Citadel – an international organisation without national affiliation, but designed to keep the world safe – has two of its best operatives on a high-end train running through the Italian mountains. They are there with a remit to stop the delivery of illicit security material. However it turns out to be a trap… set by the rival organisation Manticore who are systematically wiping out their opposition. A gunfight ensues with the train crashing and all operatives onboard – of both sides – presumed to be dead.
Eight years later: Kyle Conroy is a family man living with his wife and daughter… troubled by a past he can’t remember and askew visions of it he can’t explain. In an attempt to find answers, those efforts draw unwanted attention. Now the powers of Manticore and the few survivors of Citadel are going to collide and unless Mason/Kyle can fully remember the past, then Manticore’s plans will change the world for the worst.
But if Mason is to do that, he’s going to have to find Nadia first – and she has secrets of her own…
While there isn’t an original idea in the whole of latest spy-fi series Citadel, what it has going for it is obvious: money. Conceived as a launch-pad for several international, interconnected series to come, we have instead a Saturday-morning serial and spy-genre-embracing effort writ large, but with the mega-backing to boost it – at least initially – into the stratosphere. The question is whether it can stick the landing… and that’s debatable. Though there are a few scenes (particularly during the initial, fateful train journey) where anyone with a passing knowledge of VFX will likely spot the greenscreen sleights of hand for exteriors, there’s still an obvious slick, glossy production value throughout that marries intuitive lighting, sound and choreography that only comes together when you’re not watching the budget with a furrowed brow. But that’s Citadel‘s proverbial double-edged sword because it’s certainly possible to quickly look beyond the undeniable (but somewhat indiscriminate) shimmer and shine decorations and note the actual contents are pretty much reduced to a checklist of bullet-points that’s familiar to the point of trope.
Even with all that on-screen glitter, the reported $300 million production costs for Citadel make it Amazon‘s second biggest show after Rings of Power. It’s notable that both shows made bandwith and headlines about those costs rather than the stories therein. Now, I liked Rings of Power more than some and there’s a clear argument that the VFX costs etc would always be needed when recreating the vast seas, towers, battlegrounds and sweeping vistas entire of Middle-earth to tell your fantastical stories. But Citadel isn’t the same deal. Despite falling under the purview of the Russo Brothers (Avengers: Endgame) this is not some alien world or far-away fantasia, it’s a heightened, suspension-of-disbelief spy-fi offering with big set-pieces. There’s an inherent danger that the result is only surface-deep… less like the remit of Mission Impossible minus Tom Cruise (Citadel‘s scripters Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec wrote Ghost Protocol for that franchise) and simply more like an Alias reboot courtesy of a record lottery win investment. One wonders if the breath-taking price-tag was, ironically, one of the reasons it has already been renewed for a second season – such an investment demands longevity.
Richard Madden made a name for himself in Game of Thrones, Eternals and BBC‘s Bodyguard and it was likely the latter that acted as a good auction-piece for this. Showing why some think that he might one day be a 007 contender, Madden has the looks, the horizon-baiting gaze, all the right moves and while some shows inevitably rely on editing to create action/tension, it’s clear the actor can deliver a good and often brutal if balletic fight scene (if not a consistent accent in this). The weapon-juggling and creative use of physics may raise a few eyebrows and even some smirks, but there’s a kinetic rhythm to it all that is now demanded by modern action audiences that won’t, in itself, disappoint. Though that train-carriage battle is a great intro, our other lead Priyanka Chopra Jonas as Nadia / Charlotte then has to wait until the latter half of the second episode (and until we’ve established Mason/Kyle’s predicament) before showing a similar set of moves, but the double-whammy opening episodes indicates she too is likely up to the job.
While not discovering the excellent food of Italy, Stanely Tucci seems to be in the part of his career where he wants to have fun, playing streamlined characters more inclined to deliver arched-eyebrows and pithy snark. The talented, veteran actor, who also recently recovered from oral cancer, was seen recently in Steven Moffat’s Inside Man playing an Ivy League variation on Hannibal Lecter (an imprisoned sociopath with a super-sized intuitive mind that means he gets the kind of preferential treatment only bestowed in screen dramas) and now we have him as Citadel’s last high-level handler Bernard, a cross between Q, M and a slightly pissed-off bloodhound. For the most part that means he has to smile, scowl and offer narratively abridged exposition and fill in Mason and Nadia about their exorcised memories. A glimpse of future episodes suggests his capture will result in similar repartee with Manticore’s Thatcher-like broker Dahlia Archer (Lesley Manville – another talented performer dipping her toe in mainstream fare)
Ashely Cummings (Nos4A2) plays Abby Conroy, Mason’s wife – whom he married during his amnesiac years and the opening episodes give the indication that she’ll have more to do than stay at home and pine with their daughter. (I can’t be the only one getting a distinct something-else-going-on with her to the extent she’s definitely liable to be a bigger play as ally or enemy by the time we’re done).
There’s plenty set up for the rest of the six-part series and beyond. Nadia gets her memories back due to a successful ‘backstop’ activation, but Mason’s serum is destroyed meaning there’s plenty – including secrets Nadia is keeping – he’ll have to work out for himself.
Avengers : Endgame was the pinnacle of action, delivered with a decade-load of angst, pathos and pay-off. Citadel might have plans to be an equally big multimedia experience, with spin-off shows around the world already being prepped etc., but when all is said and done that’s a case for studying the maiden flight before you talk of launching a fleet or reaching for the stars quite so defiantly. It is – thus far – just a fun if wholly unoriginal and logically-ridiculous ride, but one that feels like an amusement park tentpole experience – blueprinted to be spectacular in spectacle and great in the moment but with a remit for the kind of pace that asks for appreciation rather than scrutiny… a trip enjoyed but quickly forgotten once your feet are back on the ground. Enjoy it for what it is rather than what it wants to be – and perhaps ignore the fact that for the gobsmacking budget it has, you should have had more than gold-plating.
- Production Design / VFX9