[This is a review of the series premiere of Crossbones. There will be SPOILERS]
When a legendary two-time Academy Award-nominated actor like John Malkovich (RED 2) decides to take part in a new pirate series - Crossbones, written and created by Luther's Neil Cross, as well as James V. Hart and Amanda Welles - one must take notice.
As talented as this Illinois native is, it's difficult for Malkovich to simply "disappear" into a role, due to his charismatic gravitas on screen and his instantly recognizable face. Like Denzel Washington, he simply devours every acting particle around him, leaving anyone standing in his path with the difficult task of matching his performance (or in the terminology of this series, finding the strength to stand toe-to-toe with the devil himself).
Fortunately, NBC and executive producer Cross have found a counterpart worthy of Malkovich in Richard Coyle (Prince of Persia). This multifaceted Russell Crowe lookalike refuses to cower in the presence of greatness, and at times stands as Malkovich's equal. If the premiere is any indication, these two men will be the cornerstone that prevents Crossbones from crumbling to pieces. But will they be enough to keep the series afloat?
Crossbones also succeeds in its development of a compelling plot. Without going for the most obvious choice of a lost treasure or some powerful relic from the Aztec Empire, Cross, Hart and Welles decide to focus on a navigational device that will give its owner the power of longitude.
In an era before global positioning satellites, successfully navigating the open seas was one of the greatest treasures on earth. The reason for Blackbeard's obsession to obtain this device is still unclear - and perhaps it will ultimately be used for discovering buried treasure, but that seems unlikely. As with BBC's critically acclaimed series Luther, Cross appears to be telling a more personal tale of the legend of Blackbeard. Gold trinkets and ancient artifacts would be trivial compared to unlocking the mind of one of the world's most infamous pirates.
Sure, there's a scene where Blackbeard is visited by "The Woman in White" (Aimee Mullins). But are his visions merely brought on by headaches, as Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle) suggests, or is there something larger at stake? Is she a former lover perhaps? There's no denying Blackbeard's flair for the dramatic, but does his eccentric behavior warrant him the title of devil? There's another player is this story who could turn out to be even more sadistic.
The lovely Lebanese actress Yasmine Al Massri (Caramel) plays the ruthless Selima El Sharad, who's willing to torture and kill for the information she seeks. It's still unclear if she wants the navigational device all to herself or if her fate is tied to Blackbeard's. In a television landscape starved for strong leading women, Massri is a welcomed sight. Her beauty is matched by not only her ferocity, but her intelligence as well. She will undoubtedly leave a lasting image in your mind if you decide to give this series a chance. Sadly, the rest of the Crossbones ensemble is not so memorable.
It's not that the rest of the cast is bad, it's just that none of them possess the charisma of Malkovich, Massri, or Coyle. Fortunately, the trio of writers seem to be developing a story on a microscopic scale, so Crossbones may not need a sprawling cast of characters like HBO's Game of Thrones. If that scenario ends up holding true, then this troupe is plenty capable of carrying this story well into its first season and possibly beyond.
Another weakness of the show is the budding romance between Tom Lowe and Kate (Claire Foy). Instead of focusing on something so obvious, the writers should be guiding his ship toward the exploration of the "bromance" between Blackbeard and Lowe.
The concerns listed above are simply nitpicking at a premiere that was convincing in cementing itself as the potential standout show of the summer. Crossbones may lack the nudity and profanity of its cable counterpart Black Sails, but it's not worse off for it. Without the moral freedoms of a premium network like Starz, Neil Cross, James V. Hart and Amanda Welles have had to make their leading men and women the focus of their new project, and for the most part they've succeeded. Even with the slitting of throats and marauding of vessels, Crossbones is subtler in its attempt to draw the audience in.
The question now becomes, where will you get your pirate fix from? Is Black Sails more your cup of tea, or is NBC's journey to the 'Devil's Dominion' a more enticing adventure? Keep watching to see where Crossbones takes us next time.
Crossbones continues with 'The Covenant' next Friday @10pm on NBC.
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