Extremely Dangerous: written by Murray Smith, directed by Sallie Aprahamian, produced 1999. A 4-hour TV miniseries. Convicted murderer Neil Byrne escapes from prison and returns to Manchester to find out who butchered his wife and daughter and framed him for their murders.

Viewers who, like me, missed the first 45 minutes of episode one, will be at a loss to figure out the plot and whether Byrne (played by Sean Bean) is a common murderer, an undercover cop, an Intelligence agent, or an architect--not that it matters. Sean Bean is so watchable that the story is just decoration. This may be a surprise to those who've seen him play one- (maybe two-) note roles in Patriot Games and GoldenEye and some other things.

In Extremely Dangerous Bean is, does, or radiates something--I don't know what--that makes it so only his presence matters. Movie stars don't have to act. When they're onscreen it's like there's nobody else there, and any time they spend offscreen is screen time completely wasted. A few years ago a certain critic noted that Harrison Ford had become a star--the critic knew this because the audience's eyes were glued on him even while he was doing the most mundane stuff in the film. Something similar was said about Russell Crowe in the June 2000 issue of Premiere: "What can I say about Russell Crowe? The guy's awesome--a total star. I swear I'd pay money to stand around and watch him drink beer (although apparently I wouldn't have to)." You can watch movie stars for as long as you like and think you know (and own) them, but you don't. Not really. They're on a plane of their own, and that's a long way from where we are. That's why they're so mesmerizing--they've come down from their stratosphere to pretend to be one of us, to feel pain and happiness and desire and sadness, to slouch around in their underwear, smoke a cigarette, get a haircut, brush their teeth, get into a fight, have sex, get shot. No one does any of this as well as they do.

Sean Bean wasn't a star before Extremely Dangerous, and probably he didn't stay one after it--though it seems that he temporarily metamorphosed into one during it (the way Gillian Anderson does at times in The X-Files). The makers of the series realized this--they could have filled the four episodes with sharply-suited shaven-head gangsters perpetrating violence and having sex with their slinky girlfriends in stylish apartments, but the money shots are of Sean Bean tough yet vulnerable: stripped to the waist in various scenes, having a wound in his arm sewn up without anaesthetic, trussed in chains and thrown into a swimming pool, and much, much more.

A study must have been made of Frantic and The Fugitive--as those films were for Harrison Ford, so this series is a showcase of Bean doing what we've probably never see him do before and until now never imagined we wanted to. Unbelievable though it may sound, after you've watched him for hours, even seeing him play a few bars on the piano (though I suspect a stunt pianist's hands there) or taking out his contact lenses becomes erotic. D.A. Pennebaker was right when he said that watching somebody for hours through a camera is like falling in love with them--it's impossible to resist the power of such close scrutiny.

Extremely Dangerous at moments resembles Edge of Darkness, but the likeness is only on the surface: while the latter was a classic series bursting with barely-containable world conspiracy themes and mind-boggling sub-plots, the former struggles to fill out its four hours with an unnecessarily-complicated story of a framed man moving towards the truth while assorted crims, coppers and businessmen are coming at him from the opposite direction.

It looks great though, England in the 90s (flash and dirt), and so does Sean Bean. He's whatever one wants him to be: a suited yuppie in metal-framed oval spectacles, a wide boy in loud short-sleeved shirt and garish sunglasses and earring, and he's blondly anonymous so his clothes and haircut carry his identity for him. When he's still he's a blank slate on which the viewer projects what he or she wants to see (and feel); and when we do that we've gone beyond reality, we've become the movie. This is most evident in one scene of Neil Byrne in a car, smoking and staring into space: it's intercut with flashbacks of his wife and child alive and then dead. You're moved, until you laugh because you realize all Sean Bean is doing is staring into space--rather like Greta Garbo famously did at the end of Queen Christina. But that's all stars have to do, really. We do the rest.

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