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"Columbo" Undercover (1994)

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13 out of 14 people found the following review useful:

Ed McBain fans take note:

Author: bradnfrank from Houston, Texas
23 February 2002

When you watch this movie, you will immediately notice that it does not follow the standard "Columbo" formula in which you know who the murderer is right from the start. Instead, we get a genuine mystery. That's because this movie is based on Ed McBain's novel "Jigsaw", originally published in 1970. This was one of his 87th Precinct mysteries, which did not originally feature Columbo.

Columbo is substituted for several different characters from the book, alternating from scene-to-scene. Sometimes he's the book's Detective Carella, other times he takes over for Detective Brown, who also appears in the movie. As confusing as this may sound, the movie is actually a very faithful adaptation of the book - even the pieces of the photo are identical to the illustrations in the book.

BTW, this isn't the only recent Columbo movie to be based on an Ed McBain novel -- "Columbo: No Time To Die" is an adaptation of the novel "So Long As You Both Shall Live".

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15 out of 18 people found the following review useful:

OK try at something different but Columbo fans will miss the character and the formula

Author: bob the moo from United Kingdom
11 December 2005

Columbo is called to a clear-cut case of double homicide in a dead end apartment block, where a robber has been shot at the same time as stabbing the owner in the neck. The only thing not clear is the motive as all Columbo can find is a section of a photograph that has been neatly cut out. Stumped by what it all means Columbo and his partner listen with interest when an insurance investigator tells them that the photograph in question will lead to a stash of stolen cash. With Columbo's Italian background, Krutch suggests that Columbo help out by going undercover and trying to recover all the elements and recover the cash.

The last couple of "new" Columbos that I've watched have messed around with the formula with, at best, mixed results. So with the title clearly telling me that things are very different from normal I must admit to approaching this film with a certain amount of trepidation. I assume that the changes are down to the influence of Peter Falk as executive producer for the series – no matter how much I enjoy it, it must be a bother to him to be stuck with one performance in one character in one formula. This change isn't great but it does still produce a so-so story that moves along well enough despite having nothing of the original Columbo about it. What it does lack though is mystery and the steps just feel flat and be more about the undercover gimmick rather than the plot.

Columbo fans will probably find it difficult to get past the fact that he is such a different person here than normal – he plays bad cop, he puts on accents and he plays Italian stereotypes like it was going out of fashion; it is all a far cry from the cat n' mouse stuff while his brain whirrs along in the background. Falk seems to enjoy playing the different roles and getting to be tough etc and that helps the film but I still didn't think it was a good idea to move away from not only the formula but the character himself. Begley is OK but hardly a good foil for Columbo. Young is amusing, Page does OK with the unenviable role of Columbo's partner. Tyne Daly follows up her performance in "Columbo A Bird in the Hand" where she was a drunken lush with a performance as a drunken prostitute. She is OK but not as amusing as another person making a return to the Columbo series – Donner.

Overall this is an OK Columbo that I suppose deserves some credit for trying to do something different. However different does not mean good and it isn't as engaging as the classic episodes were and the undercover thing does become a bit of a gimmick after a while. It is distracting enough and certainly not as bad as some of the other new Columbo films but you can't help but look back more fondly on the classic series.

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11 out of 13 people found the following review useful:

A Loser.

Author: Robert J. Maxwell ( from Deming, New Mexico, USA
27 March 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

You know what this is like? It's like a story that has been lying around for twenty years or so and the producers of "Columbo" have run out of ideas and somebody has a brainstorm and says, "Let's adapt this thing we aren't using anyway and stick Columbo in as the principal detective." Peter Falk does his best with a routine detective yarn but he's lost most of his charm. For one thing, it's a little depressing to see him older and slower than in early episodes. Of course that's not Falk's fault but, still, it jars the viewer's sensibilities.

Another thing is that Falk is no longer "Columbo" as we know him. He's forced to go undercover and play several different characters. His bum, prowling the seedier parts of Los Angeles, only convince us that the writers have no idea whatever of what the life style of the poor is. Falk wears a fedora, for instance. The writers were much better with the relatively high-end milieus of the early stories. They knew how screenwriters and producers lived. They do not know how the poor live, or even what they look like.

Columbo must carry a gun in this episode. He gets bopped on the head and knocked out for as long as the script requires, a convention in every second-rate private eye story from the 1930s.

The formula is dropped. Nobody commits a clever murder, followed by the raggedy, working-class Columbo being called in to unravel it. A splashy minor performance by Tyne Daly, who manages to be good in spite of it. And Columbo has a partner here, who gives perhaps the best performance in the movie. The chief villain, Ed Begley, Jr., has virtually nothing to do.

It's pretty sad. The charm and wit of the original plots is completely lacking.

