'Quarry': TV Review

Quarry S01 Still - Publicity - H 2016
Michele K. Short/CINEMAX

Quarry S01 Still - Publicity - H 2016

Murder-for-hire action melds with Vietnam, Memphis school integration drama.

Logan Marshall-Green stars in a 1970s-set crime drama that gets better as it goes along.

Continuing Cinemax's commitment to pulpy genre programming and TV's clever, renewed approach to adapting literary crime series for the small screen, the new drama Quarry is a grimy, sexy, violent buffet of '70s style, Memphis attitude, droopy facial hair and character-acting chops.

It's 1972 and signs for George McGovern carry the slogan "Come Home, America." Taking the instruction literally, Mac (Logan Marshall-Green) and fellow soldier Arthur (Jamie Hector) are returning to Memphis after several tours of duty in Vietnam, names besmirched by a horrible incident for which they were cleared, but which leaves them guilty in the public eye. Like many men coming home from Vietnam, Mac is haunted by the things he did and the things he saw and he's incapable of just returning to regular life with wife Joni (Jodi Balfour). People give him suspicious looks and finding work is a challenge, but Mac is still initially resistant when he's approached by a shady man known as The Broker (Peter Mullan) and given the opportunity to make money utilizing a bloody set of skills he learned in Nam. It isn't long, though, before circumstances force him to become part of this syndicate that may be criminal or may be bent on taking out worse criminals. A former championship swimmer, is Mac drowning or is he finding new ways to tread water?

There is a surface on which Quarry, titled after Mac's newly given codename, is yet another cable drama built around a morally challenged white male anti-hero, the latest in a line that hardly seems starved for new entries. Marshall-Green's mumbly, twitchy performance, modeled clearly off of the sort of character and performance an Al Pacino or Gene Hackman or Jon Voight might have played or given in the hypothetical Walter Hill version of Quarry from 1978, will doubtlessly have both admirers and detractors, but he's nothing if not committed to Mac's unraveling. It's that commitment that guarantees that you probably aren't going to like Mac very much, nor are you probably supposed to. He's a man in a difficult position, sometimes trying to do the right thing, but every bit as often consumed by confusion and rage that make clear-headed thought impossible.

If the main character at the center of Quarry is familiar and one prone to viewer fatigue, Quarry works because so much of the rest of the show around Mac is so rich.

Based on the series of books by Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition), Quarry was adapted for Cinemax by Graham Gordy and Michael D. Fuller. Gordy and Fuller, who wrote five of the seven episodes made available for critics, hail from Sundance TV's murky, moral masterpiece Rectify, which explains why Quarry is as interested in its Memphis milieu as it is in thriller mechanics. Emmy winner Greg Yaitanes directed the entirety of the series and the continuity of writing and visual voice pays off in a tremendous consistency when it comes to embracing a blue-collar Memphis backdrop — the architecture and interior design of the small houses, the economically fatigued cars and wardrobe, the Dixie oddities on the roadsides and in the backwoods. If the winding Mississippi and muggy swamps seem like settings you've seen before, Quarry is constantly taking scenes to fresh locations, from a decrepit amusement park to an illicit plantation casino, plus enough juke joints and recording studios to fuel a tremendous blues-flavored soundtrack.

Quarry is honoring the region and it's also honoring the historical moment. Vietnam and the election are in the foreground. The Munich Olympics form the spine to perhaps the best of the seven episodes, with both Mac's affinity for Mark Spitz, but also the tragic hostage crisis, without feeling exploitative. Best of all, especially after the pilot, Quarry begins to explore the racial dynamics of Memphis, including the city's late school integration and the still-raw wounds of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination four years earlier. The pilot may lead with tormented masculinity, but it has much more on its mind as it progresses and for all of the tension that comes from the occasional shootouts and care chases, much more nervousness comes from the specter of white police officers imposing a curfew in black parts of Memphis. Yaitanes knows how to do action, but nodding in the direction of John Ford, characters deliberating in doorways are as much in action in their own way, ever mulling that next big decision.

Around Marshall-Green, an excellent ensemble cast unfolds. Mullan follows in the footsteps of Cinemax colleague Philip Glenister, as English actors subverting thick native accents for much vaguer regional American brogues. Although Mullan never quite nails down where The Broker is from, he gives this ambiguous character a mixture of avuncular concern and dangerous swagger. The great Damon Herriman's Buddy, a weapon-trading killer with a secret, lets Quarry poke into some new corners of Memphis and Herriman's scenes with Ann Dowd are some of my favorites. Each additional episode I watched made me more curious about Edoardo Ballerini's Karl and Mustafa Shakir's Moses, though I'd be hesitant to describe their characters further. Later episodes also feature memorable appearances by the "That Guy!" likes of Bill Irwin and Tom Noonan.

The show hasn't been as instantly successful at establishing its female characters, particularly Balfour's Joni, who is there for vintage Skinemax nudity and some frustrating woman-in-peril beats, albeit with some wrinkles as the story progresses. I see potential in Nikki Amuka-Bird's Ruth, wife of Mac's military buddy Arthur, but she's also a character who needs a few episodes to start to stand out. Throw in the always tremendous Dowd and I can make an argument that Quarry isn't exclusively about the guys, but viewers tuning in only for the pilot will have to take my word.

Quarry has much in common, albeit with a gloomier tone, than Sundance TV's Hap & Leonard and also with Amazon's Bosch. Cable and streaming, with their looser content restrictions and their even looser requirements on episodic structure and season length, are offering new avenues for storytellers to translate the books of Collins and Joe R. Lansdale and Michael Connelly. The medium is more prepared than ever to fill a season with the serialized plot of one novel and then follow the well-developed characters into the next season into a new mystery. This is the time to entrust Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins books to a John Ridley, to get a writer with a Florida sensibility — Kevin Biegel? — to take a shot at John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee character, to see if Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan might try again with Kenzie and Gennaro on Netflix or for HBO to resurrect The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

For now, though, enjoy Quarry, a meaty crime drama with historical heft and Memphis-influenced thematic depth.

Network: Cinemax

Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Jodi Balfour, Peter Mullan, Damon Herriman, Edoardo Ballerini, Josh Randall, Nikki Amuka-Bird.

Based on the Books by: Max Allan Collins

Showrunners: Graham Gordy and Michael D. Fuller, directed by Greg Yaitanes.

Airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Cinemax.