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TV Review: Navajo cops sleuth in 'Skinwalkers'

Saturday, November 23, 2002

By Susan Banks, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Edward Gorey's dark characters waving the red, white and blue should tip viewers off that tomorrow's episode of PBS's "Mystery!" is going to be a little different. Billed as an "American Mystery Special," this is the first American-set episode of the traditionally British-based series. And it's American in the real sense of the word. Based on a book of the same name, Tony Hillerman's "Skinwalkers," the story takes place in the American Southwest and features two members of the Navajo Tribal Police, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, who must work together to solve a case involving the murders of several Navajo healers.

An American Mystery! Special"

WHEN: 9 p.m. tomorrow on WQED.

STARRING: Wes Studi, Adam Beach.


Leaphorn is portrayed by Wes Studi of "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Dancing With Wolves." Adam Beach ("Windtalkers," "Smoke Signals") is officer Chee. While the two men work for the same police department, they are opposite personalities, which leads to several confrontations.

Leaphorn, the seasoned police veteran, is wise in the ways of crime, but is a man not completely comfortable with his native heritage. Studi does a fine turn as the conflicted investigator.

Chee, a young police officer who is also learning to be a Navajo healer, is able to embrace the old ways, and still stand firmly in the modern world. Beach has an engaging presence but is slightly wooden in the role.

The Skinwalker of the title is a person with supernatural powers allowing him or her to change from human to animal. It is an evil being with the power to kill with unseen powers and curses. Sort of a Navajo witch.

A Skinwalker is the suspected killer, setting the stage for a tour of the Navajo reservation, its magnificent landscapes, its people and their beliefs. The fact that a Skinwalker is involved in the crimes also causes the men to examine their own beliefs.

This film is based on the 1986 book. It was the seventh in Hillerman's mystery series, his first best seller and also the first time Chee and Leaphorn came together to work on a case.

And while the film does remain fairly true to the novel, several changes have been made to bring the story up to date. The officers use cell phones and the Internet to investigate the crime. They also come in contact with a reservation gang, something that did not exist at the time the book was written. And the murders, which took place in the book before the story begins, are interspersed throughout the film to keep the action moving.

Robert Redford, who is the executive producer of "Skinwalkers" and a fan of Hillerman's, hopes to bring several more of his novels to the screen. For this project, he tapped independent filmmaker Chris Eyre of "Smoke Signals" fame to direct. His son, James Redford, wrote the screenplay.

For those who are familiar with Hillerman's books, "Skinwalkers" provides a nice two-hour diversion. For those who are new to Hillerman's characters, this film is a fine introduction, but read the books for a more enlightening trip into the world of the Navajo.

Susan Banks can be reached at sbanks@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1516.

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