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Apple TV's Echo 3 is a Thrilling, Subversive Adventure

"Echo 3" is a significant example of not judging a series by its first couple of episodes, whether one loves what it's doing or not. It initially seems like it's cut from a familiar cloth about military men using their decorated skills to protect their deepest bonds. The first episode is about a messy mission in Afghanistan to rescue a hostage, and the night before that fateful trip—a wedding. Amber (Jessica Ann Collins) marries Prince (Michiel Huisman). She tells her brother Bambi (Luke Evans), "He's not just another guy in your unit. He needs to come back to me." "Echo 3" initially sells itself with that central emotional focus and that military might, which also creates a dull ease that this will later be a story about special forces men becoming action heroes. (And all the ads are filled with creator Mark Boal's credits for writing "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty.") But "Echo 3" is savvier, more complicated, and more sensitive on a worldly scale than however it may initially present itself. 

Not long into episode one, and months after Bambi and Prince survive the Afghanistan mission, Amber is kidnapped in Colombia. She's nabbed by radicals while doing scientific research on alkaloids, and the military-grade tracking device Prince secretly sewn into her backpack makes them suspicious that she is a disruptor. Because she is an American woman—and the daughter-in-law of a wealthy arms dealer (Bradley Whitford)—the CIA, the White House, the Colombian government, and the media get involved. But with all of their experience and kills between them, Bambi and Prince fly down there, ready to pick her up themselves at the beginning of episode two. They're prepared to do anything and roll up to the US Embassy as if answering a casting call. The two are given some access to behind-the-scenes operations, including how the Colombian military is tightly surveilling the Bogotá compound now holding Amber, but it's not enough. Bambi and Prince load up and try to fix this themselves, and it doesn't go as planned. And yet it is thrilling to see unfold, not just for the cinematography that immerses us into the city's tight corridors by trailing behind their calculated military-informed two-person invasion or the tempered sound mixing interrupted only by gunshots, but because it proves to make things much worse. 

"Echo 3" is adapted from the series "Where Heroes Fly" and directed by Pablo Trapero, Claudia Llosa (a Peruvian superstar who directed the country's first Oscar-nominated film in 2009), and Boal, and it offers quite a rush; the messiness that thwarts trying to save Amber becomes an exciting texture to its drama. Meanwhile, "Echo 3" keeps us on our toes by firmly treating Bambi, Prince, and Amber as outsiders who are no match for many other game pieces that have firmly been in place. 

This is not the "Taken" or "Commando" way of doing a story, referring to countless Hollywood stories about how killing skills and firepower can fix a personal problem and blow through any political issues. It's not a stretch that this is the more human version, which makes it more painful and also more thrilling. The plotting creates a deeper sense of this by establishing a rich sense of political messiness in the story, of politicians' hands being tied behind at a certain point. And this sense is established by how its storytelling values atmosphere and emotional reflection—the violence and drama in "Echo 3" generally feels different thanks to how its editing will cross-cut a shootout or a conversation with flashes of nature, like a bug on a leaf, or images of the childhood trauma the brother and sister share. "Echo 3" still makes space for gratifying, thrilling moments that push the narrative forward, but it also makes one aware of the confines that all of the humans on-screen face. 

"Echo 3" creates such a sound reputation for uneasiness that its biggest sequences only become tenser and tenser. A hostage operation in episode one, which has Bambi, Prince, and their group dropping into a Taliban base in Afghanistan and executing some rote military action thrills, is only just the beginning. It's essentially a great misdirection. If you thought that scene was tense, wait until it gets to the end of episode three (directed with stunning precision by Llosa) or the gripping, character-based developments in episode five (directed by Boal). As the story can shift its character focus and sometimes take its time, it still has a tension that makes one person's desperate act more pulse-pounding than a shootout. 

The action and momentum of the series are sometimes so effective that many of its characters remain staunchly undefined for a good chunk of it. "Echo 3" works with genre basics that it treats realistically, like how Huisman and Evans are stoic, hard-worn fighters, but they're close to having too little of a personality in this reality. Nevertheless, their motivation is unmistakable, and it's believable that they would do anything to save Amber. But at the same time, it fashions them as generic heroes, at least until their sensitive, more desperate sides get more exposure in episodes four and five. 

The same vagueness with character is attached to the rebel group who kidnaps Amber—it's not too certain what their more significant cause or endgame is, and that hole can be distracting whenever the show slows down. A renowned Colombian journalist named Violetta (Martina Gusman), who specializes in kidnapping, becomes involved in getting Amber home safely, but that plot thread leads to little information about the group; they're just revolutionaries who want to legitimize their movement by showing they can keep an American in captivity. But "Echo 3" establishes how much confident power they can have working with the corruption of the land, including a drug compound on the Colombia-Venezuela border treated with military protection and houses multiple families who move around freely. 

The all-star for this action becomes Amber, who, while she spends a lot of the series in containment and under terrifying duress, holds the series' compelling question about the depth of one's courage. She's its most intriguing enigma, and not just because an early episode detail reveals how she might have also been doing work for the CIA, unbeknownst to her special forces husband, which makes her even more distant in his mind, parallel to the pain of wanting her to come home. Collins' creation of Amber is compelling work, especially as we see what she is willing to do for her survival. 

Apple only provided five episodes of "Echo 3" to the press, containing parts one and two, so I can't speak to its entire arc. But it's telling how much uncertainty for the plotting exists halfway through "Echo 3," despite using characters and a setup that can make comfortable fantasies out of military-informed slaughtering (see: Prime Video's "The Terminal List"). The series does a great job of creating tension through desperation, including wanting to know where this is all going and trusting that this series has unusual values. It's thrilling, subversive action entertainment, or at the very least, a potent reminder of how much excellent action doesn't require easy heroics.

Five episodes were screened for review. The first three episodes of "Echo 3" premiere today on Apple TV+, with a new episode each following week. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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