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Jericho Mile, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Michael Mann's Fine Directorial Debut"
4 stars

Some might think this is just another entry in the prison-movie subgenre, but it's very well made and commendably acted.

Peter Strauss delivers an excellent performance as Larry Murphy, a felon serving time in a California penitentiary whose natural running ability captures the attention of prison officials in Michael Mann's affecting television movie The Jericho Mile. Serving a life sentence for murdering his abusive father, Murphy keeps to himself and has allowed himself no allegiances inside, except that of a lone inmate who runs with him in the prison yard; nicknamed "Lickety Split," he runs the mile each and every day, with a running time just a few seconds off the world record. When asked why his habitual running, Murphy, a man of few words, hasn't a grandiose reason -- he's accepted his prison term, makes no excuses for his crime, and runs simply because he can't think of any reason not to. (He doesn't do so to metaphysically take himself "outside" prison walls, as he explains to the warden.) With long swept-back hair and a detached demeanor, Murphy isn't your ordinary movie-prison hero; and Strauss, who impressed in his starring role in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, manages the difficult feat of expressively conveying inexpressiveness. Seeing an opportunity for a positive rehabilitation image, the warden manages to get a UCLA track coach to train Murphy for qualifying for the Olympics, only Murphy is initially resistant because he wishes not to compete outside the prison just so he can be back inside of it -- he doesn't want a "taste" of what he can longer have. But he changes his mind, and the rest of the movie details Murphy's intense training and the inmates' gradual support for this self-made outcast among them. Mann, who co-wrote the teleplay, makes his directorial debut after penning episodes of Starsky and Hutch and Police Woman, and demonstrates an uncanny ear for crackling realistic dialogue and an eye for astute composition; he gets a fair amount of visual variety out of a story mostly confined to a prison while never falling into the trap of making the movie look too good so the sense of isolation and confinement within the prison gets lost. Except for a couple of overexplicit scenes that spell out what we've already surmised, The Jericho Mile is refreshingly devoid of cheap payoffs and didacticism. And the supporting cast, consisting of Brian Dennehy, Ed Lauter, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Lawson and Roger E. Mosley, couldn't be bettered. But this is Staruss's show, and he keeps the dramatic core solid and our emotional involvement in Murphy's plight justified. An Emmy Award-worthy piece of acting, this.

Well worth taking a chance on for Mann fans.

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originally posted: 03/07/14 06:09:46
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