They're back...20 years ago. Sony's Choice Collection vault of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Hart to Hart Returns, the 1993 reunion movie based on the popular 80s ABC romantic mystery series starring Stefanie Powers, Robert Wagner, and Lionel Stander (Sony has just recently re-released all eight of the Hart to Hart reunion movies in two handy four-volume sets). The first of the made-for-TV reunion movies, Hart to Hart Returns ably recreates the light-hearted charm of the original series, particularly when chemistry-loaded Wagner and Powers are on screen. A decent if unsurprising mystery here, aided by a solid supporting cast (Mannix!) and typically lush production values, is perfect viewing for the loyal Hart to Hart fans. No extras, though, for this good-looking transfer.
Old Air Force buddy Bill McDowell (Mike Connors) wants self-made multi-millionaire Jonathan Hart (Robert Wagner) to buy his massive aeronautics laboratory. Defense contracts are drying up, and McDowell thinks its time to transition to peace-time applications for his company's products―a transition he doesn't think his tech-savvy son, Peter (Lance Guest), is capable of shepherding. Meanwhile, Jonathan's wife, gorgeous free-lance writer Jennifer Hart (Stefanie Powers), is working on an article about Dr. Paul Menard (Ken Howard), of the World Team Medical organization, a quasi-military/U.N. unit that drops doctors into troubled political hotspots all over the globe. Like any good businessman, Jonathan begins his homework on McDowell Aviation, but when acquisitions/merger researcher Eric Hayden (Brian Reddy) winds up dead, Jonathan's poking around in McDowell's army contracts begins a series of frame-ups that could cost the mystery-hound Harts their lives.
As I wrote in the first of my previous reviews of some of the Hart to Hart reunion movies, I probably hadn't seen a Hart to Hart episode since I reviewed Season Two for DVDTalk about five or six years ago. I wasn't a dedicated fan of the series, but whenever I caught it, I always found the show quite light and charming and amusing. I don't think anyone involved with it thought it would be anything heavy or meaningful, but importantly, I think they did take seriously their task of providing expertly-produced fluff, and I always respected the show for that dedication (the behind-the-scenes creative staff was first-rate, so even sometimes second-rate material shone brightly for this 1980s ABC hit). As for TV reunion movies in general, I usually avoid them like the plague, even when they're for beloved shows like Perry Mason or The Andy Griffith Show. It's not so much the already-doomed striving to recapture a time and a place and a feeling that bothers me with such nostalgia exercises, as much as it's the deadly slow reverence these movies usually employ. The tone of these reunion movies is often ghoulish in the displaying of the still-surviving cast members, the plots ponderously plodding along, while we're invited to sit and watch our favorites from decades past, cataloging the withering effects of time on our once-ageless idols. For me, I'd rather just watch the old shows. After all, the whole point of immersing yourself in vintage TV is denial, anyway, isn't it? Who wants to see the effects of reality on our happy TV memories?
So it's rather doubly weird to watch a Hart to Hart reunion movie from 20 years ago...that was produced as an exercise in nostalgia 9 years after the original series folded. Watching this today, Hart to Hart Returns is set even further back in time from its original premiere, than the original series was for the fans who caught this first movie back in '93. Watching Hart to Hart Returns is almost an exercise in nostalgia for nostalgia, in a strange way. Having previously reviewed a few of these reunion movies, I wasn't surprised that Hart to Hart Returns turned out as pleasantly as it did. Scripted by E. Jack Kaplan (My Fellow Americans, lots of TV like Hotel, Simon & Simon), Richard Chapman (My Fellow Americans, The Amazing Dobermans), and James G. Hirsch (lots of solid made-for-TV movies like Inmates: A Love Story and The Rape of Richard Beck), and directed by Tony-winning Peter H. Hunt (1776, Quark, When Things Were Rotten, Ellery Queen), Hart to Hart Returns has its genial, laid-back vibe down pat, eschewing the sometimes enjoyably silly element that often popped up in the original series, for a more contemplative, romantic current through the involved-but-not-hard-to-figure-out mystery.
And certainly, Wagner and Powers get the lion's share of the credit for helping to create that gracious, welcoming ambience. Hart to Hart Returns' script may not surprise any Columbo devotees, but it does provide plenty of opportunities for Powers and Wagner to trade romantic (or even slightly risqué) quips ("Down, boy, down." "Are you talking to the dog?" as they clinch), as they gaze lovingly into each other's smiling eyes. Chemistry is impossible to predict or manufacture between two performers in front of the cameras: they either have "it," or they don't. And Powers and Wagner certainly have "it." More at-ease and smooth (if that's possible) than in the original series, the sometimes amiable goofiness element of their teaming is downplayed in favor of a mellow groove that's unbeatable when you want to watch pretty people, in pretty locations, having pretty little murder/mystery fantasies. And that's all Hart to Hart Returns has to do: entertain us and charm us with its fantasy view of life and death in the ridiculous TV world of mystery-solving multi-millionaires. Hart to Hart Returns isn't "art"...but it's artfully done.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.