It’s always a shame to see a good thing go to waste. In the case of Apple TV+’s “Liaison,” the latest in their cadre of globe-trotting spy capers (see also: “Tehran,” “Slow Horses”), that thing is the unexpectedly alluring pairing of Vincent Cassel and Eva Green, two slinky, beguiling sex symbols who bring angular European allure to any role they inhabit.
But what truly stumps Virginie Brac’s French-British co-production isn’t its stars; no, they sail through these six episodes with the laidback efficiency we’ve come to expect from such professionals. The real problem is everything around them, serving a tired spycraft story that lumbers from trope to trope, even as it tries to spice things up with more contemporary nuances.
Much like Peacock’s “The Undeclared War” (another cyber-bore from late last year), “Liaison” concerns the rising threat of cyberattacks on English soil, spurred on by the self-inflicted wound of Brexit—rampant vulnerabilities absent the promise of collective EU protection. A “test balloon” hack on England’s Cybersecurity Division leaves surly director Richard Banks (Peter Mullan) shaken. His associate Alison Rowdy (Green) agrees, and the two begin investigating as more and more cyberattacks lead to train derailments and flooding from the Thames.
Meanwhile, in Damascus, French military contractor Gabriel Delage (Cassel) is tasked with protecting a pair of Syrian white-hat hackers and the information they’ve unveiled about the hacks. Things go poorly, as predicted, and Gabriel ends up back in London to track them down again—ending right back in Alison’s orbit. You see, a lifetime ago, they were lovers in an anti-war activist group. Everything went to pot during a particularly flammable street protest, and the two parted ways. Now, they’ve got to work together to save themselves, the hackers, and, it seems, the world.
If “Liaison” got to this point earlier, with Green and Cassel glowering at each other with white-hot erotic heat as they dug barbs out of their scarred backs or made out while gunfire raged around them, it could have been quite the pulpy ride. Unfortunately, Brac’s expanded scope involves reams of scenes in conference rooms, offices, and hideouts, with an expanding cast of unremarkable character actors playing nondescript government flacks and corporate spies.
They all have overlapping motivations and allegiances, fighting for their slice of the hack-attack pie. It’s all so dull, and it goes on for far too long. (Even stalwarts like Kieslowski regular Irène Jacob get lost in all the boring bureaucracy.) You’ve got to sit through two solid episodes of drudgery before Cassel and Green finally reunite, staring longingly at each other through opposite sides of a rainy window, and by then, it’s too little, too late.
What few bursts of action there are, “24” director Stephen Hopkins handles with aplomb—there’s a showdown in the castle of Green’s retired-general father that gives both Green and Cassel plenty of stealthy derring-do. But like so many of these scenes, they’re over far too quickly, and it’s back to the downcast discussions of international politics or limp backstories, or which broker for which private company will get what part of the deal for handling Britain’s cybersecurity needs. Better shows, like Apple TV+’s own “Slow Horses,” manage to overcome these necessary evils with idiosyncratic characters and a more deftly managed pace. “Liaison” lumbers, and the supporting cast just goes through the motions.
Frankly, “Liaison”’s title sequence writes checks the show itself can’t cash: A smooth, swaying techno-jazzy track from Plumm plays over infrared footage of a couple making love, tight close-ups on footage of revolution, cityscapes encaged in swirling light trails. It all promises a sleek, modern, sexy thriller that the show itself can only approximate. Its deeper concerns about post-Brexit England’s vulnerabilities, its occasional dips into the politics of revolution and how they can be co-opted and infiltrated—none of this gets much exploration save for the intermittent outburst.
You can get away with that thematic thinness in a two-hour James Bond picture. The pace is fast enough to breeze past these issues, and there’s enough action to distract. But six hour-long episodes is far too much time to tell a story of this scope, and you’re left tapping your foot, waiting for the next thing that Actually Matters.
At the end of the day, it all comes back to Green and Cassel, who do yeoman’s work in the frustratingly small amount of time they’re on screen together. The air between them stinks of decades’ worth of unspoken resentments and unresolved longing, a frisson that could make for a delightful erotic spy thriller if they took the time to build that steam. Alas, Brac’s script is too concerned with the mechanics of its plot, and the myriad players who meander within it, to figure out how best to use her smoldering leads.
We’ve seen something like "Liaison" a million times before done with more zip and verve, and no amount of shrugging in Brexit’s direction can make up for how tired everything feels. It’s the kind of show that will play Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” multiple times an episode to sell Gabriel and Alison’s indescribable pull towards one another. But it just makes you wish you were watching “House, M.D.” reruns instead.
Full season screened for review. "Liaison" premieres on Apple TV+ on February 24th.