TV Review

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The Independent Culture
Most thrillers call it a day when the bangs and blazes fizzle out. The soot-streaked or sea-sodden hero and heroine embrace blubbingly, the credits roll, and the interesting story, about what happens to a relationship which has survived violent trauma, is only just beginning. You would expect a man like Terry Johnson, writer of the hit West End think-comedies Insignificance and Hysteria!, to approach the format with screwdriver and eyeglass in fist, to cunningly refashion the tradition. And so, in a way, he did, in The Bite (Sat, Sun BBC1), a glossy adventure story which was also, if you will, a meta-thriller.

It was clear, from the soundtrack's busy Nyman-esque piano figurations and jazzy cymbals, that the film sought cerebral as well as visceral impact. We began underwater, with Australian maverick diver, Jack (Hugo Weaving), cutting some metallic framework - the blow-torch sparks diffused a red cloud in the water, reminiscent of the victims' blood in Jaws, unnerving because of its freedom to spread lazily in all three dimensions. But hero Jack was giving up diving, so that he could move to Burma with wife Ellie (Lesley Manville) and stepdaughter Nicola to set up Ellie's new jewellery business. Jack was a fish out of water as legit wheeler-dealer; Weaving's ridged eyebrow promontory and oddly elongated eyelids perfected the look of a blinking, baffled aquatic lizard. Coming up too quickly, he was bound to get the bends.

Corrupt cops; feet-dragging export officials: business in the new Burmese workshop goes from bad to worse, until the materialisation of glamourpuss businesswoman, Samira (a splendidly hammy Pamela Rabe), resplendent in fuchsia shoulder-pads and power cleavage. Before long, Jack and Ellie are lunching in Samira's heavenly pad, and Samira reveals that she smuggles heroin between Burma and Melbourne. The money's great. Do our new friends want in?

Our good couple, with a kid to think of, head straight to the Australian Embassy, where a pair of Feds (a laughably incompetent double act, straight out of Hale and Pace) persuade them to play along so that they can nail Samira and her boys. So Jack and Ellie turn heroin mules. After an agreeably tense build-up (involving ingestible condoms of smack that looked disturbingly like button mushrooms), and a mis- handled sting at Melbourne airport, the bad guys are arrested - but released on bail. Jack, Ellie and Nicola get transported to a safe house with 24- hour gun-toting guards.

That is where the thriller apparently stopped, and a thoughtful hour- long coda ensued. As the family's projected imprisonment in the safe house extended from "a month" to "a few months, no more than a year", speech became fractured, Johnson's script sketching astutely the attenuated syntax of fear and boredom. Jack and Ellie eventually skip security and fly to England, settling down anonymously in a Cornish fishing village before a very silly, sub-Dead Calm sequence at sea involving Keith Allen as a crazy Cockney assassin meeting the wrong end of a harpoon.

But it didn't stop there, either. Ellie, sick of it all, leaves Jack: "Nobody can go through what we've been through and live happily ever after." Cut to Jack testifying in the courtroom against Samira, and eventually a surprise romantic reappearance by Ellie. A final scene showed the two cavorting in slow motion on a beach: so genre aesthetics won out against brutal realism. Predictable. But hang on, what's this looming clumsily into the picture? It's the shabby suit of the bald Fed, who sits down and sparks up a fag in the foreground, wrecking the frame with his lumpy watchfulness. Happy ever after depends on eternal police protection; even the syrupy string music landed on an unresolved chord. Johnson's narrative solution was clever, all right, but it chose its cheesy place to stop just as arbitrarily as any Hollywood B-movie.