To Americans, Guy Pearce is a movie star, known for playing a crusading cop in L.A. Confidential, an obsessive amnesiac in Memento and a villain in Iron Man 3. At home in Australia, he’s also that guy who used to be on television — a regular in popular soap operas in the 1980s and ’90s and a star of the frontier story Snowy River: The McGregor Saga (in which his cast mates included Josh Lucas, Hugh Jackman, Wendy Hughes and Olivia Newton-John).
Last year, in a big event in Australia, Pearce returned to his roots, playing a private eye in a pair of TV movies based on the Jack Irish mystery novels by Peter Temple. Americans can see Pearce’s low-key performance as an unassuming hard-boiled hero when Jack Irish: Bad Debts and Jack Irish: Black Tide begin streaming online Monday at Acorn TV.
Irish is a Melbourne lawyer whose world falls apart (in a particularly brutal way) in the opening minutes of Bad Debts. The action picks up with Irish reduced to collecting money for a local horseplayer and chancing upon small mysteries that happen to unravel lethal conspiracies hatched at the top levels of the police and government.
He’s the classic haunted private eye, but the anguish is underplayed, with the writers and Pearce emphasizing Irish’s doggedness, decency, and deadpan humor. And the films are solidly constructed — nothing too surprising or exceptional happens, but the mysteries are logical, the texture is gritty, and the performances are more than capable.
They’re solid examples of how the Australian and British TV industries still put some care into the production of genre movies, a format that’s been reduced to hack work and camp in America. (Hello, Sharknado 2.) The only recent American comparison was the Jesse Stone series on CBS starring Tom Selleck, and while it was nice to see a network trying to do a serious and uncompromising contemporary noir, the self-consciousness of the films’ dialogue and their heavy-handed moodiness were off-putting.
The Irish films benefit both from a lighter touch and from location shooting in Melbourne, whose funkiness and edge of decrepitude help to supply the undercurrent of nostalgia and egalitarianism essential to satisfying noir. Irish’s man-of-the-people credentials include a Studebaker Hawk, a calming apprenticeship to a Yoda-like cabinetmaker and, most important, his regular, a shabby pub whose clientele consists of three geezers who idolize Irish’s father, a local football hero.
There’s a romance involving a TV reporter (played by the wonderfully named Marta Dusseldorp), but it’s the one dead patch in the show. Much better are the friendships, especially among Irish, his racetrack-dandy boss and the boss’ muscle, an imposing but sharply funny driver, enforcer and moral compass. This pair is played, marvelously, by two of Australia’s most established TV actors, Roy Billing (memorable as the drug lord Aussie Bob Trimbole in Underbelly) and the aboriginal star Aaron Pedersen. Their scenes with Pearce are more than enough reason to look forward to Jack Irish: Dead Point, shot last month.