Patrick Swayze's 'Beast': Another Renegade Antihero

Patrick Swayze as Charlie Barker, an undercover FBI agent who doesn't mind breaking the rules to get the bad guys.
Patrick Swayze as Charlie Barker, an undercover FBI agent who doesn't mind breaking the rules to get the bad guys. (By Chuck Hodes -- A& E)

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

"The Beast" premieres tonight on A&E, but it neither art nor entertainment be. The show deserves a rating of DB -- Don't Bother -- unless you happen to be a particularly loyal fan of Patrick Swayze, the still-young actor and dancer who has been fighting a well-documented battle with pancreatic cancer.

It might also be recommended to those with a soft spot anywhere for the beautiful city of Chicago, where tonight's pilot was gorgeously shot, although as has happened so often before, the actors keep getting in the way of the scenery.

Unfortunately for the Swayze fans out there, Charlie Barker, the exceedingly tough cookie he plays in "The Beast," is definitely not the romantic Swayze of "Dirty Dancing"; it's the silly Swayze of "Road House," a preposterous action picture Swayze made in which, to his credit, he appeared to be fighting back giggles.

By contrast, Swayze seems to be taking Charlie Barker seriously, and Charlie's not worth it; he's just another in TV's increasingly populous community of bellicose antiheroes, supposedly macho loners who throw away the book and operate according to their own primal codes of behavior. As an undercover FBI agent, Barker bullies his way around town breaking rules and heads as his way of Getting the Job Done. He's, you know, real mavericky.

The Job in his case includes mentoring a young intern who has the peaceable name of Ellis Dove and is played by Travis Fimmel, once the hottest male underpants model in America (an honor passed from generation to generation, apparently). Fimmel tries to affect a menacing scowl so as to escape the curse of the "pretty boy" -- you and I should suffer such a curse -- but ends up bearing a marked resemblance to good old Butt-head, the taller half of the immortal Beavis & Butt-head cartoon team.

Barker is a sadistic thug even as a teacher, maneuvering his student into various humiliations and treating him as a valet parker: "So park the car and meet me on the 23rd floor," or, "My car is just up the block at the Marriott. Fetch it." The relationship, however, has none of the menacing intensity of that between teacher Denzel Washington and student Ethan Hawke in Antoine Fuqua's "Training Day," which seems to have provided the model for "Beast." Naturally, though Barker acts like a lout, we are asked to believe he is true-blue beneath the proverbial gruff exterior.

Frankly, it would almost be a relief to encounter a character who beneath a gruff exterior hides a gruff interior. But we have enough of those in the real world.

Guns are pulled very early on, and of course fired. Barker's notion of interviewing an informant is to press a gun against her head and urge her to talk or be "splattered" about. Told his brother-in-law is in the sort of trouble that endangers Barker's sister and her children, Barker hands the poor guy a gun and suggests he go off and kill himself. Even Dove, high on drugs, takes to pistol-whipping a bad guy without reading him his rights. Director Michael Dinner pulls out the heaviest artillery in a game of gun-upmanship; at one point Barker wields a portable missile launcher, aiming it at a roomful of people in an apartment before firing it out the window and obliterating a parked car below.

Many of the scenes have familiar rings, even familiar dins, and the script seems like it is based on a misspent life of watching crime movies, rather than actual experience. One thing can be said for "The Beast": It has to be the only crime drama, at least this season, to open with a quotation from a Victorian-era novelist named Marie Louise de la Ramee. Holy Bartlett's, Batman! The quote -- something poetic about a "beast of prey" -- is perhaps meant to dignify what follows, but what was it someone once said about putting "lipstick on a pig"? It wasn't Marie Louise de la Ramee, but the shoe -- that is, the lipstick -- certainly fits.

The Beast (0ne hour) premieres at 10 tonight on A&E.


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