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Wallander: Sidetracked / Firewall / One Step Behind

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // June 2, 2009
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted June 17, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Series:
Based on a series of best selling books by Henning Mankell, the BBC series Wallander seems to have everything going for it.  It stars Kenneth Branagh, has a flawed main character (those are always more interesting,) and contains some puzzling mysteries.  Unfortunately the show doesn't live up to its potential.  Slow paced and often relying on outrageous coincidences to move the plot forward the three shows in this set range from mediocre to pretty bad.
This set contains three mysteries, each running an hour and a half.  This first tale introduces Kurt Wallander, a Swedish police detective, who is separated from his wife, has a rocky relationship with his only daughter, and has no life outside of his work.  He's called out to a farm one day when a local sees a girl stealing a can of gasoline from a barn.  He finds the girl sitting in a field and is able to approach her until he reveals that he's a policeman.  At that point she gets terrified, pours the gas over her head, and lights herself.

There seems to be no reason why she did this (well, to the police... viewers who have seen a few mysteries will latch on to a clue right away about an hour before the characters do) and they have a hard time identifying her body.
Meanwhile a prominent member of the government is killed outside of his house, his head cracked open with a single blow from an axe.  What's more mysterious is that a patch of his hair and scalp have been cut off of his body.  When a rich business man and another important person are both killed in the same way, Wallander has to figure out how these seemingly unrelated killings are tied together and figure out who is on the killer's list before they strike again.
This story opens with an attention-getting death but then slows to a crawl.  Wallander broods about the girl who killed herself.  He tried to interview someone and they won't talk.  He broods about his wife.  He complains that he has nothing to go on to his co-workers, he broods some more.  What makes it worse is that he misses clues that are pretty obvious.  It takes him a day or two to realize that it's unnatural for a man to have an erotic painting of his teenage daughter hanging in his house.  That's because Wallander doesn't really solve this case as let it unravel before his eyes.  Yes, there were some steps he took at the end that helped catch the criminal, but he didn't drive the investigation like most detective do, he just would start off into space and glare.
This second case is better than the first.  It moves faster and has more interesting characters, but it's flawed by too many coincidences and some pretty unbelievable events. 

Two teenage girls hail a cab to ride to a pizza joint, but one of them pulls a knife and kills the driver before they get there.  They don't try to run, and when captured the killer says that she did it for the money, something that Wallander doesn't believe. 
That evening an IT specialist drops dead after getting some money from an ATM.  He was young, had a strong heart, and no signs of poison.  No one is sure why he died, so Wallander breaks into his apartment, not wanting to wait for a warrant, but doesn't find much of interest.  When the warrant does arrive however it's discovered that someone has broken in and removed some things:  A picture and a day planner.  Why would someone do that if it were a natural death?
That evening the teenage murderer escapes from the police station when someone working on the station's computer network accidently unlocks all of the cells.  What's even more bizarre is when the body of the dead computer programmer disappears from the morgue.  Are these cases related, and if so, how? 
This movie had me really guessing and on the edge of my seat for most of it, until the end.  When everything was finally revealed, the outrageous coincidences and ludicrious plot were impossible to swallow.  What was going on would make a Bond villain shake his head in disbelief. 
Okay, I'll tell you what happens in this story.  If you don't want to know, skip down to the next one.  It turns out that the dead IT guy and his partner were going to destroy the Western banking system so that the developed countries would be on the same level as the third world.  To do this they planted a computer virus in every bank's computer in Europe and North America that once triggered with wipe out all of the bank's records.  (Apparently in this world banks don't backup their data on a daily basis and keep it secure.)  When asked how they got in to all these well guarded banks it was claimed "They had usernames and passwords" but how they got that was never explained (aside from the fact that they were great hackers!)
So, these two computer geniuses can get past any bank security, but they need help to bring the Western World to its knees.  What do they do?  Hire a couple of teenagers to help them!  Turns out the girl at the beginning knew what was going to happen in a few days, and when she got in the cab she recognized the driver. The driver's son had rapped the girl three years earlier, but the father provided him with an alibi so he wasn't charged and quickly moved to another country.  When she saw the man again, she pulled out a 8 inch knife she just happened to have and killed him.

