‘Citadel’ Review: Amazon’s Ambitious Espionage Thriller Is Better Off Being Silly

Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas star as international spies in the Russo brothers' lowbrow, big-budget bid to launch a global TV franchise.
Citadel Amazon Prime Video series Priyanka Chopra Jonas
Priyanka Chopra Jonas in "Citadel"
Courtesy of Prime Video

Mason Kane is confused. Sitting in a parked van outside a gleaming New York City skyscraper, Mason’s new friend Bernard Orlick (Stanley Tucci) is trying to reassure him that the task at hand is simple. All Mason has to do is walk into the building, pick up a briefcase, and leave. Any further details are unnecessary because Bernard will be feeding him instructions via an earpiece the whole time. Still… Mason (Richard Madden) has questions. A lot of questions, though arguably fewer than he should, considering just a few hours ago, he thought his name was Kyle Conroy. He had a wife and a daughter. He lived in Oregon. He had a few weird dreams from time to time, but he was happy. Then Bernard showed up and blew all that to hell. Turns out, Kyle’s name is actually Mason Kane, he used to be a spy for an elite independent international agency, and he doesn’t remember any of it because eight years ago, he was in a train accident that caused near-total amnesia. Oh, and that building he’s about to walk into? It’s the headquarters of his agency’s sworn enemy, so everyone inside wants to kill him.

See? You’d have questions, too. Like, “What is the actual plan here?” or “How am I supposed to avoid getting shot?” or “Why didn’t we fly from Oregon to New York, instead of driving a beat-up old Chevy across the country?” But, whether you are Mason or you’re just watching him in Amazon Prime Video’s new series, “Citadel,” it’s best not to ask those questions. Your ideal course of action is to follow Bernard’s terse advice and go along for the ride, no matter how foolish or suicidal or unnecessarily long it may seem.

To be fair, “Citadel” isn’t long — it’s fairly quick about its whole world-saving business. Season 1 is just six episodes. Each of the first three are no more than 40 minutes long. Characters bounce from one side of the country to the other, or even one side of the world to the next, in mere seconds. Plenty more actions once thought impossible are accepted as reasonable, even commonplace, without much more than a quizzical head tilt by way of explanation, all of which speaks to just how, let’s say, efficient the spy series proves to be.

Does it make sense? Not really. Does it look slick and polished, like a $200-million action-thriller should? Eh. But does it have everyone’s favorite mixologist acting with maximum sass? Does it land just enough jokes to endear you to these otherworldly hotties pulling off impossible missions? Does it set the table for the kind of absurd twists and dumbfounding secrets inherent to a show about professional liars? Yes, yes, and yes. “Citadel” often tries to be good — and by “good,” I mean it tries to take its innately absurd story far too seriously. But from its essentials-only narrative to maximalist action and cheeky sense of humor, there’s enough stupid-fun to be had that you’ll get your money’s worth, even if I can’t say the same for Amazon.

Let’s back up a bit. “Citadel” starts eight years in the past, when Mason still has all his memories. Onboard the fateful train, he meets up with Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas), a fellow spy and former partner, perhaps in more than just work. The two exchange prickly-yet-affectionate banter before their target is on the move, and our flirtatious agents are forced into pursuit. Guns are drawn, punches thrown, melees melee’d, but when it’s all said and done, Nadia and Mason learn there’s a new bad guy in town, and the good guys are screwed.

Eight years later, Nadia is in the wind (presumed dead, but come on) and Mason doesn’t remember he’s Mason anymore. Manticore (the bad guys) destroyed Citadel — the independent and international spy agency both agents were working for — and Bernard is thought to be the only member still standing. Luckily, he discovers Mason is still alive just in time to avert an emerging crisis… or so they hope.

Citadel Amazon prime video Richard Madden Stanley Tucci
Richard Madden and Stanley Tucci in “Citadel”Courtesy of Prime Video

The premiere, written by no less than five adult men, sums all this up in a neat little package. Despite all the fresh lingo to learn and names (real and fake) to track, audiences should have no issue keeping up. The two main characters are spies. They may or may not (but absolutely do) have the hots for each other. Someone is always trying to kill them, because bad guys do bad things.

Still, I wouldn’t blame anyone who shuts off “Citadel” mid exposition dump, as five-time Emmy winner Stanley Tucci drops five straight minutes of backstory that, in case it’s not clear who you should be rooting for, includes grainy pictures of our stars next to news headlines that just say “GOOD.” Also irritating are the blown-out VFX backgrounds, over-cut action scenes, and grayed-out images meant to convey gravitas — not to mention a basic story that any 10-year-old could’ve come up with on the playground. (“There’s a bunch of good spies — the best spies in the world — and a bunch of bad spies, and they fight! Nuclear codes! Explosions! Yuck, not too much kissing, though.”)

But there’s also glee in watching actors, both great and good, commit to such juvenile bits. Lesley Manville — yes, “Mrs. Harris” herself! — is the villain! She makes obscene threats while tending her garden and conducts brutal torture over high tea! Tucci ensures every rousing line sounds like it’s ad-libbed, dropping in peculiar commentary just for the hell of it, and even Richard Madden, human jawline, settles into a flummoxed repartee that’s just charming enough. Chopra Jonas fares even better, recognizing each stock piece of dialogue and either throwing it away or shifting the inflection to keep the words from sounding too rote.

Now is when I note that “Citadel” isn’t just another serialized espionage thriller where good guys try to save the world from bad guys. (Though it does literally include the line, “We’re the good guys.”) In the words of Amazon Prime Video’s press release, this season marks the first chapter in a “landmark global franchise.” Creators Josh Appelbaum, Bryan Oh, and David Weil, along with executive producers Joe and Anthony Russo, envision multiple series stemming from “Citadel,” with each spinoff or sequel or “interconnected story” being filmed “in-region.” The next chapters are already shooting in Italy and India, with more countries and characters to be tied in as the franchise develops, all to establish Prime Video’s original, wholly owned, worldwide “Citadel” television universe.

…assuming these first six episodes are a success. Amazon has already renewed the original “Citadel” for a second season, and it’s clear from the first half of Season 1 how this story can be expanded to other territories. But it’s a bit murkier why even those with a favorable response to Mason and Nadia’s missions would be eager to jump into another series based in the same world. A second season? Maybe, but “Citadel” isn’t exactly special. It’s a glossed-up action series with gadgets and twists and spectacle, but its conventional to its core. The unique elements (if you can call them that) aren’t easily expanded upon, since they’re in the performances, the quippy dialogue, and, most of all, just how silly this whole thing seems. Your emotional investment can and should be minimal, even when Amazon’s financial investment was not.

Typically, franchises are built because audiences are invested in the world, the characters, or their own nostalgia. “Citadel” is enjoyable mainly because it’s so disposable. Maybe that will change in the back-half of its debut season, but I hope not. Rather than pivoting further into drama, “Citadel” seems better suited for stacking extreme shenanigans on top of extreme shenanigans — no questions asked.

Grade: C

“Citadel” premieres Friday, April 28 on Amazon Prime Video with two episodes. New episodes will be released weekly through May 26, the Season 1 finale.

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