I seem to be about the only person who isn’t completely enamoured by ITV’s new crime thriller mini-series Prey, and I’m not entirely certain why that should be. It certainly has some very strong aspects to it, but overall I’m left feeling rather cool and somewhat unengaged by it while critics all around me are swooning into its arms.
The story by TV newcomer Chris Lunt centres on police detective Marcus Farrow (John Simm) who finds himself arrested for a bloody killing he didn’t commit. Convinced he’s being framed because of his investigation into the case of a long-dead Turkish gangster, he goes on the run to solve that murder and by extension also the one he’s accused of, and has to evade his own former colleagues in the process. That gives rise to a hybrid drama, part all-action thriller and part crime procedural which is unusual for British productions but not so much in the wider scheme of things – the most obvious forebear being the TV and film versions of The Fugitive, but there’s also strong hints of 24 and the Bourne films in both the premise and the execution.
Overall it’s the movie adaptation of The Fugitive which seems most apt here. The character of DI Susan Reinhardt (Rosie Cavaliero) appears to be on a similar arc to Tommy Lee Jones’ Oscar-winning turn as the US marshall: she starts off completely unwilling to even consider that she’s got the wrong man for the bloody murder and tunes out Farrow’s protestations and pleas, but by the middle of episode two she’s starting to have second thoughts and her eyes are beginning to open. Her focus is no longer on the pursuit of the escaped Farrow but on looking deeper into the underlying facts – something that she should really have done at the outset before precipitiously charging him with murder, you would have thought. But then one of the show’s undoubted strengths is the very human and deeply flawed character of Reinhardt, a markedly unsympathetic character very well played and brought to life by Cavaliero.
That said, this is still very much Simm’s show as it focuses on his character’s desperation to stay out of the hands of the police and solve the whodunit. There’s an extended scene in the first episode where he’s informed about a death, and he is called upon to lay bear his naked grief at what he’s being told without saying a single word – and what you get is genuinely a candidate for the best acting you’ll see on screen in 2014. Not that we should be surprised by Simm’s talent by now, but just every now and then he goes so far above and beyond what you think is possible that you’re just slapped in the face all over again by how good he really is.
Also very well done are the chase sequences, usually shot on fast-moving hand-held cameras as if aping one of those true life police documentary shows. That allows them to shoot in crowded real-life locations in Manchester such as train stations (much like Paul Greengrass was able to do at London Waterloo for The Bourne Ultimatum) and there’s a dizzying, visceral sense of danger and terror to these sequences that will likely keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.
Unfortunately all these bravura chases (ably orchestrated by director Nick Murphy) do rather take over the show and the underlying mystery of the dead gangster is somewhat lost in the final mix, the volume dialled down too low. Essentially it comes down to something about some old computer floppy discs; pretty much everyone around Farrow starts to look or behave in a guilty fashion, so that when a new suspect comes up who had previously looked like being one of the good guys, you’re not surprised. They had to come under suspicion sooner or later after all, it’s that type of story.
For me, the lack of substance to the underlying mystery is what leaves me feeling less than fully engaged with the events. It’s certainly no Line of Duty to which it inadvertently invites parallels by casting Craig Parkinson in a key role as Farrow’s former partner and best friend, despite how good he is at essaying a completely different if still untrustworthy character here. Yes, I can marvel at the chase sequences and Farrow’s ability to evade near-certain capture time and again, but this sort of rinse-and-repeat gets old fast if there’s too little underneath it. I counted at least six times in the second episode when the police were almost literally within touching distance of their man, only for Farrow to once again achieve a stunning ‘with one bound he was free’ escape. That made it start to feel somewhat repetitive and as a result somewhat thin underneath.
There are other quibbles that have been niggling away at me as I’ve watched, everything from why Reinhardt was so quick to charge a fellow police officer with murder despite no hard proof that he had committed the crime, to how the police can be so impossibly efficient one minute (a full armed response team arrives on scene two minutes after a phone tip-off) to completely dopey the next (Farrow walks out of the cordoned-off scene in full view of uniformed officers without anyone spotting him, even though seemingly everyone else has previously.) There’s one sequence where Farrow goes to great lengths to lay a false trail to distract the police, only for Reinhardt’s team to immediately torpedo it by finding exactly the right piece of CCTV footage and also seeing through a (rather good) disguise without any problem despite the blurry black-and-white quality. Basically, the police team’s wildly fluctuating capabilities seem entirely connected with the need to put Farrow in jeopardy as many times as possible while still having them dumb enough to let him slip away time and again.
