The Terminal List review: There’s plenty of skull cracking and head shots – but it doesn’t make much sense

Viewers will have as hard a time remembering what’s going on as the heavily concussed Navy Seal at the centre of this thriller

The Terminal List trailer

In 1980, the United States launched a new army recruitment drive. It was five years after the end of the Vietnam War, a conflict that had collapsed public confidence in its military. “Be All You Can Be” read the famous slogan, often held up as one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time. Capitalising on Americans’ voracious appetite for self-improvement, it reimagined a military career as something smart and sexy, and not just an appointment that would cart you off to die in some foreign war. And “Be All You Can Be” carried US military recruitment right through until the advent of video games like Call of Duty, which taught a generation that war is a fun puzzle to be solved through violent heroism. It is in this vein that the latest recruitment initiative for American imperialism arrives on our screens, in the form of new Amazon thriller, The Terminal List.

Chris Pratt, the square-jawed, dead-eyed star of Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, is Navy Seal Commander James Reece (“One rowdy motherf***er,” Pratt says, on the blurb to one of Jack Carr’s novels that has been adapted for this series). The show opens with Reece on a mission in Syria that goes FUBAR, resulting in the deaths of his entire unit. Reece himself is severely concussed and returns to the United States a blurry mess; his memories of what happened in the submerged crypt in Syria do not align with those presented to him by the authorities. “I know what it’s like when war follows you home,” Jeanne Tripplehorn’s shady politician tells him. “But I hope you’ll be able to find peace knowing this mission is over.” Fat chance.

This is an action thriller, so PTSD cannot merely be PTSD. “The only thing they’ve told me is that you have a concussion and you have to lay low,” Reece’s wife Lauren (The Girlfriend Experience’s Riley Keough) tells him. But during a routine MRI, two masked assassins show up and Reece’s worst fears are confirmed: this is a conspiracy that has come home with him. More trauma will soon be thrown into the mix, allowing Reece, never knowingly under-armed, to storm around on a mission of revenge. Pratt is a strange leading man, the product more of the masculine desire for reinvention (he was slightly soft around the edges in Parks & Recreation, now he’s ripped – so you could be too!) than any discernible talent.

And the whole thing is desperately masculine. With the exception of Keough and Constance Wu’s intrepid reporter, the cast are an assemblage of interchangeable crew-cut men with varying degrees of stubble (“Lose the five o’clock shadow when you’re in garrison,” Reece is told at one point, but director Antoine Fuqua knows that Pratt looks much more convincingly tough with a bit of beard). Carr, upon whose novel the show is based, is a former Navy Seal, and both the book and its adaptation have made a big show of their verisimilitude (“Don’t use WhatsApp,” Reece snarls to a confidential source, “it’s compromised, has been for years”). But the story could just as easily have been created by someone who spent the last couple of decades playing Splinter Cell instead – I would be shocked to discover that real Navy Seals spend as much time, gun drawn, peeking round corners in government facilities as James Reece does.

Those with an appetite for the Jacks (Reacher and Ryan) will find something to enjoy in the violent infallibility of Reece. There is plenty of skull cracking and head shots. But the plot, in so much as there is one, will make about as much sense to viewers as it does to the heavily concussed Reece. “Might these repercussions be affecting your memory of the operation?” the demob officers ask him. “You don’t forget an op like that…” he muses in reply, but watching The Terminal List is a constant, attritional battle against forgetting what on earth is going on.

“Be All You Can Be”. That alchemical phrase, the US military’s magic of turning dumb hunks of lead into Middle East meat mincing gold, has never lost its influence. The recruitment adverts just got slicker. The Terminal List represents a nadir for the form of radical reinvention offered by a 6ft 2in muscled frame and an arsenal of firearms that would make the British army (or average American household) blush. Are the makers of The Terminal List being all they can be? Surely they – we – can be better.

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