Wanted: fresh spies/assassins to save the world in style. “Mission: Impossible” has only two more movies left to go, Jason Bourne has retired, and James Bond is being pieced back together. Oh, how Anthony and Joe Russo have struggled to fill the position. Their mega-budget, Netflix spy-versus-spy actioner from last year, “The Gray Man,” faded from memory with each cliche and drained the charisma from stars Chris Evans, Ryan Gosling, and Ana de Armas. Now, the “Avengers: Endgame” filmmakers are in the executive producer chairs for “Citadel,” a globe-trotting, twist-heavy, yawn-inducing Prime Video series that fails its mission to entertain even with lowered expectations.
Among the franchises it takes from, “Citadel” is undeniably post-Bond, starting with its slick two leads, played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Richard Madden. They’re both cunning and quick-witted in an opening scene that takes place eight years ago on a speedy Italian train. Their Citadel spy characters Nadia Sinh and Mason Kane, respectively, are ready to thwart some scowling bad guys (who we learn are working for Citadel's new rival spy group, Manticore). But Nadia and Mason have been expected, and the bad guys they shoot at and scuffle with throughout some choppy editing nearly kill them by blowing up the train, launching them to a lake below. Nadia and Mason both survive but lose their memories in the process, including their hot-and-heavy bond that was years in the making.
Mason Kane recovered pretty well: he went on to live a quiet domestic American life (echoes of what the Russos did with Hawkeye) with a wife, Abby (Ashleigh Cummings), and daughter Hendrix (Caoillin Springall). But that tranquility is challenged when he’s kidnapped by his old computer genius and boss Bernard (Stanley Tucci), who then reveals how the evil Manticore has hunted Citadel agents since that train explosion. Now, he needs Mason’s help to thwart Manticore and save Citadel, therefore saving his family. To do that, Mason has to track down Nadia in Spain and get her back in the business.
"Citadel" only has a couple of interesting ideas to play with, like how the agents' memories have been saved in little injectable vials, which also makes a suitcase carrying them a hot commodity (and the catalyst for an anti-climactic retrieval scene). But what’s most important to know about the not-so-nuanced spy game in this series from creators Josh Appelbaum, Bryan Oh, and David Weil, is that Citadel = good guys, Manticore = bad guys. We learn about this dynamic from one of many revealing, silly scenes in which poor Stanley Tucci has to dump a bunch of exposition, his monotone delivery like a coded message to how bored he is. At the end of episode one, Bernard gives Mason (and us) the low-down: Citadel is a group of spies with no national loyalty who are forces of good (the word “GOOD” flashes on the screen) and have saved the world from potential crises (the headline “Y2K AVERTED” is then used with a straight face). Bernard then gestures Mason to a different computer, maybe six feet away, to narrate another slideshow, this time about how bad Manticore is. Crashing stock markets, oil crises, grid failures, it's so broadly nefarious that it demands a G.I. Joe cameo to comfort us that this show actually knows what it's doing. (No luck.) Because Mason and Nadia have eluded their wrath, now it’s up to the two of them to stop Manticore from obtaining all the nuclear codes in the world before they achieve world domination or other evil Santa Claus feats.
The focus of the first three episodes sent to the press, Madden is better at playing the “Wait, I’m a spy?” macho-fantasy than he is at being an emotionally conflicted action hero; his Scottish accent also bleeds through too often, as if his character wasn't fully rendered. But if any good can come from “Citadel," it positions Chopra Jonas as a future action star, especially given how often she gets to show off her ass-kicking choreography. And she does it all with a distinct mix of determination and humor.
“Citadel” is awfully serious about its hokey threats of terror, so it tries to off-set that using pop culture as a personality—shoe-horned jokes about “The Bachelor,” “The Muppets,” TikTok, and more are thrown in, making its sense of humor prominent but tedious. Meanwhile, the show’s unearned self-seriousness becomes numbing. “Citadel” barely creates intrigue by explaining itself while dulling its representations of good and evil. Tucci seems lost, but so does Lesley Manville, who works for Manticore and bosses around their heavies (including two intense twins played by Roland Møller). It’s hard to forgive the series for the junky dialogue it saddles her with (“Let me make something clear—I am a broker for the families that run Manticore”) and how it makes her the face of the series' dull vitriol and villainy. Manville deserves better, just as much as we deserve a fake apocalypse to feign being worried about.
“Citadel” is so set on embodying a spy story—those James Bond-ready strings in Alex Belcher's score, all those double-crosses—that it neglects to actually be one. It’s so ho-hum with its apocalyptic stakes (remember when blowing up the world used to mean something?), and the touch-and-go action sequences follow suit. With the exception of a downhill escape set in Iran in episode two that includes Mason deploying secret skis, the scenes are usually over before they can get started. Instead, the action that's supposed to be snazzy (treated with bass drops, slow-motion, and lots of CGI) becomes rote and tells of how generic this show is. In lackluster attempts to save "Citadel" from its own superficiality, director and co-cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel sometimes flips his camera upside down or treats sequences of mild dialogue with a few striking shadows.
The more genuine surprises can be found within its growing cast of players and their secret connections—everyone here seems to be at the mercy of what they know or can remember, as in the case of Nadia and Mason. That mystery makes everyone vulnerable, especially when betrayal is a common act in espionage. Episode three even leaves a question about an intriguing hidden relationship, but it doesn't have much promise within the series' atmosphere, which abuses the line of “Let me tell you the REAL story,” and doesn’t create an expanded spy universe, so much as a headache.
“Citadel” has it all backward—it's entertainment that's not made for those who watch for the plot, and yet is packed with it, at the detriment of its chance to be dumb fun. As I became bored with what grounds this series, I couldn't help but think that more absurdity would at least liven up the place—why not use more sci-fi, especially if we're just going to do the spy version of The Avengers? The $300-million-dollar show's obvious lack of imagination and integrity becomes maddening when Mason teases Bernard about how Citadel is a lousy name for a spy agency (“Citadel? I thought you had a gift for names!”). Yes, it is a silly name, but fitting for such a chintzy enterprise.
Three episodes were screened for review. "Citadel" premieres on Prime Video on April 28th.