Oh, there's pain, alright.
In 2005, the Sci-Fi Channel attempted a made-for-TV movie adaptation of Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada's mid-90s comic book "Painkiller Jane," with Emmanuelle Vaugier taking the title role and the hopes of a regular series to follow. The results were pretty much on par for the network: plenty of genre cheese, bad acting, and a story not worth remembering. Sci-Fi being Sci-Fi, this was just fine with them, and soon a full season of episodes were ordered.
Ah, but it's not that simple. While the movie varied wildly from the comic, it was decided to reboot the franchise yet again for the series; some elements were brought closer to the source material, others were reworked completely. Kristanna Loken, best remembered as the evil robot in "Terminator 3," was brought in to take over for Vaugier, with a completely new cast behind her (goodbye, Richard Roundtree!). When the first episode debuted in April 2007, viewers were asked to dismiss the movie completely and start all over.
Jane Vasco (Loken) is a tough-as-nails DEA agent who stumbles across a mysterious government agency during an investigation. The agency's leader, Andre McBride (Rob Stewart), wants Jane on their team, and eventually blackmails her into joining. (Side note: If you think this blackmail creates tension - or even matters - in later episodes, you'd be underestimating the awful writing staff and their short, stupid memories.) Their mission: track down and contain a never-ending series of "Neuros" - humans with mental superpowers. The secret weapon: Jane herself, who discovers she super-healing abilities which make her nigh invulnerable.
The extra gimmick is that no two Neuros' powers are alike, which means each episode can deliver its own "monster of the week" adventure. One week the heroes are hunting down a guy who can see the future; the next they're fighting someone who can create dangerous hallucinations. And so on. "Neuro" is just a fancy new way of saying "random super villain."
It's one giant parade of the derivative. Jane's own healing powers are far from original, and the series' producers take no effort in making the character fresh or different. She's just another bad-ass chick with Wolverine's durability, and the villains she meets are smudgy third-generation copies of concepts out of every sci-fi series from the last forty years. (Jane wakes up with amnesia and is told she killed her friend! Jane fights a Neuro who can bend time to his will! Jane visits a haunted house! Jane goes undercover at a fashion show!)
Loken's co-stars are a wholly unmemorable lot. The actors are all mid-range talent, while the characters are cheap templates: the Tough Guy, the Nerdy Hacker, the Brunette. (And yes, the Nerdy Hacker spends all his time typing very quickly, which, as we all know, is how hacking works in the real world.) The show can barely muster enough excitement over these people, and neither can we.
The writers attempt a somber, film noir vibe throughout the series, a tip of the hat more to "Blade Runner" than to film noir itself. ("Deckard Street" plays a key role throughout, ha ha.) Jane even provides chilly narration in each episode - although when you add terrible writing and Loken's wooden performance, each embarrassing chunk of narration becomes more cringe-worthy than the last.
And while the comic book was created a decade earlier, "Painkiller Jane" (the series) most resembles "Torchwood," the BBC's "Doctor Who" spin-off. Both shows deliver secretive teams fighting your monster of the week. But where "Torchwood" treats both its scripts and its audience with intelligence and respect, "Painkiller Jane" plays out as if written by and for twelve-year-old remedial students who read a lot of sci-fi fan magazines. (In other words, it's a Sci-Fi Channel production.)
Here is a television show that repeatedly stops its stories cold so it can slowly explain not-at-all complicated plot points to viewers that most likely figured them out on their own. Right in the first episode, we get multiple instances in which we flash back to something that only happened a few seconds earlier, "revealing" surprises to an audience that already got it. It's a show that thinks it's clever when it's not, and then wants to waste time talking about it.
There's also an attempt to craft a series-long story arc, although that, too, crumbles. The pilot is filled with curious nuggets about a dangerous, powerful corporation - and then the follow-up episodes fail to mention it at all. When later episodes finally return to the idea, we had long since forgotten about it, and can't bring ourselves to care, rolling our eyes at the new developments that never quite click. More successful, if only slightly, is a peek into Jane's private life, another attempted story arc that exists more for T&A value than for legitimate character development.
It's no surprise that "Painkiller Jane" was cancelled before it completed its first season run. Even by Sci-Fi's low standards, it's a downright terrible piece of unoriginal nonsense, a sluggish, bland adventure series that makes completing a single episode an absolute chore.
Anchor Bay collects all 22 episodes of "Painkiller Jane" in a six-disc set. Three slimline cases hold two discs apiece; a glossy cardboard slipcover holds the set.
The episodes featured in this set are presented in original broadcast order and run approx. 46 minutes each. They are:
Disc One: "Pilot", "Toy Soldiers", "Piece of Mind", and "Catch Me If You Can".
Disc Two: "Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself", "Breakdown", "Higher Court", and "Friendly Fire".
Disc Three: "Trial By Fire", "Lauren Gray", "Ghost in the Machine", and "Something Nasty in the Neighborhood".
Disc Four: "The League", "The Amazing Howie", "Healer", "Thanks for the Memories".
Disc Five: "Playback", "Jane 113", "What Lies Beneath", and "The Beast of Bolnar".
Disc Six: "Relections" and "Endgame".
Note: Each episode is divided into a measly two chapters: one for the intro, prologue, and opening credits; the other for the rest of the episode. Why bother with chapter breaks at all?
Video & Audio
Presented in the original 1.78:1 widescreen format (with anamorphic enhancement), "Painkiller Jane" looks decent enough to pass. It's soft, a touch grainy, and a little on the dark side, although much of this murkiness is from the source material itself. (The show was underlit to hide budget flaws and to provide a "moody" look.) Colors are otherwise nicely handled.
The stereo soundtrack is passable and acceptably recreates the show's broadcast sound. No subtitles are offered.
Loken and co-star Noah Danby deliver a dry, gap-heavy commentary tracks on "Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself" and "Something Nasty in the Neighborhood." The stars spend so much time not talking that you'll often forget you had the commentary playing; when they do talk, it's not much of anything, just limp chatter about on-screen action and story recap.
"Behind Budapest: The Making of Painkiller Jane" (5:34, on Disc Six) covers the location shooting used for the show's final four episodes. Director/consulting producer Matthew Hastings talks over a collection of behind-the-scenes footage and photos, explaining how the locations helped give the series a more expensive look. Footage is presented in non-anamorphic letterbox, which is then windowboxed in an effort to fill the anamorphic widescreen frame. It's a tiny little picture that sits in the middle of a black screen.
"Painkiller Jane" is a mess of a show and a prime example of a genre presented at its dumbest. Newcomers curious about the short-lived series should just Skip It altogether, while whatever hardcore fans the show managed to attract will likely be disappointed with the limp features and so-so presentation.