HUMAN TARGET - 1.1 - "Pilot" Review (Mania.com)
Review Date: Tuesday, January 19, 2010
The producers of Human Target promised a lighter, more fun-loving action series than we may have been expecting: something akin to the Die Hard movies and similar 80s fare. They're not as alone in the TV landscape with that as they think: the likes of Chuck and Burn Notice aim for the same shits-and-giggles tone. Judging by the premiere episode, however, Human Target is a fine addition to that stable, with clever writing, cool characters and a modest adrenaline rush available for very little up-front investment.
The main character comes from the pages of DC Comics: Christopher Chance (Mark Valley), an elite bodyguard who impersonates his charges in order to protect them from harm. The comics paint him as a fairly dark, brooding figure--he's currently running on the Vertigo line--which the TV show has more or less done away with. So too has it eliminated his "master of disguise" shtick: the producers are concerned about how the comparative hokiness of fake beards will play on TV. Instead, they focus on Chance's unique ability to sense danger, see details which speak to an oncoming threat, and move quickly to eliminate it.
It works exceedingly well in the pilot because writer Jonathan E. Steinberg shows us how observant Chance is rather than just telling us. (He spots a poisoned drink because it's the only one in the room which uses cubes instead of crushed ice, for example.) He also imbues Chance with some interesting character quirks--such as a possible death wish--which tinge the otherwise upbeat action scenes with just enough shadow to keep them interesting. Valley proves charismatic and likeable, with a properly square jaw and a sense that he could be ready for anything.
So too does Chance's support network provide a lively and engaging presence. Chi McBride makes an excellent straight man, playing Chance's perennially exasperated handler Winston, but the real scene-stealer is Jackie Earle Haley, as a computer hacker and all-around evil bastard who Chance brings in for a little legwork. Haley is experiencing a professional second bloom that few actors have ever enjoyed, and watching him dig into the unassuming menace of his role here, it's clear he intends to make the most of it.
Director Simon West also succeeds in delivering A-list action sequences on a television budget. The particulars involve an assassination attempt on a high-speed train traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles, complete with harrowing escapes, nifty fistfights and a central gimmick which enhances the mayhem instead of overwhelming it. More importantly, he keeps the proceedings centered on character and dialogue, with the explosions serving as the straw that stirs the drink rather than the series' end all, be all. The show's best moments involve a quip or an abstract concept rather than a set piece, and while West certainly has action movie credentials (he helmed Con Air and the first Lara Croft movie), his work here suggests a focus on character which neither of those previous efforts could manage. Pilot episodes always get more money than subsequent episodes, but that won't matter if the writing stays as sharp as it does in the intro.
The comparative lack of subtext proves an even bigger benefit. Unlike, say, 24, no one can accuse Human Target of tackling issues out of its depth. It just wants us to have fun, forget our troubles and cheer for a guy who becomes remarkably easy to like. There's plenty of dark, gritty action to be had elsewhere; Human Target reminds us all that it's just a TV show, and that we shouldn't worry too much about broadening our minds. An hour of very potent, slightly guilty pleasures is more than enough to keep us riveted.
Mania Grade: B+
TV Series: Human Target
Starring: Mark Valley, Chi McBride, and Jackie Earle Haley
Written By: Jonathan E. Steinberg
Directed By: Simon West
Series: Human Target