That same night, one of the main masterminds behind the plot goes to an ATM and has a brain aneurism and dies.   Imagine the odds!  Okay, so the one remaining computer genius hacks into the police system and releases the girl, just so he can kill her before she talks, but after he's cleaned out the dead man's apartment.  The crook didn't remove his dead partner's computers however.  These were kept in the building's basement, and apparently he didn't know that little fact.  Good thing to because when the cops find them, they are able to get their own hacker to look in and see what's going on. 
I love this next part.  Wallander is talking with someone in a restaurant when the police hacker figures out what's going on.  What does the hacker do?  Call Wallander?  No.  Call one of his associates?  No.  Try to stop the financial meltdown of Western society that he predicts will happen in a matter of hours?  No.  Instead of doing any of these, he spends his time driving around in his car until he miraculously finds Wallander.  (Those hackers can do anything!)  Why does he go to all that trouble?  Because the plot can't progress otherwise.  The detective just happens to be having dinner with one of the crooks (!) and the villains have to learn the hackers name or else their plan will be foiled.  So it's a good thing that guy introduces himself.  (Or didn't just call as any sane person would have done.)  There was still 20 minutes left to go, so they had to do something idiotic to keep the movie going.  The film digresses to a poor action film from there which makes it a bit laughable.
End Spoilers.

One Step Behind:
The final story in this set opens with one of Wallander's colleagues, Svedberg, trying to confide in him.  Svedberg's having problems and his personal life is starting to overlap with his professional life.  Wallander, showing himself to be a first-class asshole, yawns when he hears this and leaves the man without getting details.  Two days later Svedberg doesn't show up to work and doesn't answer his phone.  Wallander goes to the man's apartment and finds him dead, with a single bullet hole in his forehead.  Svedberg's relatives all say that the dead man claimed that Wallander was his best friend, which makes the detective feel guiltier, and more determined to find his killer.  So, true to form, Wallander decides to brood, stare off into space, and then brood some more.

This film was the least satisfying in a lot of ways.  It had the Branagh, who does an admirable job with the character, brooding like the first TV movie yet the mystery is not as interesting as the first.  More of a straight whodunit it lacks the bizarre flavor the first two mysteries had and yet the resolution is just as idiotic and contrived as the conclusion to Firewall. 
The main problem I had with all three of these films is that the character of Wallander is just not that interesting.  There are some great flawed detectives (I loved Cracker and Last Detective) but Wallander isn't one of them.  There is nothing in his personality or actions that make him a good officer.  He doesn't see clues that others miss or have some special insight; he doesn't even work especially hard on a case.   More often than not the killer just pops up instead of being tracked down.  There's just nothing that makes this character stand out.  And when you have a character driven series like this, that's really bad.
The DVD:  

This show comes with both a stereo soundtrack and (surprisingly) a 5.1 audio mix.  I mainly viewed the show with the multichannel option but there wasn't a lot of difference between it and the two channel track.  The rears were only used occasionally and most of the time the audio action was centered fully on the screen.  There were a few times that it was hard to make out what someone said, but this was more do to the heavy accents than any flaw in the disc itself.  Overall these three films sound fine.
The anamorphic 1.78:1 image was good but not exceptional.  The Swedish countryside is beautiful and brightly colored and the flesh tones look fine.  The level of detail is fine but not outstanding.  There were a few compression artifacts, a little bit of aliasing here and there but nothing really distracting.
The disc comes with some great featurettes, which will be much appreciated if you enjoyed the show.  Who is Kurt Wallander? is a nearly hour long talk with mystery writer Henning Mankell who talks about Sweden and the changes he's seen in his country and how these feelings appear in the character of Kurt Wallander.  Next up is The Wallander Look, a 12 minute featurette on the look and feel of the show. 
The most interesting extra was a half hour discussion between author Henning Mankell and actor Kenneth Branagh.  This took place on one of the sets for an installment of the series and they both discuss their take on the character.  Finally there is Branagh's Wallander, a 15 minute discussion with the star and his feelings about the books, the character and working on television. 
Final Thoughts:
I was really hoping to like this series.  Kenneth Branagh is a great actor, and I usually enjoy mysteries, especially those with flawed main characters.  This one just doesn't make the grade however.  It's hard to identify with Wallander and the pace is glacially slow.  Added to that is fact that the resolutions are absurd more often than not.  When all is said and done, none of these three movies left me satisfied.  Fans of the books may want to try this set out, but I'd make it a rental.   
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