A wild whirlwind of a mess, without any coherence, without even a guiding principle.
Hulu’s ten-part hyper-noir “Reprisal” is a stylish alternative to a season often dominated by cheery holiday fare. There’s nothing cheery about this blend of “Sons of Anarchy” with revenge thrillers like “Ms. 45” or “Kill Bill,” other than the joy to be gained by its high degree of self-conscious style, a tone that approaches Frank Miller’s work in its go-for-broke ridiculousness in some of its best moments. Balancing the deep emotional wells that its strong ensemble is capable of reaching with visual tricks like unbroken shots, split screens, and fantastic music choices, “Reprisal” nails its tone after about three episodes and then races to a satisfying conclusion that leaves just enough open for another year. Some of the early developments are a bit inconsistent when it feels like the show is still kind of trying to figure out where to go and how to get there, but the ace cast of great character actors finds its footing and it becomes incredibly easy to watch one episode after the other. There’s a reason Hulu is dropping this whole-season style instead of weekly episodes like they do for some of their shows. It builds momentum in a way that will make it a show that most people watch in just a couple days. Strap in. It’s a hell of a ride.
Doris Quinn (the great Abigail Spencer of “Rectify” and “Timeless”) was betrayed by those closest to her, dragged behind a car, and left for dead. They should have checked her pulse. As she says, “All my life, people have been underestimating me.” In the premiere, Doris is far from those who tried to destroy her, dealing with the imminent death of her husband (played by “Rectify” creator Ray McKinnon in a lovely reunion) and the associated drama that comes from his family when it looks like she will inherit his business, one that she has made successful in the first place. This drama brings in a brutal gangster played by Ron Perlman, but be forewarned that he then becomes just a presence for most of the season, something that will be chasing Doris from one direction as she heads home to get her vengeance.
Doris has a plan. Without spoiling much, it involves sending one of her employees who got himself into a bit of trouble, a nice kid named Ethan (Mena Massoud), to infiltrate the gang that tried to kill her, setting the stage for her unexpected return from the dead. There, he teams up with a pair of stylish tough guys named Matty (Rhys Wakefield) and Johnson (David Dastmalchian), but the real power players are Bash (Gilbert Owuor), Burt (Rory Cochrane), and the enigmatic Joel (Rodrigo Santoro), who is trying to keep tenuous peace between rival gangs. A lot of the gang action goes down at something called a bang-a-rang, a stylish, secret go-go club that would look right at home in “Sin City” and introduces us to more colorful characters like Meredith (Madison Davenport) and Queenie (Lea DeLaria). Did I mention W. Earl Brown of “Deadwood” fame is also on Doris’ side? Yeah, this ensemble is phenomenal, and I haven’t even mentioned scene-stealing relative newcomers like Bethany Anne Lind or the great Craig Tate. It’s a remarkable balance of familiar faces with people who you instantly want to see more of.
“Reprisal” also has a nice ability to surprise. Characters take unexpected turns, and the stakes seem legitimate when weapons are pulled out. More than once, I was surprised at a character death or decision, and that’s not common, even in the age of streaming. Most shows like “Reprisal,” which try to be edgy or different, are still falling into the same tropes and narrative outline as the presumably safer shows. As “Reprisal” hurtled toward its end, I was legitimately uncertain as to who would live and who would die.
It’s also rare for a show like this to work both in its large and small beats. Sure, the sequences set to Chicago and Warren Zevon are going to be the two that likely get Twitter buzzing the loudest, but there are great minor beats to offset the technically stunning ones. A lot of them belong to Tate as a man who ends up recruited by Doris for her journey, not really sure what he’s getting into but kind of fascinated by this fearless femme fatale. And Spencer is typically phenomenal, finding the emotion beneath her character’s wide-eyed drive. Doris seems fearless and committed to those around her, but Spencer never allows her to become a caricature.
Like almost every streaming series, I do wonder if there’s not a stronger version of this season that runs eight episodes instead of the requisite ten. There are times, especially in the first half of the season, when it feels like we’re running over the same ground, but the back half is well worth the struggle to get there. "Reprisal" builds in momentum as the characters converge and the chaos ensues. Enjoy the insanity.
Whole season screened for review.
The 2020 Oscar nominations.
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