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11 out of 14 people found the following review useful:

Fun -- a B-plus series entry

Author: aromatic-2 ( from New York, NY
23 June 2001

This is a "B+" series entry. Burt Young and Tyne Daly are marvelous in their supporting roles. This is another one that does not play by the normal rules of the Columbo formula, allowing for some element of mystery. And, all the performers are having quite a bit of fun, even though the last 15 minutes are a bit weak. Certainly, if you like Columbo, this one is worth watching.

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13 out of 19 people found the following review useful:

Luke-warm new Columbo series entry

Author: The Welsh Raging Bull ( from Port Talbot, South Wales, UK
12 June 2006

A 1994 Columbo story that goes out of its way, even by modern Columbo standards, to remove the entrenched shackles of the style and execution exhibited in the original series.

The puzzling plot involves a piece of a black and white photograph found at the scene of a double murder in an apartment. An insurance investigator later comes forward providing Columbo with a ripped piece of paper partly showing the names of people who possess the other pieces of the photograph, which when wholly assembled, will identify the whereabouts of a hidden loot stemming from a bungled robbery a few years ago.

Undoubtedly, plenty of energy and ambition was plunged into this Columbo adventure at the conception stage, but the plot's positive properties are undone by a script which drags it's revelations around with it rather mundanely rather than inserts them with conviction. Also, the characters also lack a certain lustre and fail to raise the profile of the whole episode.

Columbo's donning of disguises means that he is hardly in his trademark mac and for die-hard fans this is a little hard to stomach, despite Falk's obvious self-pleasure in diversifying his character on screen.

Not a total washout by any means and mildly entertaining in its own way, the identity of the culprit (revealed about 5 minutes from the end) is however unsurprising and moreover, there is absolutely no opportunity for a battle of wits between Columbo and murderer, which was the hallmark of the original series.

A warning to all fans of the old 70's Columbo series: extreme broad-mindedness (or amnesia) might allow you to partially enjoy this episode, but it simply builds up the plot and fails to sustain it's intensity.

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5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:

An Underwhelming Columbo Entry

Author: HitchFan19 from Canada
31 July 2012

Even though the majority of people find the new (1989-2003) Columbo movies inferior to the classic episodes from the 1970's, I actually find them usually to be on par with the originals. For one thing, the newer episodes have much better production values; the cinematography and original musical scores are often striking and skillfully done. That being said, this particular "new" installment was a disappointment for me.

The premise of the movie is certainly intriguing - two men are killed in a seedy apartment and one of them has a jigsaw like piece of a picture. This leads Columbo into a complex mystery which involves finding the many pieces of a photograph that reveals the location of $4 million worth of stolen loot. This money was attained from a heist many years ago, where all four of the robbers were shot to death after they had already hidden the cash. Columbo then goes "undercover" to try to gain all the pieces of the puzzle from many different colorful characters before someone beats him to the punch.

The plot originated from an Ed McBain novel (Jigsaw) and it is an odd choice to mold the Columbo character into a seemingly unrelated novel. This results in a drastic change from the usual Columbo formula we all love and the results are lukewarm. While it was nice to see Peter Falk exercise his acting range in this movie by playing many different characters while undercover, the movie doesn't have the essential ingredient that made the Columbo franchise successful in the first place - the cat and mouse game. Without this dynamic the movie's momentum drags and by the end of the movie when the villain was revealed I really didn't care much. The "who-dunnit" aspect was not strong enough for me to care and the killer was not convincing nor exciting enough for this movie to be a success.

Some bright spots of the episode was the brilliant (but much too short) performance of Tyne Daly as the pitiful, sleazy ex-hooker Dorothea McNally. The scenes between her and Peter Falk crackle with electricity and their one scene together is the highlight of the movie. The musical score by Dick De Benedictis has a film-noir sound to it and adds to the atmosphere of the movie. The cinematography is uncharacteristically gritty and dark for a Columbo movie - which commonly focuses on the life of the rich and elegant.

Overall, this was an enjoyable but mediocre Columbo entry. Still recommended despite its shortcomings.

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3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:

Columbo goes undercover

Author: TheLittleSongbird from United Kingdom
30 March 2012

I reasonably liked Undercover, but I can think of better and perhaps more interesting episodes. My complaints are some moments where the script, while mostly amusing and fun, loses lustre especially towards the end, the last 15 minutes doesn't hold that many surprises and feels unsatisfying and while Ed Begley Jnr is good actually I found the character underwritten. However, it is beautifully filmed with a fitting score and an intriguing, well paced and fun story. Columbo is different to how he's usually written, but Peter Falk puts his versatility to the limit and is as always entertaining. The support cast manage to be more memorable than Begley, with Tyne Daly just as good as with her performance in the Columbo episode A Bird in the Hand, Burt Young is amusing but faring best is Harrison Page who is a delight as Columbo's partner. Overall, entertaining and solid if not one of the better episodes. 7/10 Bethany Cox

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5 out of 7 people found the following review useful:

Going on a treasure hunt with Lt. Columbo.

