CBS’ update of Hawaii Five-0 begins with a big-budget action sequence. A subtitle tells us that we’re in South Korea (although the landscape marks it quite obviously as being filmed in, yes, Hawaii), and we meet Steve McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin), right in the middle of a prisoner transfer. Said prisoner is an Irish terrorist, and the terrorist’s big brother Victor Hesse (James Marsters) wants him freed. Hesse calls McGarrett’s cell phone for some fruitless negotiating that also allows Hesse’s associates to trace McGarrett’s phone. Before you know it, helicopters are firing missiles and blowing up military jeeps in a series of spectacular explosions, and both Hesse’s brother and McGarrett’s father back home in Honolulu end up dead.
Smartly staged by director Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Hard, the Underworld franchise) this opening is fast-paced and technically impressive. Stuff blows up real good and the bullets fly as U.S. soldiers and black-clad terrorists face off. It’s a less effective introduction to McGarrett. And the rest of Hawaii Five-0‘s premiere episode suffers from the same problem. We know from the first scene that McGarrett is a military badass, cool under intense pressure. And… that’s about it.
McGarrett grumbles his way through Honolulu, where’s just been assigned. He argues with local detective Danny Williams (Scott Caan) and generally acts like a jerk to everyone he meets. This intense, taciturn soldier can work in an action movie setting, but the lead in an ongoing series needs to be more complicated—or at least vaguely appealing. He does have a long list of credentials, as well as a family history on Oahu. We get to hear it all in the episode’s second scene, when Hawaii Governor Pat Jameson (Jean Smart) rattles it off while meeting him for the first time. She’s attempting to recruit him to lead an anti-terrorist task force on the islands, but he’s not interested.
Until he is. Five minutes later, Williams refuses to let him leave his father’s house (currently a crime scene) with a toolbox full of vital information and McGarrett calls the Governor to accept the job, solely to lay claim to the box. The rest of the episode zips around the city as McGarrett and Williams follow up leads, trying to catch Hesse before he escapes the island. Along the way, the new partners pick up a couple of other team members, wrongly disgraced ex-cop Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim) and his niece, Kona Kalakaua (Grace Park), who is still a week away from graduating from the police academy. We learn only the scantest bits about Chin Ho, who is frustrated by his situation but retains a network of underworld informants, and Kona, a short-tempered martial artist who, um, likes to surf in bikinis.
These pithy introductions underline that Hawaii Five-0‘s first episode is most interested in plot and action, set against beaches and mountains. At least one team member, Williams, isn’t thrilled by all the beauty. A proud city boy from New Jersey who only moved to Honolulu to be close to his young daughter (living with his ex), he actively dislikes the Hawaiian paradise and isn’t too pleased to be partnered with McGarrett, either. Caan plays exasperated very well, and he’s responsible for the episode’s moments of levity.
Still and again, levity is not the point here. That first Korean sequence sets the standard, and the rest of the episode provides solid, well-choreographed action and tension, including a scene where Kona goes undercover and is immediately suspected of being a cop. Yet, the episode’s best sequence may be its most low-key. McGarrett and Williams sneak up on a suspect in his rundown trailer home and the plan goes to hell. A few things happen seemingly at once: as the suspect’s girlfriend leaves in a post-argument huff, McGarrett tries to catch the suspect inside the trailer, and the suspect bursts through a window to escape. It’s a testament to the show’s attention to detail that the suspect actually shoots out the window first, instead of just jumping through it.
Other details are a mixed bag. Hawaii Five-0‘s legendary theme song is reduced here to 30-second blip (though it’s a big improvement over the chunky, guitar-heavy edition available when the pilot was first screened for critics back in May). That effort to seem “contemporary” carries over into the plot too: the new task force has “immunity” from the Governor to do whatever it takes to catch the bad guys, the better to keep up with shows like 24, one presumes. They aren’t just detectives, they’re a special arm of the law that doesn’t have to adhere to “procedure” and “regulations.” And they get to wake up every morning to that dramatic backdrop.