Thursday, June 12, 2014

Treading Water: NBC's Crossbones

John Malkovich as Blackbeard, on NBC's Crossbones

Pirate stories were useful in the first few decades of Hollywood, when movie studios were in need of action vehicles for dashing, acrobatic male stars, most notably Douglas Fairbanks and, some years later, the young Errol Flynn. The last classic example of the genre is probably the 1952 The Crimson Pirate, in which Burt Lancaster and his stuntman-sidekick (and former partner in a gravity-defying act the two had performed for circus and vaudeville audiences) ricocheted all over the sets as if they were in a pinball game, grinning like happy monkeys while their bodies were doing things that most people would have trouble even thinking about doing without their features slipping into expressions of bug-eyed terror.

By then, the fashion in American action movie heroes had already begun shifting irrevocably away from men who express themselves gracefully in movement towards men who can convincingly perform acts of violence, even sadistic action, while cloaking themselves in an air of self-righteousness. Nobody ever suggested that Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson slap on an eye patch and a gold earring and slide down a sail with a knife between his teeth. But for reasons that defy logic, Hollywood directors have still sometimes tried to revive the pirate genre. Most of these labors of love—Swashbuckler (1976), Roman Polanksi’s Pirates (1986), Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995)—are remembered solely for the spectacular scale of their cost and subsequent commercial failure, and the fact that they starred, respectively, Robert Shaw (at a point when he was forty-seven years old, alcoholic, and two years away from his death), Walter Matthau (outfitted with a wooden leg and a costume like a wedding cake), and the dream team of Geena Davis and Matthew Modine, really presses the point that the people responsible for the movies themselves had no idea what the appeal of the successful films in the genre was based on.

The first Pirates of the Caribbean film only superficially resembles an exception to the rule that the genre has seen its day: like The Haunted Mansion, The Country Bears, and Brad Bird’s upcoming Tomorrowland, it actually belongs to that strange contemporary subgenre, big-budget movies “based” on Disney theme park attractions. According to solidly based conventional wisdom, the real secret of Pirates of the Caribbean’s box-office success was the bottomless entertainment value of Johnny Depp’s peacock-strutting performance, and the publicity surrounding NBC’s summer series Crossbones—the second pirate show of the year, after Starz’s Black Sails—has centered on another mighty hambone, John Malkovich, who makes his series TV debut as Edward Teach, A.K.A. Blackbeard, plotting and tending his legend in semi-retirement on an island in the Bahamas where he holds sway as Commodore.

John Malkovich and Richard Coyle in Crossbones
At 60, Malkovich isn’t likely to be sliding down any sails either, but he is in there working, trying to do something with his lines and suggest that his dissipated shell is the casing for a powerful will and some twisted, radioactive brain power. (He’s not just coasting on star presence and the audience’s good will, as James Spader is in NBC’s inexplicably popular man-you-love-to-hate hit The Blacklist.) His wittiest moment may be when a young man bursts in on him in bed with a bevy of women. “Did they send me a boy? How novel,” Malkovich purrs, as if he were at least intrigued by the idea. Bald, toothy, and jug-eared, with a little white goatee, he sometimes looks like the veteran B-movie villain Sid Haig, but the fact that he’s most alarming when he can most easily pass for someone else points up some of the problems with the casting. For all his extravagant promises to drag his enemies through Hell—accompanied by such self-conscious epigrams as “If there’s one thing I know, it’s how to create a legend.”—he’s more stylish than scary. Like many theatrical actors, Malkovich carries his past roles with him, and in this campy super-villain role, it’s distressingly easy to be reminded that that list of roles includes Rowan Atkinson’s antagonist in Johnny English.

Malkovich’s primary antagonist here is a British agent played by Richard Coyle, who played the horny stooge Jeff on the British sitcom Coupling. Coyle’s baggage includes a MacGuffin—the newly invented Chronometer, which threatens, or promises, to wipe all piracy from the face of the Earth—that he must protect, and a sidekick (Chris Perfetti) who feeds him such lines as “Why don’t we just kill Blackbeard and go home?” so that Coyle can then explain to the audience why he can’t do any such thing. Malkovich, meanwhile, gets to explain to his subalterns why he keeps Coyle around instead of killing him, and also why he prefers not to torture him. (Torture, he says, only compels someone to say whatever he thinks his tormentors want to hear, and so ultimately “delays what must, of necessity, be hastened.”) At this point in popular culture, it’s nice to encounter a hero, or even an anti-hero, who opposes the use of torture, even if it’s on practical grounds. (Sadly, two episodes later, he reverses himself, stating definitively that an associate who’s been captured by his enemies will surely give up his whereabouts, because she’ll be tortured to do so, and that method never fails.)

Like The Blacklist, Crossbones is a disappointingly conventional, old-school TV series at its core, designed not to build storytelling momentum but to achieve a maintainable level of stasis. Coyle’s principal mission is to kill Blackbeard, so every week, the audience is expected to tune in to see him get about as far in what he’s trying to do as Gilligan and his friends ever came to getting off that island. Like Black Sails—whose own version of Blackbeard was a sort of feral cult leader running an island sweatshop—its real interest is in showing what the hacks of today think might possibly be the contemporary interest in a pirate story: i.e., the phenomenal level of barbaric violence that piratical characters can be assumed to routinely inflict on anyone who gets in their way. People are hung by their necks to slowly strangle, grunting and popping their eyes; members of Malkovich’s brain trust, disregarding his no-torture edict, hold Coyle down and hold an open flame to his hand until his fingertips turn black; a man whose eyes have been gouged out is dumped in a boat that’s wired to explode. Malkovich’s self-promoting pussycat number definitely has its charms, but he could be turning water into wine and passing it through the TV screen into your glass, and it still might not be worth having to look at the bad dreams he’s packaged with here.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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