Author: Boba_Fett1138 from Groningen, The Netherlands
22 November 2008

This is definitely an original and different Columbo movie. Just like the previous "Columbo: No Time to Die", this movie its story got based on an Ed McBain novel. Not sure what the story was behind adapting these McBain novels, since its stories, atmosphere and settings have basically very little to do with the familiar usual Columbo franchise. Nevertheless, this is a movie that works out pleasantly because of its fine story.

Might be difficult to really see this movie as a Columbo movie entry but as a stand alone movie its simply a fine one. It's also a nicely directed movie, that has a totally different look from the usual Columbo movie entry and breaths a totally different atmosphere. It has a more theatrical- and professional movie look so to speak. Vincent McEveety was a director who tried out many different things for the Columbo series and he succeeds with this movie at were Alan J. Levi failed with his other Ed McBain adaptation "Columbo: No Time to Die".

It has a good detective mystery story, with a sniff of adventure to it, thanks to the whole jigsaw puzzle concept, that when put together shows the place were 4 millions dollars from a bank robbery-gone-wrong are hidden. The whole movie is about finding this pieces of the puzzle and the people that are holding them. At times the movie even has a touch of film-noir. It all sounds odd and out of place for a Columbo movie and yes it probably also is but nevertheless this concept, story and approach makes this simply a very fine and enjoyable movie to watch.

It has really story that could had also been used for a successful full length theatrical released movie, having many big names in it. I must say that perhaps it would had been better all together if it indeed got made that way. Not that it's a bad movie right now but it would had worked out better all if it featured some original and fresh character and wasn't a part of the Columbo franchise, with Peter Falk in it as the famous police lieutenant. The story doesn't always connect well with the character and the movie also has some weaker, slower moments in it, when Lt. Columbo goes investigating and interrogation his suspects in his trademark own manner, which again, doesn't always correspond well with the style and atmosphere of the entire movie.

Because of that for a part of the movie Lt. Columbo also needs to go undercover (hence the title; "Columbo: Undercover"), it means that Peter Falk's role is also different from any other thing he has done in any other Columbo movie. Guess he really enjoyed playing in this one! You could say that Columbo is not himself during this movie and he spends halve of the time pretending he is an Italian gangster. So no trademark Columbo moments really in this movie, which might disappoint you when you're expecting simply a Columbo movie like any other, that follows the usual successful formula and has all the familiar ingredients in it.

There is also a load of some good and well known actors within this movie. Ed Begley Jr., Burt Young and Tyne Daly all show up. It definitely gives the movie something extra and they also really did one fine job playing their roles. Same also goes for Harrison Page, who I liked as Columbo's partner in this one. Sort of a shame and perhaps a missed opportunity that he didn't got featured in any other later Columbo movies.

Really different from any other Columbo movie you'll ever see but it all works out fine and makes this a pleasant, different, Columbo movie experience.


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3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:

Columbo's Jigsaw Mystery.

Author: s-duddy1 from United Kingdom
28 February 2009

A good Columbo yarn and based on one of Ed MacBain's better 87th Precinct Mysteries called Jigsaw. The story revolves around the hunt for the loot from an old bank robbery which went disastrously wrong for the perpetrators. They were killed in a shoot out with the cops but no one knows what they did with the missing proceeds from the heist. Up steps Irving Krutch, years later, with a 'piece' of a photograph (cut jigsaw style) which supposedly shows where the missing cash is stashed! He enlists the help of the law in his quest but is he all he claims to be? Who will find the other pieces first? The cops or the bad guys? Great stuff for Columbophiles.

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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:

Columbo's most bizarre case

Author: Leofwine_draca from United Kingdom
19 July 2016

UNDERCOVER is an odd entry in the late-stage COLUMBO, probably the episode with the least of a general COLUMBO feel ever. That's because it's based on a novel by Ed McBain that has nothing to do with Columbo whatsoever, but which was adapted to try to fit into the Columbo mould. It doesn't work very well, as at an hour and a half the plot feels padded and dragged out and there are some of those annoying moments where plot elements are being spoon-fed to the audience. But the fact that UNDERCOVER remains watchable and - to a degree - oddly enjoyable at all is a testament to the skill of the actors involved.

It's clear that Peter Falk is relishing the chance to play 'dress up' here, appearing as a gangster and even mafia don at one point. He gets beaten up and even threatens someone with a gun. The supporting cast is very good too, even though Ed Begley Jr. gives a horrible turn as the insurance man. Burt Young (ROCKY) is pretty much playing Paulie here and as lovable as ever, and Tyne Daly is an arresting sight as a washed-up hooker. Finally, it was great for me to see Harrison Page (A.W.O.L.) in support. UNDERCOVER isn't an entire successfully production, but COLUMBO fans will probably enjoy it just for the sheer oddness of it all.

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