In this forceful and exceptionally effective crime docudrama, Tony Danza, the likable lug of Who’s the Boss?, gets to add a new category to his resume: He can play unlikable lugs, too. Dead and Alive casts him as Costabile (Gus) Farace, a “big-time wannabe” in organized crime who went into hiding after murdering a DEA agent on a Staten Island road in 1989. The killing spurred two manhunts — one conducted by outraged feds who wanted Farace captured and brought to trial, the other by crime capos who put out a contract on him in order to get the cops off their backs. (If you don’t remember which side won, we won’t spoil it here.)
Although Danza is top-billed and believably brutish and menacing as Farace, his is a supporting role. Dead and Alive, adapted from a pair of New York magazine articles, actually focuses on the efforts of assistant U.S. attorney Charles Rose to root out Farace by putting local mob heads in a vise. The buttoned-down Rose is played skillfully by Ted Levine, who, in a transformation far more jolting than Danza’s, has jettisoned the nipple rings and mascara that adorned him as serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs in favor of three-piece suits and walkie-talkies. In Dead and Alive’s best scenes, he shakes up New York’s mobsters, who suddenly find their quality of life threatened. “I don’t think it’s ever gonna be good like before,” says one mournful knuckle-breaker of the underworld’s changing mores.
Dead and Alive comes from the same producers (Kenneth Kaufman and Tom Patchett) who oversee NBC’s excellent In the Line of Duty dramas, and has the fluid intensity of those films. It also has terrific performances from a raft of low-key mob-movie character actors. They give Dead and Alive a quality rare in TV movies — an air of authenticity. B+