The Terminal List review: Chris Pratt stars in a predictable, problematic action drama that treats viewers like fools
The Terminal List review: Chris Pratt returns to long-form story telling with his new series. However, it would have been easier to tolerate as a movie.
The Terminal List is a movie we’ve seen dozens of times before. Except here, it’s in the form of an 8 episode series on Amazon Prime Video.
Chris Pratt (who continues to insist that he’s got the charisma and dramatic chops to be a serious-actor-leading-man) stars as Navy Seal Commander James Reece. After what should’ve been a simple op behind enemy lines goes horribly wrong, Reece’s entire platoon of 12 fellow Seals are killed in an ambush (as we see in an impressively executed opening tunnel gunfight: the benefits of having Antoine Fuqua direct your pilot). After he returns home, Reece starts to put the pieces together of what went wrong and becomes convinced it was a setup. (Also read: Chris Pratt says there was ‘no hesitation at all’ in returning to small screen)
All this while he’s suffering from a mysterious, crippling psychological condition that’s causing his memories to muddle together, while his higher-ups convince him his theories of foul play are all in his head. But, of course, it’s not all in his head, as he finds out when his family is killed (the only purpose that the wife and kids of angry ex-marines seem to have in violent revenge movies) and Reece is framed for their murder. What follows is an all too familiar story (Shooter, Without Remorse, The Punisher, Man On Fire, and I could go on) of the trained killer with a specific set of skills out to get answers and uncover a wider conspiracy, leaving a bloody trail of bodies behind. Here with the help of intrepid journalist Katie Buranek (a well-cast Constance Wu).
At its best, The Terminal list (from co-writer and showrunner David DiGilio) is a watchable, competent action drama, but one which gets lost in a gruelling 8-episode runtime it doesn't earn, as it struggles to engage under the weight of its predictability. We’ve seen variations of this story time and again. We know, for the most part, what happens and how it goes down with little margin for anything particularly inventive or different. Which is fine. I’m all for the well-crafted, revenge-fuelled-action-romp comfort watch. (The Denzel Washington-led The Equalizer, for example, is a grand testament to the fact that an action movie need not be particularly original to be incredibly satisfying). The appeal of this genre lies not in the intrigue of what’s going to happen but in the thrill of getting revenge and taking down one corrupt official after another as our hero works his way up the bad guy ladder.
But much of The Terminal List insists a treating us like fools, throwing a frustrating series of mysteries and question marks at us, the answers to which are glaringly obvious. For the majority of the first two episodes, for example, we see Reece continually made to doubt himself and his own memories, as he’s made to wonder if he did, in fact, kill his family. The poorly-paced series takes too long (two whole hours) to get to the point we knew from the very start - that he is being framed. Were we supposed to believe that a Chris Pratt-led action vehicle would involve him playing a severely mentally ill war vet that murders his own wife and kids? Similarly, even the show’s final “shock” of who was in on the coverup is a twist you can see coming from 6 episodes ago.
Instead, the series’ formulaic narrative demanded a far slicker, more urgent pacing. Beyond the satisfaction of seeing the “you messed with the wrong guy” revenge plot, there’s little else going for the show to warrant its laborious run time. Put simply, The Terminal List isn’t satisfied being a thrilling, doesn’t-take-itself-too-seriously action saga (think Amazon’s own Jack Ryan). Instead, it aspires to be some sort of slow burn, sophisticated character study of a man dealing with loss and mortality. But in the absence of more formidable filmmaking (the tension of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario or the moody atmospherics of Stefano Sollima’s Zero Zero Zero), layered writing (anything by Taylor Sheridan), and memorable characters, what you get is strictly adequate, unremarkable action flick.
I wish the show stuck to its strengths, the external aspects of action and plot, rather than consistently getting lost in the internal--tired, frequent stretches of memory montages and flashbacks of happier times with his family.
But perhaps my biggest issue with The Terminal List lies in its problematic, tone-deaf politics. Am I the only one who finds the typical Hollywood narrative of "tortured ex-marine white guy who's been through hell, who now has a score to settle against those that did him wrong" deeply unsettling in this day and age? Read the damn room.
The same way Hollywood is re-examining its entire array of cop-aganda shows, should we not also take another look at the subgenre genre of “enraged ex-army guy with a lot of guns and grouses”? The series does attempt to be “clever” and address this. In the final scene of the third episode, Reece gives a speech explaining why they framed him for murdering his family rather than just having him killed. "Because it's easy - to peg it on the mentally ill ex-marine…they know people will believe it", he says. You can almost imagine #NotAllHyperParanoidSemiAutomatic CarryingWhiteDudes trending on Twitter.
It had me wondering who is this show for? A gun-carrying paranoid man uses his skills and semi-automatic weapons to take down crooked government officials who are, in fact, out to get him. The show is essentially somewhere between a Trump supporter’s wet dream and NRA porn. The show similarly makes feeble attempts to position itself as a morally grey drama that questions his actions. But it remains abundantly clear that regardless of how far he goes, Reece is our hero and we’re on his side.
While he isn’t able to carry an exhaustingly overlong series on his shoulders alone, as James Reece, Chris Pratt delivers one of his finest dramatic performances yet. Even when the show around him trudges along, Pratt always has you feel the plight of a man reeling with loss and broken by circumstance.
That said, I couldn’t help but wonder what Taylor Kitsch, who plays Reece’s ex-marine best Ben, would’ve done with the role. A classic case of the best friend is more talented than the main man, Kitsch is far more compelling performer and his inherent intensity would’ve made for a far more interesting James Reece.
In the end, The Terminal List is in many ways how not to tell an episodic story, one which uses the serialised format not to go deeper, but to merely extend and stretch a simple plot beyond its breaking point. Even for those who are able to stomach its problematic politics, the fact remains that The Terminal List breaks the cardinal rule of great TV. Don't be dull.