Underbelly: The Golden Mile

Celebrity gangsters, crooked cops, violence, sex scenes, a ripping soundtrack, star turns, urban folklore coming to life before our eyes –Underbelly‘s infamy is now so well entrenched in Australian television that we know what to expect. As the theme reminds us, “it’s a jungle out there.”

In perfecting these hallmarks it also risks losing the element of surprise.

Underbelly‘s third series is a return to these traits. Set against King’s Cross from 1988-99 there are glitzy strip clubs, extortion rackets, drag queens, street brawls -even an advocate for Godliness preaching to the streets (or was he wryly written in to represent outraged conservatives who saw A Tale of Two Cities?). Given Sydney’s red light district featured in Season Two there is already much familiar turf here.

Caroline Craig’s voice over as Jacqui James sets the montage scene, introducing a young John Ibrahim (Firass Dirani), an ambitious school drop-out who comes to the Cross to seek his fortune. The street is full of larger-than-life characters with names that flash on the screen at a frenetic pace, to the tune of a suped-up ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz.’

“Whatever your persuasion, whatever your poison, it was for sale on the Cross,” says James.

Handsome, charismatic and sly, Ibrahim is soon mentored by underworld boss George Freeman (Peter O’Brien giving the series gravitas) -an urban apprentice will learn fast from his sorcerer.

“I want to be as successful as you,” he tells Foreman.

Foreman tells him he might make something of himself with 3 or 4 years of servitude, and instils the value of respect.

“3 or 4? We’ll see,” says the impatient Ibrahim.

Spearheading the viewpoint of the arm of the law is Det. Sgt. Trevor Haken (Dieter Brummer). In A Tale of Two Cities he was memorably shocked by a lunchbag of cash thrown his way by bent suits. Now he is an old hand at the practice. His colleagues are played by actors including Diarmid Heidenreich and Rob Carlton. Haken’s sweet wife, played by Natalie Bassingthwaighte, looks set to play the voice of morality.

Playing good cop to Haken’s bad cop is Snr. Constable Joe Dooley (Wil Traval), a by-the-book uniform who walks the beat but ends up playing ineffective observer, caught in the crossfire of crims who rule and the devious detectives of the State Police (NSW Police are never mentioned).

The other principal thread, introduced in the second hour, follows country girl Kim Hollingsworth (Emma Booth) whose boyfriend, hilariously played by Mark Furze in a great first scene, detours her from an optimistic domestic life in the big city. Hers is a sympathetic performance that humanises the story amid its heavy plotting.

Sigrid Thornton also adds a dash of class to the second hour as Australian Federal Police Inspector ‘Gerry’ Lloyd.

Other Australian actors to appear across the series will include Steve Bastoni, Matt Day, Paul Tassone, John Waters, Andrew Bibby, Salvatore Coco, Jessica Tovey and Damien Garvey.

But it is Firass Dirani whose star will be cemented by this series. He rises to the challenge of the dashing, charismatic Ibrahim with ease. Similarly, Brummer proves worthy of a greater role than he had in the previous series.

There is less excess in The Golden Mile than A Tale of Two Cities -two breast shots and the odd ‘F Word’ in the opening segment appear to address some concerns. Violence is still at the core. Lane Cove makes a brilliant period double as King’s Cross (although an actual location before the ‘Coke’ billboard was ruined by a contemporary Coles logo in the opening scenes). Without the character acting of Roy Billing, it’s also a very serious affair.

There are also so many montages serving as story short-cuts it begs being called ‘Underbelly: The Golden Montage.’

Some have even criticised the Underbelly franchise for ‘glamourising’ criminals. But in a country that turned Ned Kelly and Squizzy Taylor into folk hero, it is a dramatic device tempered by redemption and lesson-learning. Most of the crims in Underbelly end up dead, even if history seems to repeat itself.

For all its attributes, Underbelly comes at us without the punch that so defined its first series. While it may no longer qualify as ‘Event’ television it remains a formidable teleplay, under writer Felicity Packard and director Tony Tilse. The hook lays in our investment in Ibrahim’s rise to ‘glory’ and Hollingworth’s spiral into despair.

Nine is yet to declare an airdate for the series, or indeed, to decide whether it will launch with a double episode (it would be well-advised to). The Winter Olympics in February could interrupt its early plans, while Easter non-ratings could thwart a later start.

