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Tuesday, July 26, 2011


What starts out as a not-particularly-great little cop show suddenly evolves into one of the most hard-hitting, hypnotically watchable police dramas ever as you make your way through the 23 episodes of MURPHY'S LAW: COMPLETE COLLECTION, a nine-disc DVD set from Acorn Media. 

James Nesbitt stars as Thomas Murphy, an Irishman working as an undercover cop for the London police force.  Plagued by guilt over the death of his daughter and languishing on leave after a negative psyche evaluation, he's pulled back into service to help stop a gang of diamond smugglers operating out of a funeral home.  Murphy solves the case, meets a cute babe named Annie Guthrie (Claudia Harrison) who's also working undercover, and they team up to fight crime together.

This pilot episode is okay but nothing special, as are subsequent Series One episodes "Electric Bill", "Manic Munday", "Reunion", and "Kiss and Tell."  Murphy goes undercover in various locations (prison, health club, nightclub, snooker tournament), uses his sharp wits and irreverent attitude to get the goods on the bad guys, and has one of those coy budding-romance relationships with his female partner.

Series Two changes all of that in the first five minutes of episode one, "Jack's Back", with a shocking event which heralds a dark new direction for the show.  Murphy takes on the persona of a homeless man to track down a killer who's emulating Jack the Ripper in a violent, downbeat story, beginning a transformation of his quirky, wisecracking character into an intense, no-nonsense badass with nerves of steel.  Still, Murphy never loses his humanity and is often deeply affected by what he experiences. 

The writing and technical aspects of the show keep getting better as well, with the rest of Series Two serving up some outstanding stories such as "Convent" (Murphy as priest) and "Go Ask Alice" (Murphy as janitor in a biotech laboratory).  Things aren't always wrapped up nicely at the fadeout--one episode ends with a horrific freeze-frame of an innocent victim's death scream. 

But the best is yet to come as the show finally hits its stride in Series 3.  Here, the episodic nature of the previous seasons is jettisoned in favor of long-form stories which continue over several episodes and allow Murphy to immerse himself in prolonged and highly dangerous undercover assignments.  Over the next six episodes, he'll manage to gain the trust of a ruthless crime boss named Callard (Mark Womack) who hires him as a hitman.  As he sinks deeper into a maelstrom of murder, heroin smuggling, counterfeiting--among other things--Murphy must deal with the death of his partner while trying to stay alive on a day-to-day basis. 

This series of episodes is non-stop excitement and suspense, filled with brutal action and unpredictable plot twists that had me on the edge of my seat the whole time.  One of the best things about it is a delightfully sinister performance by Michael Fassbender (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, EDEN LAKE) as Callard's smirkingly sadistic henchman, Caz.  The entire supporting cast is excellent as well, but it's Nesbitt who continues to impress more and more. 

His "Murphy" character is the ultimate adrenaline-stoked hardass, plunging into dangerous situations and either fighting or thinking his way out, yet always on the edge of burning out or breaking down (not to mention losing an appendage or two) from the non-stop pressure of his job.  Going for broke in virtually every scene, Nesbitt is fascinating to watch.

Series 4 and 5 keep the momentum going with two more three-episode stories.  The first finds Murphy infiltrating an Irish gang run by the infamous Johnstone brothers.  Drew (Liam Cunningham) appears to have been converted to the Muslim faith and is about to wed a Pakistani bride, while his volatile brother Billy (Brian McCardie) rebels against Drew's newfound pacifism by becoming even more violent and unstable. 

McCardie's incredibly intense performance is absolutely thrilling and his scenes with Nesbitt give the series some of its most riveting moments yet.  Murphy eventually discovers Drew's true intentions and manages to set the brothers against each other, leading to an explosively exciting finale.  Adding weight to Murphy's character here is his ongoing emotional anguish over having to place his aging mother in an institution after his father can no longer cope with her deteriorating mental state. 

Series 5 wraps things up with a gritty tale of illegal immigrants being marketed not only as manual laborers but also as sex slaves in a sadistic pornography ring.  Two of Murphy's fellow undercover officers, Mitch and Kim (a superb Andrea Lowe), disappear while on the job, forcing him to delve into this wretched den of scum and villainy by gaining the trust of the top man and going to work for him.  More than ever, Murphy's efforts are complicated by feckless police superiors interested only in covering their own asses--some of the confrontational scenes between them here are positively cathartic in their dramatic intensity.  The story builds to a shattering conclusion, leaving Murphy at his most desperate point yet and the viewer dazed and disoriented.

The boxed set from Acorn Media contains nine discs in four keepcases (approx. 23 1/2 hours).  All are in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital stereo and English subtitles.  Text-based extras consist of a James Nesbitt biography and production notes.

If you decide to give this show a whirl, don't be put off by the lightweight nature of the first few episodes.  Not only does "Murphy's Law" eventually become one of the best series about undercover police work that I've ever seen, but Murphy himself goes from quirky, seriocomic oddball to a complex and supercool character who keeps us constantly fascinated by what he's going to do next.  For fast-paced, adult, wildly dynamic entertainment, MURPHY'S LAW: COMPLETE COLLECTION is almost too good to be legal.   

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