When the highly anticipated spy series “Citadel” was announced on Prime Video, it had all the ingredients of a successful action thriller. Take a global conspiracy with a war between two mysterious and powerful organizations and add two international stars cast as elite-level spies (who occasionally sleep together), topped with high-octane fight scenes liberally.
But “Citadel” relies so heavily on rapid exposition and quick dialogue that instead of the expected sequence of flavorful courses, we’re being fed the entire meal at once.
The series follows Agents Mason Kane (Richard Madden) and Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), agents of a secret organization called “Citadel” that’s “bound to no man or government” and fights to keep the peace from the shadows. Unfortunately, the agents get burned on a routine op and lose their memories. The pair fight to remember who they are and who sold them out to Manticore, a rival spy network run by eight of the world’s wealthiest families, who surface only to wipe out Citadel in a day.
Executive produced by the Russo Brothers (AGBO), “Citadel” was written by the creative team of Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (under the Midnight Radio production company) and showrunner David Weil. A cross between “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “The Bourne Identity” in scope and tone, the series sports a hefty budget over $200 million and is the first in an international franchise with bankable stars that could spin off into smaller projects. A task that the Russo Brothers have plenty of experience with during their tenure at Marvel.
However, “Citadel” is not an adaptation of a comic book or fantasy novel. Instead, it’s the launch of a franchise based on an original premise. Although the six-episode series is already greenlit for a second season, the first three episodes shared with critics feel over-edited, predictable and rushed.
When we first meet Agents Sinh and Kane, they are on a European high-speed train on a seemingly routine op, with tech genius Bernard Orlick (Stanley Tucci) in their ear providing intel. Then, suddenly, Sinh is made, Manticore agents attack from seemingly everywhere, and the pair are thrown into the fight of their lives.
After an explosion that should have killed everyone on board, the pair are separated as Citadel’s secrecy is more important than the safety of their agents, a neural failsafe kicks in, erasing both agents’ memories.
Fast forward eight years and Kane is married with a child in Oregon, plagued by visions of his past life — including images of Sinh’s face, whom he doesn’t remember. When he pings the National DNA database in search of answers, Orlick finds him before Manticore and drags the memory deficient agent and his new little family to a safe house. Orlick urgently needs Kane back in the field to retrieve a stolen briefcase from Manticore headquarters that happens to hold the codes to the world’s nuclear arsenals — because of course it does.
Although Kane has retained his trained muscle memory, everything else about his personality lives on a biometric liquid stack, a la “Altered Carbon,” which unfortunately gets destroyed before he can use it. However, Sinh’s is intact, though her memory loss journey takes a different turn.
The race is on to find out who helped bring down the Citadel agency all those years ago, and to determine who their allies are while staying one step ahead of Manticore.
“Citadel’s” narrative is revealed in non-linear bits and pieces, jumping back and forth from flashbacks to the present. Although a portion of the series’ hefty price tag went to multiple stunning shooting locations, heavy color correction and post-lightning effects hamper its charm.
Despite the fun, fast-paced chase scenes and “John Wick”-style brutal fights, with nifty spy gadgets like retractable skis and exploding perfume, “Citadel” generally feels derivative of the action genre. The dialogue’s only purpose is to drive us to the next fight scene. Even the show’s MacGuffin feels forced.(Why would a top-level spy agency put every nuclear launch code for every country on the planet into one briefcase?)
Pacing is another issue. Frenetic with action scenes that often feel incomplete, the series often resorts to heavy exposition and banter-filled dialogue. So, for example, instead of seeing Kane and Sinh in situations where their linguistic skills might be beneficial to their characters, we are throttled with fast-paced conversations between them in seven languages right before heads start to roll.
And despite its talented cast, the characters feel underdeveloped and one-dimensional. Madden and Chopra-Jonas have moments of chemistry on screen, but their dialogue often feels predictable and resolute. Flashbacks reveal they’ve slept together, and there’s possibly more to it than passing physical attraction in close quarters. But we stay in the quiet moments too briefly to get a real sense of the characters’ true motivations, making it difficult to invest in their stories fully.
The exception is Tucci’s sardonic Orlick, who steals every scene he’s in and provides much-needed comic relief that’s rarely expressed by his co-stars — even if he’s not entirely trustworthy.
Unlike the earlier mentioned “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” or the recently released “Ghosted,” couple spy thrillers usually chew the scenery in their use of comedy. But “Citadel” takes itself very seriously, which the storyline doesn’t justify.
If this review seems conflicted, you would be correct. “Citadel” feels as if it’s trying to be too many things at once and unfortunately, creative differences, multiple reshoots and post-production retooling of the plot may have watered it down more than initially intended. Admittedly, it’s hard to judge an entire series on just three episodes, and “Citadel” has a lot of ground to cover the remaining three. We’ll have to see if the rest of the season delivers more depth to the story, but expect nothing groundbreaking.
“Citadel” premieres Friday, April 28, on Prime Video.