24: Redemption

The redemption referred to in the title of this made for TV movie prequel to Season 7 of 24 has perhaps less to do with the character of Jack Bauer and more with the moribund franchise itself. Though perpetually tortured and permanently scarred by the accumulation of horrible decisions he’s been forced to make in the name of protecting his country, Bauer himself has never seemed to be a man in need of any real salvation. Whatever sins he has committed have forever been for the greater good of his family, his colleagues, his count, and humanity as a whole; whatever suffering he has endured has been to save and redeem us; whatever flaws he appears to possess have been merely a result of our myopia (or that of short-sighted bureaucrats who are forever persecuting the only man who can save them in the end).

The series, on the other hand, stands in serious need of a serious salvage job. Once so fresh, exciting and topically relevant, especially upon its somewhat unfortunately coincidental post 9/11 premiere in 2001, by Season 6, 24 had finally fallen prey to its worst excesses and tired, overused tropes. The ramshackle, flying-by-the-seat-of-its-pants plotting — once the engine of the show’s white knuckle tension — had started to veer from acceptable, somewhat realistic terror-driven lunacy into full blown idiocy. But despite the forehead smacking unbelievability of all the shadowy back room conspiracies and Russian-nesting-doll-esque terrorist plots, these weren’t even the worst of its problems.

The equally lunatic/idiotic subplot arcs, at first the domain of Bauer’s forever imperiled daughter Kim, and then revolving around a string of newly introduced tertiary characters once she was mercifully shuffled off the show, found the series plummeting into soap opera worthy campiness. Introduced, presumably, as necessary filler to eat up all those empty minutes when Jack is sitting in traffic or taking a bathroom break (oh wait, no — actually, he goes during the commercial breaks, like the rest of us), these secondary stories of marginal utility always threatened to undermine the integrity, and worse, the tension, of a series that always wanted so desperately to be taken seriously.

And add to this the devolution of Bauer’s character from beleaguered everyman thrown into a never ending string of impossible situations in Season 1 to cartoonishly resourceful, impossible-to-stop-or-even- kill superman in the later seasons; add to this the cyclical recycling of terrorist plots (odd seasons, Eastern European; even seasons, Middle Eastern); add to this the creeping in of crypto-fascist politics; add to this the fetishistic use of brutal torture; add to this laughably incompetent fictional Counter Terrorist Unit (forever plagued by moles and openly susceptible to direct terrorist attacks, CTU has reportedly been permanently disbanded in upcoming Season 7 — five seasons too late, methinks); add to this… well, we could be here all day. But add all this up, and by the end of Season 6 it was hard to decide whether the show would collapse from exhaustion, or simply blow up from the powder keg of its accumulated outrageousness.

Perhaps sensing all this (what, just now?) the producers of 24 saw, with the run up to Season 7, the chance to reinvigorate, reimagine, and…um… redeem the show. If a total reboot was impossible at this point, things still could be changed enough to make it at least appear like the show was being given a fresh start. So, along with the jettisoning of CTU, the main theater of action will be moved from downtown Los Angeles (for a show that has always dealt with vast international cabals and politics of global terror, it’s always been bizarrely provincial) to Washington, DC and (if this film is to be trusted) Africa. So, a welcome change, of scenery, at least — which, hopefully, will not just be cosmetic, but merely portend deeper, structural changes to come.

And if Season 7 follows Redemption’s lead, the changes will manifest themselves in some much needed narrative tightening and coherence, as well as a welcome return to some topical relevance. Conceived both as a stand alone feature film and as a prequel to the upcoming season, Redemption is hampered with performing a tough double duty, and seems fated to be at odds with itself. And yet, it succeeds in the end with sloughing off the series’ creakiness and wiping the deck clean, while at the same time providing a succinct précis on what made the show so great to begin with.

The events depicted take place over a two hour span (as always, the events occur in “real time” — if only 24 could somehow free itself from this last, vestigial gimmick, though I guess it would change the show too drastically), switching back and forth between a fictional, war ravaged African nation and Washington, DC. In the former, we’re catching up with Jack Bauer, who, after traveling the world as a fugitive from justice (again!) after last season, has ended up at a school for poor children run by Benton (Robert Carlyle), an ex-Special Forces comrade.

Bauer is on the verge of departing for greener pastures, having been finally tracked down and issued a summons by an unctuous American agent, when local guerillas lays siege to the school in an attempt to roundup children soldiers for the growing army of a local warlord. Bauer has no choice but to remain, protect the children, and shepherd them to the safety of the US Embassy (which itself is under siege by the guerilla forces closing in). He does so with his usual dispatch, and it’s no great surprise that he succeeds against ridiculous odds, though at the cost of his freedom.

