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'Columbo' undercover and underwhelming in ham-heavy movie


No trench coat. No deferential manner. No bumble or stumble. No "Just one more thing, sir." No murder committed in the opening sequence. No half-lighted cigar. No fiendishly clever murderer. And no clash of classes, with the rich and successful killer matching wits against the working-class cop.

Tonight's "Columbo" movie has Peter Falk in the title role. It has a murder. And the murder gets solved. But those are the only links between this and the frequently wonderful "Columbo" movies of the past.

Those frequently wonderful "Columbo" movies often had a great performance by Falk. Not tonight. There's so much ham here, as Columbo goes undercover in several disguises, you'll wonder when the rye and Swiss are coming.

"Columbo Undercover," at 9 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13), starts out with the lieutenant investigating the deaths of two men who shot each other in a skid-row apartment. The men were fighting over a piece of an old photograph.

It appears that six years before the deaths of the two men, a savings and loan was robbed. The money was never recovered. Relatives of the holdup men are now holding pieces of a photograph that shows where the money was buried.

It's a neat idea. In fact, the idea for the story comes from author Ed McBain. But McBain didn't write the script. And things start to fall apart as soon as Columbo decides to go for the gold and find the money.

What he mainly goes is camp.

Camp, as in Columbo dressing like a Mafia don to win the confidence of one of the relatives. When he first appears as the don, the theme from "The Godfather" starts to play.

Camp, as in Columbo posing as a small-time hood to gain the confidence of another person who holds a piece of the photograph, played by Burt Young. Someone says Young's character looks like "the guy in Rocky." (Young was in "Rocky," remember?)

Pulllllleassssse. I know about postmodern sensibilities, self-referentiality and all that culture-talk. This isn't it. This is a dumb script.

Ed Begley Jr. plays an insurance investigator also on the trail of the money, and Tyne Daly plays a former hooker who might also have a piece of the puzzle.

There's humor, pacing and actual scene-playing between Daly and Falk in their moments together. It's a reminder of how good Falk and Columbo can be.

But this is only three minutes out of two hours.

In the final scene, almost as a crumb to real Columbo fans, the lieutenant pulls up in his wreck of a car, wearing his crumpled trench coat, and talks about having to take his dog somewhere. It's a little late and comes off as calculated.

"Columbo Undercover" is Columbo undone of almost everything that made Columbo frequently so wonderful.

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