Whenever it begins, it’s worth your attention.

16 Comments:

  1. Get a life, most movies and american series have errors. Its just that unless you know the area and era you will not pick it up. I never picked up the train colour doors, the etching, or the Kings Cross sign. Then again I have not been in that area for many years.

  2. Sorry BigKev I have to disagree. Endless slow-mo montges set to high music does not equate to good drama in my book. It makes for a distinct lack of drama. I haven’t seen the new series but I really do hope they’ve eased off on the copious video clip sequences and given us some interesting, different, engaging situations. That’s when it is at its best. In terms of world drama, I don’t think it’s in the same league as the likes of Sopranos or Breaking Bad. But then we don’t have anything like an HBO to make that kind of drama.

  3. @Jed….. yes….. so many people will turn off Underbelly….. it will be a disaster when only 2.1 million tune in rather than 2.3 million.

    The fact is…. it is bloody good drama, even as flawed as the second series was. It is of such a high calibre that when I was living over in San Fran, there was this cult following, only rivalled by the Americans fascination with ‘Summer Heights High’. It made me very proud to be an aussie… knowing we still have a cool edge to our productions

  4. hmmm, now who’s being ridiculous? Rather than demolish buildings or change something huge like the Coca Cola sign or film everything in a studio, how about just setting the scenes somewhere else. When something is glaringly, obviously out of another era then don’t film there. Der!

    They might have had graffiti in the 80s or 90s but not the sort glass etching graffiti seen on the train that has only appeared in recent years. If you’re happy with the show being littered with inaccuracies, then good luck to you. I’m just saying that it spoils the show for me when they don’t care about the details.

  5. Let’s just hope its better than Series 2 or this will be the end of it. Last series was very ordinary to say the least. I like breasts like the next male but not every 3 secs.

  6. J Bar I hear what your saying but so long as it’s not jarringly obvious things (say digital watches in a 1940 period piece) I will over look it.
    I can’t wait for this one and the next one too!

  7. Might as well give it a try like I gave all the other ones. Series two did have to many boobs, I like boobs but it became ridiculous and unrealistic when every second scene had girls topless in a strip joint.

  8. JBar, those are ridiculous comments. Should they have spent half an episode’s production budget changing the Coke sign for each time it appears in shot? Shiesh.

    Should they have demolished all the new developments on the strip and rebuilt each building as stood in 1990 or perhaps shoot the whole thing in a giant Hollywood studio?

    Drama is made in this country for close to AUD1Mil an ep and i bet they do a pretty good job with creative angles to keep it as authentic as possible.

    P.S there was most certainly grafti on the trains in the late 80’s and 90’s!

  9. I do think this particular era/story is very interesting. They ripped a few blue murder scenes in season 1 (dropping the informant off the boat etc), so will be interesting to see how many others as this will portray the same era however Blue Murder focused on Neddy Smith and Rodgerson, not at all Ibrahim.

  10. JBar that was the problem we had watching the last series. My husband is a bit of a car nut and he just kept picking up mistake after mistake after mistake. Even I noticed issues with things like cans of drink, signage, the layout and companies used with the air travel, and music. If this is their big investment, and they still want to claim it as “event television” then it is important that they get these things right – how can they suspend the disbelief if mistakes are obvious, no matter how small?

  11. Underbelly doesn’t seem to have the same hype it used to. I’ll watch the premiere (when ever it is), but if it gets a bit same old that will be it for me.

  12. More crap for the suckers to watch. Judging by a lot of the comments i read on the Herald Sun website though, looks like Nine has already outdone its Underbelly welcome. People don’t seem to give a damn anymore, with the consensus, 1st series was the best thing ever, but the 2nd was crap, whch has people turned off now.

  13. I’m looking forward to it but it’s a shame that it continues to have so many blatant mistakes. The series is set in the late 80s and early 90s but just from the promo there are so many obvious errors to Sydneysiders.

    John Ibrahim is riding a train to Kings Cross. The train doors have been painted bright yellow. This was only done on Sydney trains about three years ago. The glass in the door features etching, a form of graffiti that wasn’t seen on trains until about the last five years. Even the big ‘King Cross’ sign at the railway station is in the new yellow/cream colour which was only painted that colour recenty after being shades of blue since the 1970s. These things won’t affect the drama but they do annoy you when a series is supposed to be set in another era.

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