Monday, 10 January 2011

'HUMAN TARGET' 2.7 & 2.8 - "A Problem Like Maria" & "Communication Breakdown"

Monday, 10 January 2011

This loose two-parter was a welcome jolt of energy for a show that hasn't quite found its feet, following a half-successful revamp this season. Most surprisingly, it managed to turn Chance (Mark Valley) and Ilsa's (Indira Varma) simmering will-they/won't-they relationship into something more tangible and likable. It's still a shame the storylines amble down well-trodden paths, littered with cliches, unspooling largely uninspired plots, but the action and character moments took a noticeable step-up here.

In "A Problem Like Maria", Chance was reunited with old flame Maria Gellego (Leonor Varela), whom you may remember from season 1's "Salvage & Reclamation". She wanted Chance's help rescuing a friend held captive by her country's dictator Hector Lopez (Jordi Varela), but Ilsa wasn't happy about the operation into South America. Unfortunately, Ilsa had a rude awakening when her perceived authority as "the boss" was proven untenable, as Chance and his crew ignored her misgivings and mounted a rescue mission themselves. Of course, considering the fact even Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley) and Winston (Chi McBride) don't trust Maria, viewing her as a manipulative liar Chance needs to be steered away from, it all led to a particularly turbulent joint-operation.

I'm sure it's just coincidence, but Human Target episodes set in South America always manage to be a damn sight more entertaining than usual. Maybe it's simply because the production can replicate the continent's jungles fairly easily, and it gives everything a vague Indiana Jones feel that plays into Human Target's '80s-ness very well. Maria is essentially Chance's own Marian Ravenwood (she even gets into bar brawls), and it was great to see another callback to last season, following the return of Baptiste awhile back. Unfortunately, Maria's reprise wasn't as focused or interesting as I'd hoped for, perhaps because there are so many characters who need to be juggled in season 2. Maria wound up getting a little lost in the mix, making this episode her very own Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.

Still, it was great to see Guerrero get a bad-scene (pinning the armed Lopez's sleeves to a table using two hidden belt-daggers), rather than have the usual allusions to Guerrero's tough guy reputation and shady past. But I'm still unconvinced by new recruit Ames (Janet Montgomery), who's being written as an extremely irritating and uncouth "badgirl" type. In many ways she's the petulant child of the cast's family dynamic, which is fine, I wish they'd tone her down and deepen her personality. Right now, she isn't as funny or as relatable to audiences as I think she's supposed to be.

Overall, "A Problem Like Maria" was a big bundle of fun, mainly because everyone got involved and there were memorable moments throughout -- such as Winston's joy at finally getting to use a rocket launcher, which turned to dismay when he realized the instructions are in Hebrew. A climactic helicopter stunt, while hardly film-quality, was still a very decent sequence for a TV series, and I was pleased that Ilsa's obstinance was used as part of the story. She wasn't just a pain in the neck for the sake of giving her something to do on the sidelines; she had valid concerns about her role and the level of respect she has as the bankroller of this unique group's controversial activities.

WRITERS: Dan McDermott & Andrea Newman
DIRECTOR: Guy Ferland
TRANSMISSION: 5 January 2011, Fox, 9/8c
The second part of this double-bill was an interesting hour, as only the Chance/Ilsa subplot was a direct continuation from the preceding episode. Following the climax of "A Problem Like Maria", which saw Lopez avenge the death of his brother by shooting Ilsa's private jet down with a RPG, the episode opened with a rather exciting plane crash that Chance and Ilsa survived, before heading off into the jungle for safety. Shades of Romancing The Stone swept across Chance and Ilsa's situation, as they tried to make their way to civilisation through the brush, tracked by Lopez, before taking refuge in a cabin crawling with poisonous spiders and a corpse. There was a lovely scene that reverse genre convention, when Chance noticed a deadly spider on Ilsa's shoulder, told her to freeze as fear gripped his heart, only for Ilsa to calmly brush the arachnid off without a second's thought. A very funny switch of expectation.

Indeed, a sizable chunk of "Communication Breakdown" was intended to flesh-out Ilsa and change our perception of her. Like Chance, we've come to believe she's a bored widow happy to splash her dead husband's billions on a very boyish enterprise, but it turns out she had a rough upbringing in Northern Ireland during the Troubles (sporting the gunshot scars to prove it), before relocating to London and getting herself an education. I'm not sure I totally believe in that back-story, but it was still nice to see the show treating Ilsa as something more than a vapid, snooty, rich bitch.

In the San Francisco-based subplot, we got an entirely separate story involving Winston and Guerrero. Harry (Tony Hale), an incompetent lawyer they both know and find irritating, walked into their office seeking protection, following the collapse of a case he was working, which has made him a target of dangerous gangsters. Said bad guys had followed Harry to the team's HQ, intending to kill him, which meant Winston and Guerrero had to barricade themselves and think of a way to defeat the intruders. Unfortunately, Ames isn't answering their calls (busy sunning herself in a bikini while listening to her iPod), and Winston's pride means simply calling the cops isn't an option (a little implausible when the situation became life-and-death serious, but we'll let it slide.)

It's funny -- last season it could be argued that the guest stars got more screen time than the regulars, except for Chance, but the reverse is true this year. Tony Hale was pretty much wasted here, in a less forgivable way than Leonor Varela; both characters who lit the fuse of the week's adventure, then stepped back to comment on the ensuing mayhem and carnage. This episode was written by Human Target's developer Jonathan E. Steinberg, and marks the second time he's been involved with an episode that really soars. Maybe showrunner Matt Miller is kindly giving his predecessor key episodes to chew on, out of respect, or maybe Steinberg just has a natural way with this show? His episodes are often quite formulaic, and he still doesn't seem to see any value in Ames (keeping her at arm's length until she became a bikini-clad plot-device at the end), but "Communication Breakdown" was nevertheless very entertaining work and, at times, gripping.

In particular, Human Target suddenly found real emotional impact during its final act, with Ilsa returning home and being attacked by Lopez, after he forced her to raise the alarm with Chance to draw his brother's killer into his midst. The intercutting of Chance's race across town to Ilsa's house, with shots of Ilsa struggling with Lopez, were very nicely edited. The resolution, with Ilsa tarnishing her innocence by shooting Lopez dead in the chest, seconds before Chance arrived, was an effective climax -- signalling the moment Ilsa gets blood on her hands. I get the feeling she won't be quite so interfering or carry the same air of superiority in future, now she knows what it's really like to mix in Chance's world.

Overall, these were two strong hours of Human Target, only letdown by humdrum plots and poorly-used guest stars. The action sequences were highlights, there was a grander sense of occasion to everything, Chance/Ilsa really started to click together (finally!), and it managed to throw a surprisingly good punch in its tense climax.

What did you think?

WRITER: Jonathan E. Steinberg
DIRECTOR: Steve Boyum
TRANSMISSION: 5 January 2011, Fox, 10/9c