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'Cracker' comes off as a little stale

More than halfway through "Cracker: A New Terror" the top detective in Manchester, England, says he's "extremely disappointed" about the way a high-profile murder case is going.

I know how he feels. I've been looking forward to the return of criminal psychologist Dr. Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Robbie Coltrane) since July, when Coltrane was the most entertaining interview subject of the press tour in Los Angeles.

But perhaps because we've seen so many American series that attempt to get inside the criminal minds since Fitz was last around, this "Cracker" movie, which airs at 9 p.m. Monday on cable station BBC America, is a disappointment.

The movie return of the opinionated, hard-drinking, heavy-smoking psychologist viewers got to know and love during a series of movies carried by cable's A&E a decade ago gets caught in murky, heavy-handed political statements. A former British soldier's comparison between the events of 9/1 1 and those in Northern Ireland just doesn't translate well across the pond.

Some of the material is as heavy as Coltrane's frame. It isn't exactly enlightening to hear the twisted, haunted, psychologically scarred murderer of an American comedian try to justify his actions by blaming America for practically everything.

Coltrane, who has gone on to star as Rubeus Hagrid in the "Harry Potter" movies, remains the primary reason to watch, as Fitz misbehaves at his daughter's wedding, ignores new no-smoking regulations in Britain, reads a children's story to his granddaughter and predictably chooses work over wife and family.

As in "Columbo," we know early who the murderer is in "Cracker." The suspense is in seeing our hero's uncanny ability to see little things that enable him to make the villain confess.

The film has some brutally violent moments. That's in addition to the statements made by carrying footage of the Iraq war, which occasionally plays while President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are on and off screen talking about the war on terror.

But back to the more entertaining July interview, in which Coltrane and creator Jimmy McGovern explained how the heavy-set actor was originally cast, why they decided to reprise "Cracker," why Fitz doesn't drive, what they thought of the 1997, short-lived American series version starring the late Robert Pastorelli, and how "Harry Potter" has changed Coltrane's image.

McGovern said he originally wanted someone like John Cassavettes for the role.

"My words were 'a wiry (guy), a thin, energetic bundle of nervous energy,' " recalled McGovern. "And the producer goes, 'Robbie Coltrane.' "

McGovern admitted he had been drinking the day he persuaded Coltrane to take the part, a habit that explains why Fitz doesn't drive. "There's an awful lot of me in it," said McGovern. "I don't drive. I've never driven. Part of the reason I don't drive is because I know I'm a drinker and I'd know I'd get in the car drunk. So he's based on me."

They were driven to do another "Cracker" episode. The episode begins with Fitz and his wife, Judith (Barbara Flynn), returning to England from Australia, where they have been for several years.

"It's the best part an actor can ever get offered really," said Coltrane. "We always left it if either one of us had a really great idea for a 'Cracker' episode, we would phone each other up. And, of course, Jimmy had this terrific idea."

Asked how long it took him to get back into character, Coltrane said it took 10 seconds. "I wish I was as smart as [Cracker] is, but I'm roughly the same size," said Coltrane.

He wasn't surprised when ABC's attempt at "Cracker" flopped.

"I was in the last episode," he recalled. "I (played) the Hollywood producer who had murdered a girl in a swimming pool. And I thought, 'it's only a week, who could resist that?'"

He felt the Americanized character was lost in translation because of restrictions in language and political correctness.

"He wasn't really allowed to smoke," said Coltrane. "They cleaned him up. The whole point about Cracker... is that he is almost electrically and crystalline clear about what's wrong with everyone else, but totally in denial about what's wrong with himself. So, of course, he smokes and drinks and behaves badly and says inappropriate things. But I don't think mainstream TV can do that."

As Hagrid in the "Harry Potter" films, Coltrane has turned from cult celebrity status on cable to mainstream star.

"The good thing about 'Harry Potter' is I'm unrecognizable," said Coltrane. "I've been very lucky. I've had several careers as a sort of young, dangerous lefty comedian, then as kind of a straight actor, then as a guy who did stuff that was kind of very near the line and now suddenly I'm the children's friend."

Cracker: A New Terror

9 p.m. Monday, cable's BBC America

Review: 2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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