‘The Terminal List is… a dated and drably made eight-part military thriller that offers little intrigue or excitement,’ says the Guardian’s ‘east coast arts editor’ in a corrosive one-star review. Eh? Can we have been watching the same series? Let me give you an example of this ‘little intrigue or excitement’ and allow you to judge for yourself.
Navy Seal Lt Commander James Reece (Chris Pratt) is having an MRI scan to determine whether he has suffered brain damage during a disastrous combat mission in Syria in which almost his entire platoon was wiped out. All his colleagues, superiors and family think he’s going mad because his memories of the mission do not remotely accord with the official version of events. We, the viewer, are not quite sure: is this a Jacob’s Ladder-style hallucination drama in which none of the protagonist’s visions are to be trusted; or a thriller in which the hero is being ‘gaslit’ into disbelieving what he once knew to be true? Perhaps the scan will give us a clue.
It does! If you’ve ever had an MRI scan you know how claustrophobic they are. You can be trapped in that confined space for as long as an hour and the whole time your natural instinct is to scream and try to escape. Now imagine sliding out from that ordeal to find two masked men with guns trying to kill you because you know too much. Obviously in our cases they’d succeed, but Reece, being special forces, is made of stronger stuff. A nail-biting fight sequence ensues including – good hand-to-hand combat detail, this – Reece ripping off his hospital gown and curling it swiftly round his arm, the better to defend himself against the knife thrusts of one of his assailants. I won’t spoil it by telling you how it ends but given that there’s seven more episodes and Reece is the hero you can probably guess.
Anyway, I sat there, on the edge of my seat, searching every moment for the signs of dullness or flat direction (another charge laid by the Guardian reviewer). Nope. If it maintains these standards, I’m going to love this series even more than the Jack Reacher one (also on Amazon) because besides being even more brutal and less tongue-in-cheek, it belongs to my favourite of all genres: the paranoid conspiracy thriller.
This genre peaked in the mid-1970s with classics such as Three Days of the Condor (best ten-minute opening sequence of any movie, ever) and The Parallax View. The key ingredient is a cinematic figure with whom I totally identify: the lone hero whom everyone is out to get and who can trust no one; whose only survival chances are to draw on all his considerable martial skills, ingenuity and cunning to keep one step ahead of his implacable and multifarious enemy.
I’m still not sure anyone is ever going to surpass Robert Redford in Condor but Chris Pratt (playing a lot more gritty and serious than he does in Guardians of the Galaxy) does a perfectly decent job. Well, apart from the rookie errors I spotted. When he sends an email to implausible investigative journalist Katie Buranek, he doesn’t try to hide his web address with VPN, even though he ought surely to be aware he’s under surveillance.
I say Buranek is implausible partly because she’s played by Constance Wu (which is a bit jarring if you’re used to her as the dragon wife in the comedy series Fresh Off The Boat) but mainly because she does stuff like position herself in the bar with a whisky next to two Navy Seals at Incirlik airbase and expects them to open up. Journalists in screen dramas always seem to be so much pushier, capable, more intrepid than the career-safe time servers you meet in real life. Is it because the people who write these scripts are often ex-journalists?
But these are minor quibbles about what is, for the most part, a thrilling, pacy, well-acted drama, with an unembarrassing script, whose labyrinthine plot will, I suspect, prove a lot closer to real life than most viewers realise.