In the early 1980s, London was not only a target for the IRA, but also for a ring of master counterfeiters that were flooding the streets with remarkably convincing fake currency. Scotland Yard's quest to crack this ring is the focus of "The Magician," a 1993 made-for-TV production notable now for the appearance of a young Clive Owen.
Owen plays George Byrne, the detective paired up with David Katz (Jay Avocone), a brash American salesman who's probably used to shady dealings and dangerous men. Katz, who stumbles upon the ring early on, becomes the Yard's front man in this case, and it turns out he's pretty good at playing the undercover game. In fact, his way of maneuvering the deal is smarter than the cops', as Katz finds it rather easy in getting closer and closer to the ultimate source: a mysterious counterfeiter known only as the Magician.
Jeff Pope's screenplay features all the usual man-gone-undercover trademarks - doublecrosses, uncertainty of one's moral standing, and, of course, the marriage that's ready to collapse because our man must lie to her, too, as well as sleep around, if that helps keep up appearances. It works despite the familiarity, for two reasons. First, the characters crafted here are interesting people, fully developed beyond the expected two dimensions. As much play is given to Katz's doomed relationship with his family as is the back-alley business with London's crime elite. (The crime business is compelling as well, clever and involving on both a plot and character level, keeping up with British TV's reputation for valuing fine writing.)
Second, the acting is solid enough that the familiar story workings don't feel as stale as they might otherwise be. Avocone's slick assertiveness brings an almost hypnotic quality to his character; Jennifer Calvert's turn as the beleaguered wife is heartfelt; Jeremy Kemp has a Michael Gambon vibe going on as the tough crime lord; and Owen makes up for a slightly underwritten sidekick role with a dynamic screen presence. Most of "The Magician" revolves around how Katz seems to take over the investigation, perhaps to his own ends, and Owen makes it interesting to watch the control slip from George's hand.
"The Magician" gets a bit too dry in spots, as it runs about ten minutes longer than it really needs to - there's a bit too much filler involving a nightclub magic act - but overall, it's rather fascinating stuff. It's an enjoyable little crime drama with quality performances, sharp characters, and a few nifty peeks into the world of counterfeiting, and that's more than enough to make up for the too-familiar trappings.
As expected with a 13-year-old British TV movie, the video (presented in its original 1.33:1 broadcast format) is soft and just a smidge grainy, although not so much that it hurts the movie.
Dolby 2.0 stereo. No subtitles are available.
A slick chunk of moody Brit crime, "The Magician" comes Recommended to anyone looking for a small-scale thriller with smarts.