Review: ‘Citadel’ loudly and proudly reads from the big book of spy thriller cliches, but that’s part of the fun
Even discounting the mammoth $300 million budget that ballooned as the result of a creative overhaul and extensive reshoots, Prime Video already had a whole lot riding on Citadel, which premieres tomorrow.
A second season of the main series has already been confirmed, while there are two spin-offs in the works set in Italy and India, with the streaming service mounting a massively ambitious plan to build an espionage-driven small screen universe that’s anchored by the blockbuster sheen of the Hollywood flagship, which boasts Hunters veteran David Weil and showrunner and Marvel Cinematic Universe veterans Joe and Anthony Russo as executive producers.
Spy thrillers are everywhere you look – as they have been for decades – and the bad news for anyone expecting Citadel to paint familiar colors in fresh shades is that it doesn’t even try. However, there’s an old-fashioned and pulpy spirit to the first three episodes that were made available for review, which gives the distinct impression that the globetrotting adventure doesn’t care in the slightest that it ticks off almost every cliche in the book throughout its first two hours of screentime alone.
Understandably, a lot of people might be expecting more from what’s the second most-expensive television production of all-time – behind only Prime Video’s own The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – but there’s still enough going on to give Citadel a pass for now, even if the startling lack of bringing anything new to the table may well come back and haunt it further down the line.
Kicking off with a bang, the action begins in a packed train car, which introduces us to our main characters, fills in some expository gaps, and establishes the driving force of the first season all in one meticulously crafted and bone-crunchingly fell swoop. Richard Madden’s Mason Kane and Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ Nadia Sinh work for the titular agency, and believe they’re apprehending a prime suspect with the potential to do untold damage to the geopolitical sphere.
However, after a standout action sequence that either deliberately or completely obliviously echoes the Jason Bourne franchise, everybody’s world gets turned upside down. It does a great job of letting us know who our protagonists are, what they do, and how they go about doing it, while also establishing the looming threat of rival splinter cell Manticore, the big bads of the entire operation.
After a supposedly deadly explosion, we fast forward eight years to discover the world is in a very different place from where he left it. Nadia is off-grid and presumed dead, while Mason has settled down as a married father with a normal life. How did he forget his past? Amnesia, of course, merely the latest trope lifted liberally from another established archetype of the genre.
Fortunately, the inherent silliness is encapsulated by Stanley Tucci on reliably wonderful form as Bernard Orlick, who’s basically Citadel‘s “guy in the chair.” The actor knows that he’s not starring in a prestige drama and pitches his performance as such, leaving him in serious danger of stealing the show right from under leads Madden and Chopra.
Speaking of which, expect the Game of Thrones and Eternals veteran’s odds of being named as the next James Bond to skyrocket in the aftermath of Citadel; the Scottish star displays the looks, charm, charisma, ass-kicking abilities, and penchant for pulling off a suit and delivering a well-timed quip several times over in the first 40-minute episode alone, so we could be looking at a brand new front-runner to be 007.
Chopra doesn’t fare quite so well across the opening three installments as elements of Nadia’s backstory feel rushed and under-developed, although that’s something that’s likely to be rectified in the remaining chapters. Another potential scene-stealer arrives in the form of Lesley Manville’s Dahlia Archer, who quietly exudes menace with a twinkle in her eye that indicates she’s the most dangerous person in any room she enters, no easy feat when we’re talking about an expansive international blockbuster.
As you’d expect from a project that reads loudly and proudly from The Big Book of Espionage Cliches without a care in the world, Citadel excels in the action stakes. Sure, some of the CGI is pretty ropey when things begin to veer into full-blown Roger Moore territory at certain points, but the hand-to-hand scraps are impeccably choreographed, and unsurprisingly bring the Russo brothers’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier to mind more often than not.
One of the major criticisms of streaming originals is that the episodes are just too damned long, and while that isn’t an issue for Citadel, it ironically leaves the pacing feeling a little haphazard. Each of the first three episodes is only around 40 minutes at length, but they whip across the world at such a furious and frenzied pace – flitting between countless characters and subplots in the process – that taking a touch more time to pause and let things breathe would have been extremely beneficial.
There are only six chapters in total, though, so that seems an issue that’s going to be prevalent throughout. Citadel is unlikely to be remembered as one of the finest big budget TV shows to come along in a while, but it doesn’t seem to be interested in acclaim or prestige. Instead, it liberally lifts almost all of its major beats from other properties set in the same genre, and doesn’t mind that it’s barely got anything of its own to say.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile adventure, but if you’re expecting anything more than fast-faced, energetic, exciting breakneck espionage action on a grandiose scale, you may be left somewhere between disappointed and underwhelmed. For everyone else; Citadel is borderline camp, precariously cheesy, and a whole lot of fun.
At a cost of $300 million, you'd have thought 'Citadel' might have at least tried to reinvent the wheel. It doesn't, but that also doesn't mean that it isn't a fun ride while it lasts.