Citadel – Prime Video's ambitious high-concept thriller is a blockbuster in disguise
★★★★ | Spy vs Spy vs Spy vs Spy vs Spy
You’ve got to admire the ambition.
Citadel, Prime Video’s big gamble, isn’t just a streaming series. It’s multiple spin-offs in a multimedia franchise the creators say will encompass the entire planet. That’s a lot to throw in on a series, let alone an untested property. And after watching a little over half of the first season of the flagship series, I’m not sure it warrants all the bravado – some of it, but not everything.
Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas, both in peak James Bond audition mode, are the main draw here. As a leading pair, they’re effortlessly charming and entirely believable as cocksure superstar agents finally face-to-face with an enemy they can’t beat. If the series succeeds, it’s on their star power, where the wattage can light up an entire city.
Not that Stanley Tucci, playing their handler and questionable friend, Bernard, is any worse. If anything, you need someone of his caliber to deliver much of the nonsense the exposition-heavy show requires. “Why would you trust me? I’m exceedingly untrustworthy; I’m a spy!”, he drawls in one of his many zingers.
But while Tucci can handle the dopey dialog with aplomb, the rest of the cast struggles with the clunky verbiage. Madden and Chopra Jonas do their best, but the script, mainly credited to showrunner David Weil, can’t find a tone, pace, or style it wants to stick with. Like Weil’s previous Prime Video series, Hunters, Citadel has a bad case of overwritten plot and underwritten characters. In a particularly awkward scene, one of the villains describes their job to a henchman so we can remember who they are in all this.
Not all of it flounders. Occasionally the series even subverts a trope or two in ways that reminds you why this genre is so much fun. The plethora of Bond callbacks are a hoot, and Madden and Chopra Jonas make for surprisingly cool action stars. You get a sense that, in even better hands, they could easily handle a big summer blockbuster like nobody’s business.
This makes Citadel occasionally a frustrating show to root for. Much of the first season is directed and shot by Newton Thomas Sigel, who made his career as a cinematographer. Visually, Citadel looks fantastic for the most part. Especially when it fully embraces the cheesy nature of spy versus spy. An early shot of Madden and Chopra Jonas back-to-back in a desperate battle is a particular highlight.
But Sigel struggles with staging action, which leads to incomprehensible editing that distracts from everything else. You get an idea of what’s happening; it would be nice to see it, too. In other places, whether because of scheduling or production issues, it feels like none of the main cast is in the same room together. (Take a look at an exchange between Tucci and Madden in a parked car, for instance.)
None of this ruins the series - so far, at least - but they are odd missteps in a production of this size. When the budget runs close to 200 million dollars, you want to get the most out of it, and sometimes that isn’t the case with Citadel.
And yet, I’ve seen the first half now three times. Once at home on a big screen TV, once on a laptop for notes, and once in a cinema. Each time has been a pleasure in its own way, and I wasn’t bored even on the third viewing. That's all that matters.
Citadel is not a perfect series. But it is a perfect foundation for something extremely entertaining and ambitious. It’s a big spectacle on the small screen that, for the most part, is as good as any blockbuster you’d see in theaters. If it powers through the growing pains, it could easily become a juggernaut for others to contend with.
Thanks for reading Toisto! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.