight's second episode, he performs a charmingly incongruous song-and-dance routine.
And Vaughn remains quintessentially suave; he was probably a suave baby. But now, partly because he carries his 70-some years so well and partly because this is London, he also seems to have grown stately.
The show, billed as an "AMC original series," is actually a BBC production that has shot three six-episode seasons. For the third season, AMC did step in as co-producer, and it will air all 18 installments. After tonight's two-parter, a single episode will air each Saturday from 10 to 11:15 p.m.
"Hustle" has been well received in Britain, and it's a welcome addition to the American TV grid. With its verve, wit and inventiveness, it has stolen its way to the head of the Saturday-night class.
Hustle (two episodes, 75 minutes each) airs tonight at 10 on AMC.