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‘The Beast,' premiering Thursday on A&E

Verne Gay
Newsday (MCT)

THE BEAST

10 p.m. EST Thursday

A&E

REASON TO WATCH: Patrick Swayze

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: In the dead of a Chicago winter, raw FBI recruit Ellis Dove (young Aussie Travis Fimmel, the WB's "Tarzan") must navigate the mean streets with partner Charles Barker (Swayze), who looks like he's been chiseled from the sidewalk concrete.

This guy, a senior FBI agent, has to break this green kid into his specific style of undercover police work; he's part actor, part thug and melds the two elements effortlessly. The kid, not so effortlessly.

Barker is all bone and three-day-old stubble. His eyes are sunk so far into his skull that you can't see the pupils. He barks when he speaks, and his bite - in fact - is far worse than his bark. He's a pretty terrible guy - so much so that the FBI suspects he's more criminal than cop. They've teamed an unwitting Dove with him to see if the newbie can find out what Charles has been up to. For a mental model of this show, think "Training Day" with Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke or "The Shield."

BOTTOM LINE: It's pretty much impossible to describe "The Beast" without getting tangled in the underbrush of potboiler cliche. Hard, unorthodox veteran who breaches the bureau's code of ethics to get the job done. Clear-eyed kid who worships the grizzled vet. And so on.

But do you honestly think I or anyone else will pan Swayze's performance - especially after the five-hankie interview with Barbara Walters about his battle with pancreatic cancer? Not going to happen - not here, anyway.

The good news, in fact, the wonderful news, is that Swayze really is good. He told Walters that before going to the set in July, "many mornings I'd be curled up on a bath mat just this side of a scream." You suddenly realize that the explosive pain and anger is unleashed on-camera; guess you could call that extreme method. Swayze does look like hell - a man, and character, peering over the precipice, and the result is a performance both compelling and harrowing. No wonder A&E went to the mat for him.


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