"Paradise is my last stop, Rose. There's nowhere to go from here."
"We can fire you."
Tom Selleck is back as Jesse Stone, and he's stronger than ever. Sony has released Jesse Stone: Thin Ice, a smashing return to form for the series based on the Robert B. Parker detective series. Mixing equal parts doleful character study with somber, dark film noir and suspenseful police actioner, Jesse Stone: Thin Ice expertly handles its various subplots, creating another memorable outing for Selleck in a role that quickly is gaining as much iconic weight for him as Thomas Magnum, his other TV persona. This is a good as it gets for made-for-TV movies.
Juggling three tense subplots, Jesse Stone: Thin Ice opens literally with a bang as Stone, visiting his friend, State Homicide Commander Healy (Stephen McHattie) on a "non-stakeout" stakeout in Boston, is shot along with Healy by an unknown assailant - an assailant that Jesse wounds as he escapes. Healy, critically injured, initially refuses to discuss with Stone (who's also injured) what the stakeout was all about, until Stone begins to piece together that the shooting and the stakeout are unrelated. Returning to Paradise, the small Massachusetts town where alcoholic Stone now works as sheriff, Stone finds his tenure as Paradise's top cop in jeopardy as the head of the town council, Carter Hanson (Jeremy Ackerman), maneuvers to oust him. Although Hanson is initially upset with Stone's unauthorized sojourn to Boston, which resulted in unwanted headlines about Stone and Paradise, Hanson is more upset about the fact that Stone's predecessor wrote a lot of traffic tickets (and brought a lot a revenue into the city coffers), and Stone doesn't - and won't (he refuses to man the town's speed trap).
If these two developments weren't enough to tax Stone's sobriety, a visit from Elizabeth Blue (Camryn Manheim) further complicates Stone's professional and personal life. Blue, the center of a infamous murder case seven years ago involving her infant son, has traveled to Paradise from her native New Mexico because someone posted a letter to her, from Paradise, two years before, simply stating, "Your child is loved." She desperately wants to believe her child is still alive and well in Paradise, but Stone doesn't think so, and he doesn't want to push his luck with the town council by spending time on a seven-year-old out-of-state kidnaping case when the victim was already officially declared dead. Instead, he guides Officer Rose Gammon (Kathy Baker) through her first investigation, with a little help from fellow officer, Luther "Suitcase" Simpson (Kohl Sudduth), who's coming back from his catastrophic accident - but who still shows signs of the effects of the coma that almost claimed his life Helping Stone with his less-than-perfect sobriety is again Dr. Dix (William Devane), while mysterious Boston mobster Gino Fish (William Sadler) reluctantly helps Stone get closer to finding out who shot him and Captain Healy - and why.
I've reviewed the previous three Jesse Stone made-for-TV movies (do the big three networks still make very many MTVs, or has cable taken that over?), and I'm a confirmed fan. The last Jesse Stone I reviewed, Jesse Stone: Sea Change, was a bit of a slip for me, though, with a mystery that wasn't particularly mysterious, and some questionable characterizations that luckily were offset by Selleck's increasingly confident grasp of the Stone character. It was still miles above most made-for-TV fare, but Jesse Stone: Thin Ice may be the best of the Jesse Stones so far, featuring a tight, tension-filled script sporting complicated characterizations (by Ronnie Kern, improving greatly over his Sea Change), helmed yet again by pro Robert Harmon (The Hitcher, Gotti, Ike: Countdown to D-Day). What I found most interesting about Jesse Stone: Thin Ice was the weird dichotomy in mood it managed to create: three nervous subplots are expertly juggled to create a suspenseful story - suspense that is create and maintained not just by the plot elements but by the characterizations, as well - while the film itself remained languid and brooding and very, very dark. That's a tough trick to pull off: make a film that becomes increasingly edgy, increasingly suspenseful in its plot, and yet maintain a deliberate, contemplative, emotionally repressed tone.
Nothing feels right for Jesse Stone in this outing. One would think that eventually, at some point, he would settle into his admittedly dull, routine duties as sheriff of Paradise and find some measure of emotional or spiritual peace. But in Jesse Stone: Thin Ice, Stone seems to be spirally down even further than when he first arrived in the small town after being kicked off the force in Los Angeles. Fooling himself into allowing himself two Scotches a night, Stone's sobriety is as tenuous as his job, with the town council's leader, Carter Hanson, eager to dump him not only for his willingness to use deadly force when needed - even when he's not doing his job in Paradise - but more importantly, because Stone won't "play the game." The "game" is writing tickets. Paradise's speed trap may be "unethical" to Stone, but it pays the bills for the small tourist town, and Stone's refusal to cooperate with the council (he even goes as far as cutting down the tree that conveniently blocks the posted speed sign) sticks in the craw of the officious Hanson and his council. What makes Jesse Stone: Thin Ice so smart is that it doesn't allow Selleck to enact this seemingly familiar rebel police officer character with cliched audience expectations in mind. Stone's cutting down of the tree isn't played as a big scene to satisfy the audience. We know, deep down, it's a stupid move on his part (even if it is ethical). As he says to Rose, he's got nowhere to go after Paradise. Who would hire him if a little podunk town like Paradise dropped him? But Stone is incapable of helping himself - as Dix properly informs him when he sees Stone refusing to wear a sling for his injured arm. If anything, he's willfully self-destructive. His actions may be honorable (trying to track down Healy's shooter; trying to solve the mystery of Little Boy Blue - which had a genuinely surprising and moving conclusion); but they may also be convenient ways to self-destruct for the guilt-ridden, unhappy Stone, who slides further and further into a funk which will result in his suspension.
Even a romantic interlude in Jesse Stone: Thin Ice is played against expectations, with the screenwriter and director denying traditional Selleck fans the semiology of seeing him bed Internal Affairs investigator, Leslie Hope's Sidney Greenstreet (that name is really pushing it). Instead, their affair happens offscreen and before we know it, and ends just as quickly with Sidney warning Stone - seriously - that she will bust him the second he goes after vicious pimp Teddy Leaf (Fulvio Cecere). Stone admits that he's only with her because she's the only person he's met who's more afraid of commitment than he is, a charge she doesn't refute. Stone gets no relief, no solace from the affair, and she disappears from the story without mention. Interestingly, there's a canniness to their dialogue - in fact, in all of the dialogue of Jesse Stone: Thin Ice - where the audience has to really listen to determine what's meant versus what's actually said (and that's usually very little). There's a sly indirectness to the scripting, an almost playful unwillingness to be concrete about details, about characters' motivations, that's frankly invigorating when compared to the obvious, direct pap that makes up 99 percent of made-for-TV movies (I love Selleck's phone conversations with his ex-wife, which are spare models of opaque, unspoken recriminations and accusations, cosseted in banal chitchat). To discuss Selleck as Stone at this point would be to repeat myself from other reviews. Suffice it to say, Selleck, forever underestimated because of his early success with the cheery Magnum and his almost unreal handsomeness, has evolved into a remarkably expressive and skilled actor. For so often, the discussion surrounding Selleck was "why isn't he on the big screen?" I think that's finally beside the point, particularly with this run of Jesse Stone movies. I'd match them against anything you can see in the theatres today.
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.