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Citadel review: Priyanka Chopra is the best thing about the show

The Russos keep increasing the stakes, the pace, the size of the explosions, but there is very little that feels intelligent, or sharp, or surprising

Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra in 'Citadel'
Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra in 'Citadel'

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(The first two episodes were given for review)

They flirt on a train. Him in a black suit, tie-less, top shirt buttons flung open with studied coolth. Her in a sensational scarlet dress we first see from behind as she finds her seat. These are objectively attractive people but—in their first conversation in Amazon Prime’s globe-hopping spy series Citadel—they speak super weird. He starts off in Italian, they exchange passive-aggressive welcomes in English, then she moves to Mandarin, and when he replies, she replies in German, then she moves to Spanish. Is this banter sponsored by Google Translate?

Obviously, this makes no sense. For two international operatives, who clearly know each other, to show off linguistic skills while trying to play-act as strangers is incredibly silly—and indiscreet. Subtlety, however, has never been the strongest suit of directors Joe and Anthony Russo. Citadel is the kind of splashy, cliche-ridden spy series where everyone seems to be auditioning for a Bond film (or at least a Bourne film) but there is a severe lack of wit to this enterprise. Characters repeat themselves. Meanings are underlined. Every thought feels like it came from a better film.

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Priyanka Chopra, who has been training to be an action heroine ever since Don and Quantico, amps up her badass-ery as she brutalises enemies galore in the new series. There’s hand-to-hand combat, high kicks, impressive gun control—all while keeping it breathy. Always breathy. I genuinely wonder if Chopra, who sounds sensual throughout the series (while worried, threatening or coy) can utter a non-seductive sentence any more. That said, she’s merely embracing the genre and being arch—think back to Roger Moore making a meal out of every line in the James Bond films—and she’s doing it well. Chopra rocks the show.

The show itself, however, is rockier than it needs to be. There’s some cockamamie plot about spies—from the titular organisation Citadel—who have had their memories wiped out. Chopra’s Nadia and Richard Madden’s Mason are, therefore, finding their way back to form while on the run, chasing elusive briefcases and being targeted by a deliciously disdainful Lesley Manville.

The Russo brothers, once directors—but not, it must be noted, writers—on highly creative ensemble comedies like Arrested Development and Community, found their feet in the Marvel universe, having a blast with Captain America and The Avengers—again, characters they did not create. Now, trying to put together their own blockbuster franchises, their struggle is evident. The Gray Man, a Netflix actioner starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas, had a ton of action but not one line worth quoting. And Citadel feels like a B-movie turned into a mega-budget series.

Addicted to spectacle, the Russos constantly feel the need to announce how big they are. When a potential target asks Chopra if she’s CIA or MI6, her reply is scornful and immediate: “Do I look like a woman who plays for the minor leagues?” This is the Russo way of announcing that she’s more than Bond, better than Bond—but it feels double-o-desperate.

Also flat are the show’s few and faltering attempts at humour. At one point, Madden says: “We’re two guys in a van with a briefcase. We’re the plot of Dumb & Dumber.” It’s not a bad line from a wry operative, but here it’s coming from a man who doesn’t know who he actually is, and who has just been told his wife and daughter are in mortal danger. It also doesn’t help that Madden, whom most people know from a memorable wedding on Game Of Thrones, sounds very generic as an American character and I do hope he says “dude” less often as the show goes along.

Because — I confess — I might watch Citadel anyway. It’s interesting to see such extravagant scale in a television series and despite the lack of imaginative flair, I may go along for the ride—if only because of Manville and Stanley Tucci (who looks distinctly bored) and, of course, Priyanka Chopra. Her screen presence has only gotten more compelling, and, like any true-blue superstar, she shoulders the feeble writing. Now if only she could tell the creators how the name Singh should be spelt.

The truly interesting thing about Citadel is not the show but the promise: this is a multiple-language series, with a Citadel to be set in Italy and a Citadel to be set in India (starring Samantha Ruth Prabhu and Varun Dhawan, created and directed by Farzi makers Raj & DK) and we will, therefore, have interlinked crisscrossing localised Citadels, taking audiences from one language to the next, trying to bring together a truly global audience. (Perhaps that’s why they were flirting in many tongues?)

What the Russos may not realise is that volume is not always the answer. We still love Bond — and, more importantly, keep going back to old Bond films—not because of the set-pieces but the character. Ah well. At least the action looks big and the star looks good. Priyanka Chopra might have wanted her own Bond film but at the very least she has her own Pathaan.

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Streaming tip of the week:

As books by beloved, long-dead authors keep getting censored by publishers holding old words to new and evolving standards, it’s a good time to watch Judy Blume Forever (Amazon Prime). The new documentary celebrates the groundbreaking and controversial writer who broke taboos for young-adult readers.

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