Next time, can we have a bigger shot of Jack?

Jack Irish: Bad Debts
ABC1

What's it all about?

The first of two eagerly awaited ABC telemovies adapted from the Peter Temple crime novels. Temple, who won the 2010 Miles Franklin award, has penned four novels in his Jack Irish series, but only two are making their way to the small screen now (the second, Black Tide, airs on Sunday).

Guy Pearce plays Irish, a former criminal lawyer whose wife was murdered by a one-time client. He's now variously a debt collector, apprentice carpenter and gambler who boasts of living off his wits. He also appreciates his booze and frequents a pub where everyone the other regulars are as obsessed with the past as Irish is haunted by it.

But a series of frantic messages on Irish's phone by a former client sets in motion a deadly chain of events. When the client, Danny McKillop, turns up dead – shot by police who claim he pulled a gun – Irish knows there's more to the story and is determined to get to the bottom of it.

What follows is a complex tale of corruption involving government ministers (current and former), crooked cops and big business.

Our view

Producer Ian Collie described the telemovies as "more nuanced and layered" than the standard procedural when Fairfax visited the set late last year. He wasn't wrong.

Things got off to a powerful start: a gripping scene that recounted the murder of Irish's wife with startling candour, and then gave way to a moody, evocative credit sequence set to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Red Right Hand. It was a deft move, at once establishing Jack's flawed hero status and the gritty tone viewers anticipated.

Bad Debts spun a complex web though and, at times, struggled under the weight of its plot. Compressing the story into 99 minutes of screen time was no easy feat and the early stages were spent introducing the many characters and their links to the greater conspiracy. Occasionally, it proved difficult (although not impossible) to keep up with the connections drawn.

When it did find its stride, Bad Debts made for great television. There were several impressive set-pieces: Irish's discovery of two corpses at the Koolanja Healing Centre; a car-and-motorcycle chase through the streets and the ensuing shootout; an explosion that rips open the door to Irish's home.

Pearce lent a sense of gravity to the whole affair, imparting his character with a mixture of wit and world-weariness. Other highlights in a strong cast included Marta Dusseldorp as determined journalist and love interest Linda Hillier and Aaron Pedersen and Roy Billing as Irish's racing syndicate mates. In a brief appearance, Steve Bisley was memorable as former planning minister Kevin Pixley.

The telemovie would have been of extra interest to Melbourne viewers, having been filmed largely in that city. Fitzroy featured heavily, while several scenes were filmed in the offices of The Age.

With its sophistication, black humour and strong central characters, Bad Debts (adapted by Andrew Knight and directed Jeffrey Walker) was a sturdy opening chapter.

In a sentence

Like the titular character, Jack Irish: Bad Debts wasn't perfect, but had squared the ledger by the end.

Best bit

Irish, Harry Strang (Roy Billing) and Cam Delray (Aaron Pedersen) find themselves under fire after a high-speed pursuit involving two unidentified men on a motorbike. At the same time, Hillier is chased by men whose intentions are less than honourable.

Worst bit

Squeezing such a dense, complex plot into 99 minutes. This is one telemovie that could have benefited from extra screen time.

Worth watching again?

Yes. Jack Irish: Black Tide airs on Sunday at 8.30pm on ABC1.

Grade: B+

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