Thursday, January 9, 2014

Film Review: The Blacklist, Season 1, Episode 1: "Pilot"

This review first appeared on Pol Culture.

The TV series The Blacklist, created by Jon Bokenkamp, has a solid pulp-adventure premise. Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader), once a rising star in the U. S. military/intelligence establishment, is now considered one of the world’s most dangerous criminals. After two decades of eluding capture, he voluntarily turns himself in to the FBI. But he’s not interested in surrendering himself to the criminal justice system. He has what he calls “The Blacklist,” a list of international criminals and terrorists whom he wants taken out. The FBI grudgingly agrees to collaborate with him in neutralizing these individuals. But Reddington’s motives are not entirely altruistic. He occasionally manipulates the FBI for personal ends. He also demands that he deal exclusively with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a rookie profiler in whom he has an unspecified albeit paternal-seeming interest. The episodes promise a number of engaging conflicts: flamboyant villains, intrigue in Reddington’s dealings with the FBI, and the continuing mystery of his interest in Keen.

The show has plenty more going for it. Bokenkamp and the other producers are committed to high production values, and one can count on at least one bravura action set piece per episode. The stunt, effects, and location work are kept on a par with those in feature films. Best of all, the series is designed as a showcase for star James Spader. He understands how to use his upper-class bearing for both comic and dramatic effects, and he’s dazzling. His impeccable timing makes the character’s propensity for smug, condescending rejoinders hilarious. But he also knows how to play his patrician manner for gravitas, and he’s riveting in the character’s more earnest moments. His knack for hitting sinister notes almost goes without saying. One might wish that he was paired with a livelier actor than Megan Boone--she’s rather bland--but she’s up to the task of providing him a foil.

The Blacklist’s initial episode, “Pilot,” does a fine job of creating a foundation for the series. Bokenkamp’s teleplay deftly gets all the series elements described above rolling. This first adventure involves a terrorist who is looking to explode a chemical bomb in Washington, D. C., and it’s seamlessly integrated with the show’s introductory material. Bokenkamp’s handling of the more ambiguous story points is also strong, such as the open question of the extent that Reddington is orchestrating the villain’s actions rather than thwarting them. There are some flaws. The interrogation scenes between Reddington and Keen too closely recall those between the Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster characters in The Silence of the Lambs. Keen also has some violent moments, and the ruthless efficiency she displays doesn’t fit the novice everywoman characterization the show otherwise gives her. But director Joe Carnahan keeps things brisk, and his handling of the two major action sequences--a motorcade ambush on a bridge, and the climactic chase through the Washington, D. C. streets--is first-rate. Overall, this first installment is a terrific send-off for the program.

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