'Last Resort'

Into the Heart of Something

by Lesley Smith

27 September 2012

Last Resort’s rudimentary entertainment derives almost wholly from Martin Campbell’s direction. He uses shot size and framing to amp up the meaning of dialogue, and as often pulls back from a moment of tension as he zooms in.

Arc of Sensation

cover art

Last Resort

Director: Martin Campbell
Cast: Andre Braugher, Scott Speedman, Daniel Lissing, Daisy Betts, Camille de Pazzis, Saur Ngaujah, Autumn Reeser, Jessy Schram, Dichen Lachman, Robert Patrick
Regular airtime: Thursdays, 8pm

US: 27 Sep 2012

Someone’s starting World War III. Maybe it’s the Admiral who ordered the cruise missile strike on the submarine Colorado where his daughter’s an officer. Maybe it’s the White House, whose minions’ disembodied voices echo tinnily around the Colorado’s command level, urging obedience to baffling orders. Maybe it’s the taciturn SEAL picked up by the Colorado, who speaks in riddles until he moans, “It was me, it was me.” Or maybe it’s the Colorado’s captain, Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher), who morphs from loyal servant of the US of A to nuke-firing survivalist in the course of a day.

All this is plenty of plot for a big summer movie or even a miniseries. For the pilot episode of a weekly network series—Last Resort‘s first hour, airing 27 September—it’s just a start. The show also introduces a mysterious prototype of something that may, or may not, have something to do with the war, a conveniently multicultural tropical island, and, of course, a palm-fringed bar. Where else would this collection of oddballs have a chance to mingle? 

Last Resort’s opener crams in so many conspiracy clichés that the potential spoilers above reveal nothing a sharp viewer wouldn’t anticipate after a few minutes of watching. To their credit, the entire cast handles the exposition-laden dialogue and inept changes of mood with composure, if not always conviction, and the show includes standout performances from both Braugher and Robert Patrick, as Master Chief Joseph Prosser. While the Colorado on screen is not quite as cramped as a real nuclear sub, veteran TV and film director Martin Campbell captures succinctly the claustrophobic intimacy that infuses almost any encounter in a sub’s narrow corridors, restricted quarters, and bare bones work stations. But nothing suggests that walking through every plot point here was actually necessary. A two-minute voice-over would just as easily have brought the Colorado and crew to the island as global outcasts hunted by the world’s most powerful military.

Braugher, as always, brings resonance to any character he inhabits. He finds an inner dignity for Chaplin that he conveys through the captain’s lack of haste, his slow change of expression, and his physical bulk. (Campbell’s decision to shoot Braugher from a slightly low angle throughout amplifies the physicality of his presence.) As Chaplin begins to abandon military rational for his actions and focus more and more on what he interprets as his duty to his crew and his country, this framing also amplifies Chaplin’s potential threat to the safety, and even lives, of his crew. Braugher captures the implacable calm of a man who knows he is right, a calm that might slide as easily into irrationality as triumphant command.

On the other hand, Robert Patrick brings to Prosser, chief of the enlisted crew on the Colorado, a whippet-like intensity. He slips from scene to scene, always listening, always probing for new information, and is neither cowed nor disturbed by clashes with officers. He also carries with élan the burden of being the one lead character who has to be sexist. The same energy that lets him call Lieutenant Grace Shepard (Daisy Betts), “You little bitch” deflects her tight-lipped retort, “It’s you little bitch, Lieutenant!”

The confidence of these performances highlights the more perfunctory work from the rest of the cast, particularly those playing the crew of the Colorado, and its restive cargo of SEALs, with whom the pilot spends most time. While Betts, Scott Speedman (as second–in-command XO Sam Kendall), Daniel Lissing (SEAL James King) and Sahr Ngaujah (island boss Julian Serat) deliver their lines and strike their poses, they all seem to fall into that group of late 20s and early 30s actors who move from TV show to movie, and back to TV show again. They’re always competent, if never outstanding, and seem doomed to inhabit interchangeable characters who orbit around the one or two stars hooked into a series.

With so little else compelling attention, Last Resort’s rudimentary entertainment derives almost wholly from Campbell’s direction. He uses shot size and framing to amp up the meaning of dialogue, and as often pulls back from a moment of tension as he zooms in. When the scene needs to be dark, the lighting never descends to the muddy obscurity of most TV shows. At the same time, his shooting of Braugher suggests his tendency to tip the show’s hand, whether driven by the limitations of his raw material or a justifiable fear that viewers may well be seriously lost. By the last third of the show, shots of Braugher are recalling shots of Queeg, for better or for worse, implications not lost on Braugher himself, who also tosses into the mix both Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies. But where these texts famously meditate on morality and pragmatism, power and generosity, Last Resort stumbles into a Michael Bay-like arc of sensation punctuated by functional dialogue.

As the first episode ends, we’re left with lingering questions. Why did ABC greenlight Last Resort? Why did Emmy-nominee producer and writer Shawn Ryan plunge off the realist reservation? How did the man who swept the BAFTAs as director of the TV-thriller game changer, Edge of Darkness, lend his talents to this drivel? Who okayed a pilot that jimmied almost every twist of Lost’s entire run into a single TV hour? And why, oh why, did Andre Braugher sign up? I don’t have answers, but I I have a suggestion: skip the pilot and go for the edited highlights courtesy of Entertainment Weekly‘s PopWatch. Life is too short to spend time actually watching Last Resort.

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//Mixed media