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If the apparent success of Amazon’s The Terminal List proved anything, it’s that there’s an audience out there for fast-moving militaristic revenge stories with more interest in a steadily escalating body count than anything deeper.
Mark Boal’s new Apple TV+ drama Echo 3 will put to the test whether viewers are willing to stick with their militaristic revenge stories if they come packaged with some nuance and characterization. Based on the Israeli format When Heroes Fly, Echo 3 has all the fetishistic shots of weapons and arbitrarily featured American flags one could ever want, and the body count rises steadily. But those things are accompanied by artier touches, whether it’s blades of grass swaying in the wind, attempts to delve superficially into the political realities of contemporary South America or just action scenes that unfold with a deliberate — right on the edge of “slow” — pace.
Through the first half of the 10-episode first season, it’s probably too soon to know if Boal’s efforts to bring refinement to a genre whose devotees are content to keep things coarse and violent will pay off. Thus far, I appreciate the effort and the willingness to dig at least a little beneath the surface more than I do the execution.
Prince (Michiel Huisman) and Bambi (Luke Evans) are Special Forces buddies, highly trained brothers-in-arms experienced at going into foreign countries, doing the impossible and getting out safely. They’re about to become brothers-in-law as well, because Prince is marrying Bambi’s sister Amber (Jessica Ann Collins). The fancy wedding at Prince’s family estate — his father (Bradley Whitford, stealing scenes in what is mostly a cameo) is a wealthy industrialist with his own military ties — is upstaged when Bambi and Prince have to go off on a mission to Afghanistan early the next morning, much to Amber’s chagrin.
After the boys have a little international adversity, it’s time for Amber to go on her own trip to Colombia, where she’s researching the addiction-fighting properties of hallucinogens. This trip doesn’t go so well either, and Amber is taken hostage by rebels, who suspect her motivations. They don’t know, at least not initially, about Prince and Bambi, nor do they know that Amber isn’t a wallflower herself.
Taken on its surface, Echo 3 could easily be a two-hour movie. It’s basically Taken if the bad guys poked two bears with a particular set of skills instead of just one. That approach, though, wouldn’t have given Boal the breathing room he enjoys here. So we get an extended flashy wedding, which helps establish not just our main characters, but the somewhat disposable characters in their world. There’s an opportunity for Amber to give a full TED talk on addiction — it runs in Amber and Bambi’s blue-collar, rural family — and why cultures with shamanic traditions relating to tripping balls don’t have addiction issues. There’s a chance to follow Bambi and Prince as they deal with Colombian governmental bureaucracy, showing why the traditional tropes of the genre, in which Liam Neeson (or Chris Pratt as his TV equivalent) just goes somewhere and starts killing people willy-nilly, are implausible. It allows for rescue operations in which preparations and strategy are prioritized over wanton shooting and throat-slitting. Best of all, it means that there’s time for a full episode focused completely on Amber, her captors and a fellow prisoner played by Franka Potente.
There’s a patience and methodical texture to Echo 3 that reminded me less of The Terminal List than of Amazon’s ZeroZeroZero, one of those Peak TV shows that probably only 10 people watched, but six of them loved. The Echo 3 directors, led by Pablo Trapero, Claudia Llosa and, in that Amber-centric hour, Boal, get value from location shooting in Colombia. The architecture and physical geography are distinctive, and Trapero and the team of cinematographers establish an immediate visual language that often positions human viciousness against a backdrop of beautiful mountains or verdant river valleys.
Sometimes Trapero goes for epic sweep and action scenes with obligatory whizzing bullets and soaring helicopters, though just as frequently the camera is trained on the actors with nearly uncomfortable intimacy.
With character embellishments like an unplaceable accent and traces of implied alcoholism, Bambi is the more dynamic of the two protagonists, and Evans adds requisite gruff swagger. It’s harder to track Huisman’s performance, since Prince is being groomed as a future politician (Kate Burton plays an advice-giving senator) and the gap between silver-spoon rich kid and super-soldier is never exactly confronted. Frequently left with underwritten wife/girlfriend roles on television, Collins (The Nine, Rubicon) has already been given a series worth of emotional variety and sweaty, muddy jeopardy and, when asked to anchor the standalone episode on her own, she shines.
Much of the series is in Spanish, and the standouts on that side of the story include Martina Gusman as a dogged journalist and Sofia Buenaventura and Maria del Rosario as two of the key rebels.
With The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Boal showed the ability to deliver scripts that paired suspenseful urgency with context stemming from his journalistic background. Through half of the first season of Echo 3, the elements for a similar feat are there, but they’re free-floating more than meshing thus far. The details about FARC and cartel operations in Colombia (and the Venezuelan SEBIN intelligence service) are offered, without much depth. Some members of the Colombian military and the rebel crew have personalities or hints of backstory, but not real characters. And at the same time, the various missions to rescue Amber are individually suspenseful without any overall momentum or cumulative tension-building. I’ll be curious to see if it all comes together as something truly good or just settles for well-meaning aspiration.
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