That’s no different from any number of similar thrillers, of course – although the sheer frequency of how many times this happens in rapid succession is arguably what makes it a more conspicuous problem for me here. The suspension of disbelief required ends up clashing with the (slightly wearing) The Thick Of It-style documentary realism ambitions of the director in the non-chase sections, so that the end result is not quite consistently authentic enough for me to be swept along with it by the adrenalin rush as I need to be to make this really work.
In other words, it’s no 24, the show that in its heyday was always the grand master of making incredibly hokey and unbelievably overcooked action sequences hold together in an utterly gripping way. And by coincidence, this week 24 returns after a four-year hiatus, with a shorter 12-part miniseries entitled “Live Another Day” in which Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is in London trying to avert the assassination of a US President on foreign soil, with all the diplomatic fallout that this would inevitably entail.
There would be no 24 without Sutherland of course, and while still astonishingly fit he’s starting to get that ‘painstakingly preserved’ look common among leading men of a certain age in Los Angeles. But there are some familiar faces around him from series past in support, from the welcome return of Mary Lynn Rajskub as hacker Chloe O’Brian to the promotion of William Devane’s James Heller, previously Secretary of Defence and now President of the United States. It’s also good to see Kim Raver return as his daughter (and Bauer’s former love) Audrey Raines, while there’s a strong new all-star supporting cast that incorporates Benjamin Bratt, Tate Donovan, Michelle Fairley, Stephen Fry, Colin Salmon, Gbenga Akinnagbe, and Chuck and Dexter star Yvonne Strahovski as CIA agent Kate Morgan.
In many ways what we get is pure, classic 24, although the strict one-day real-time conceit has been cut down to size this time making for a leaner, tighter affair that is really quite welcome after some previous seasons of the show that really struggled to stretch things out to full term. It’s amazing how quickly all the same components come together: how familiar the political aides all scheming around the President in the US Embassy seem, how efficiently the CIA’s London field office stands in seamlessly for the now-defunct CTU of old, with just a few modern trappings in the form of drones and Snowden-esque hacking collectives to bring things bang up to date. The episode starts in mid-action, with a CIA team tracking down Bauer who has been a fugitive on the run for years, which leads to a chase sequence through an East London street market culminating in a showdown on the banks of the Thames. Other than swapping London for Manchester, the only difference between this and Prey is that Bauer ends up getting caught. Only Agent Morgan wonders how this actually happened, since Bauer normally runs rings around them; it’s almost like he wanted to get caught or something…
What’s most surprising about the 24 mini-reboot is the difference that a location can make. The early seasons of the show were all situated in Los Angeles before the show moved to Washington DC and New York in later years, but that switch never seemed to make much difference to the end product – all the places ended up feeling very much the same ‘generically American’ on screen. However, transposing not only cities but also countries has been a true tonic for the show, and the 24 of London is intoxicatingly different from that of the past. There’s a different look, feel, even smell to all the scenes shot on location on the streets (and less salubrious back streets) of the capital, and the 24 team have clearly been studying the Paul Greengrass playbook on how to make local colour and texture an invaluable part of the end result on screen. Maybe American audiences won’t appreciate it as much as I do, but the sight of the iconic Jack Bauer rampaging through London was peculiarly thrilling to me as someone who has lived and worked here for over 20 years. It’s almost like seeing the best possible big budget American episode of Spooks.
The net result is that I shouldn’t like 24: Live Another Day nearly as much as I do, especially given that I’d found the original series getting tired and well past its sell-by date by the time it got to the end of its eighth and final season. But I do nonetheless, which surprises me almost as much as having to admit that for all its clear hallmarks of quality, Prey just isn’t as successful at doing the same job for me.
Prey finishes its three-part run on Monday May 12 at 9pm on ITV. 24: Live Another Day airs on Sky One on Wednesdays st 9pm and will be released on DVD on October 6, 2014.