Meanwhile, in Washington, it’s Inauguration Day, and the first female President (Cherry Jones) is set to be sworn in. However, the events in the fictional African country are blowing up into an international crisis, and current President Daniels (Powers Boothe) refuses aid, even as the incoming President pleads with him to send US troops in to prevent genocide. Could Daniels be up to something here? And what does this have to do with a shadowy Jon Voigt, and some equally shadowy financial transactions that has already left one person who shouldn’t have known about them dead?

So, in other words, it’s classic 24, and it does do an adept job in setting things setting events in motion so the show can hit the ground running from the get go once the new season starts. And at the same time, the film is a refreshing change of pace, tending towards a slow burn of character development and dramatic build up at the beginning, rather than the overheated action heavy pressure cooker that it usually is. Bauer is given a chance to pause and reflect, for once, to rehumanize himself through his friendships both with his old Special Forces buddy and one of the children at the school.

The terror of the advancing guerilla army seems a much more realistic threat than any of the cartoonish baddies of the previous seasons. Once the action starts, it’s just as nutty as ever – Jack wiping out a whole platoon of ruthless soliders with a Beretta and a few sticks of dynamite – sure, why not? But just in the short time allotted to it, Redemption manages to locate an emotional center than had been missing from the show since…well, if not ever, since at least the first season.

And by focusing specifically on the fate of child soldiers specifically, and the fate of war torn Africa in general, 24 is at least moving in the right direction with its geopolitics, finally moving away from the isolationist free floating paranoia of the post-9/11 era, and moving back towards an America engaging the world. We’ll see how that plays out, but hopefully the specificity of the issues, the locating of its themes in the real world and not some fantasy realm, will help redeem a show that had become synonymous with increasingly out of touch politics.

24: Redemption’s two-disc DVD release contains both the 85-minute broadcast version, and a slightly longer 95-minute extended version. For review purposes, I watched the latter, so I can’t comment with any exactness on what scenes were added (the DVD unhelpfully does not indicate). I could suss out a few, I think, from watching the commentary track (more on which in a moment), but they seem to be mostly incidental, more character development scenes (one especially, between Powers Boothe and Cherry Jones, is notable for its intensity of two wonderful actors squaring off against one another in a battle of wills).

Along with the commentary track (featuring producer/director Jon Cassar, Kiefer Sutherland, and writer Howard Gordon) the DVD also contains a 20-minute behind the scenes featurette. In both, the overriding concern is with the weather, and the difficulty they had shooting on location in South Africa on a tight schedule. This weather obsession was puzzling at first, until I figured out (slowly — duh on my part) that shooting a real time show anywhere other than, say, Los Angeles (where it’s perpetually sunny and 70 degrees) must just be an absolute nightmare, from a consistency and continuity standpoint.

And sure enough, seconds later on the commentary track, Cassar noted how chimerical the weather in Africa was, and how the rain and the wind would disrupt everything on a daily basis, and points out all the scenes where they had to fudge the weather on screen versus the weather actually happening. Makes you realize exactly why they’ve forever kept the action in LA, and how much of a risk they are taking in setting the action elsewhere.

Other than that, the commentary and featurette mostly stay on point, talking specifically about production concerns and how great all the actors are, rather than straying into larger discussion of the show in general. Which, fine by them, I guess, and they probably want to bolster Redemption’s stand-alonedness as much as possible, but some mention of the show’s legacy and problems might have been nice, since it’s the whole reason for this endeavor.

The other major featurette is a 15-minute piece on child soldiers in Africa, featuring interviews with human rights advocates and academic experts on Africa, as well as readings of first hand narratives of child soldiers by the 24 cast. It’s a too brief introduction into what is a deeply complex, and deeply affecting, issue, but I guess its inclusion indicates some sort of renewed seriousness on the show’s part.

The best feature, by far though, is a four minute recap of the entirety of Season 6. Meant to catch everyone up from where the show left off, it’s actually a hilarious, rather brauva performance of opportunistic condensation and editing, in that it makes that wretched season appear much more coherent and entertaining that it actually was as it unfolded. I guess it’s telling that a whole season could be reduced down by nearly 99 percent and loose little if anything that is necessary. Perhaps a knowing wink of self-awareness from the 24 crew? I hope so.

RATING 6 / 10