I had a good time last week, watching the pulpy Nora Roberts TV movie, Caroline Moon (please click here here for that review), and being a fan of the goofy Lifetime Movie Network, I thought why not watch the other three Roberts-inspired tele-flicks produced this past year, now out on DVD? First up is Blue Smoke, a fizzle next to the trashy Caroline Moon, with rather silly plotting and worse dialogue spoiling a potentially interesting story.
Young Rena Hale (Taylor Dauphinais) witnesses her family's Italian pizzeria burn down when she's 11 years old. Rena, having been assaulted the day before by Joey Pastorelli, Jr. (Liam Nelson), tells arson investigator John Minger (Scott Bakula) that Joe, Sr. (Davis Brown) had threatened her father, Gib Hale (Eric Keenleyside). Joe is arrested and imprisoned. Now grown up, Rena (Alicia Witt) completes her training to be an arson investigator, working under Minger. Not only did the fire in her family restaurant inspire her to pursue this work, but also the horrific death of her first love in college, Josh (John Reardon), who burns up in his dorm room after making love to Rena for the first time (make your own joke there).
But tragedy still follows Rena. Her fireman boyfriend Hugh (Ben Ayres) is blown up in a deliberate torch job, and it's beginning to look like all of these past crimes in Rena's life may be connected. Her new boyfriend, carpenter Bo Goodnight (Matthew Settle) now appears to be the new target of the mysterious arsonist, and it's up to Rena and John to solve this violent puzzle before Rena loses lover number three.
Combining elements of Twister (a young girl fascinated with a force of nature that destroyed a part of her innocence) and Backdraft (an arson investigator fascinated with fire and obsessed with bringing a serial arsonist to justice), Blue Smoke comes off surprisingly silly, with coincidences galore and red herrings so obvious that only someone totally new to the concept of moving pictures would be left guessing by the film's ridiculous denouement. There's a strangely blasé, dreamy tone to Blue Smoke that doesn't suggest fanciful or inspired story construction as much as it declares that those involved didn't know how the hell to present the story. Is it hard-nosed reality, like the fire scenes with Rena at the beginning? Is it hazy, romanticized eroticism, like the scenes where Bo Goodnight obsesses about seeing Rena? Is it the warm, fuzzy comedy clichés of Rena's ethnic family, applying pasta to all emotional wounds? Or is it the fright night pyrotechnics and Halloween-type boogeyman histrionics in the ludicrous ending? Your guess is as good as mine.
This mishmash, nicely photographed in Calgary, Canada (standing in for Baltimore) is awash in sudden mood swings and unmotivated actions. Particularly hilarious is the notion that Rena, a trained police officer supposedly on guard after two of her lovers have been deep fried, would immediately take up with creepy stalker carpenter Bo Goodnight after he hops her backyard fence (they're coincidentally neighbors) and declares his undying love when he announces that he's seen her in passing twice in six years, and that he's always been obsessed with her. In other words: every girl's dream guy. Not only is the acting by Settle preposterously off-key here, the whole set-up is so abrupt and arbitrary that it isn't believable for a second (it gets worse: two scenes later, they're rolling around on the floor together). Indeed, so much of Blue Smoke's events are unmotivated and capricious that the viewer soon tunes out and just waits for the next improbability to crop up.
Bakula has the most thankless role in Blue Smoke; he's set up so many times as Rena's new lover/stalker/murderer/arsonist - only to be shunted aside for a new suspect - that the permanently quizzical look on his face must have been real: maybe he really didn't know "who done it." Witt, a looker with too many acting chops for this kind of nonsense, should be applauded for keeping a straight face considering some of the scenes she's asked to play (the backyard meeting with her new stalker/boyfriend Bo is excruciatingly bad). The rest of the cast is attractive and anonymous, and considering their parts here - they're better off staying that way.
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.