In the first episode of Prime Video’s new action series “The Terminal List,” Chris Pratt’s Cmdr. James Reece guides his fellow Navy SEALs on an in-and-out mission to Syria that goes horribly wrong. It’s as if people were waiting for him. Was it a set-up? The only man who survives with Reece is his buddy Boozer, who flies back with Reece and then dies days later of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Or was he murdered? Was Boozer even on that plane? Reece listens to audio recordings from the attack, and the recordings aren’t at all how he remembered it. Could they be deep fakes? Then, when Reece is getting his brain scanned, the lab is attacked by masked men who try to kill Reece, but thankfully he fights them off. Except that it’s too late, as his wife (Riley Keough) and child (Arlo Metz) have already suffered from the wrath of a deadly, anonymous evil force that want to silence Reece. Or did Reece do it himself before getting his head examined?
Based on the novel by Jack Carr, with that doozy of a pilot directed by Antoine Fuqua, “The Terminal List” more or less takes place within the mind of someone who is shown to not be right in the head. But what’s bizarre about this show, if not poor taste, is how much its rambling plotting plays into conspiracy theory wish fulfillment—it’s full of that affirming horror that Reece is right: It’s all even worse and more expansive than it looks, and that only he can stop it. The series practically forgets his initial placement as an unreliable protagonist, as unstable and tragic in a system that is not helping him, that has done psychological damage by sending him to war over and over. Instead “The Terminal List” just embraces him for the violence he can unleash. In action movie speak, it’s “Rambo: First Blood” that thinks like “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” And because “Rambo: First Blood” is not what cemented Rambo’s pop culture status, you can imagine what a big hit “The Terminal List” is bound to become, especially for anyone looking to identify with Reece.
“The Terminal List” exists well within the Prime Video collection of these book-approved JR heroes protecting America's truth and values, as seen with Jack Reacher and Jack Ryan. But this does not even feign to have the composure of those stories, instead embracing every massive gut-punching beat and conspiracy that it can for their sensations, and then applying the soothing nature of Reece's Navy SEAL training to make it all better. “The Terminal List” turns Reece into the mega American action hero, one who has the skills and physical fortitude because of his Navy SEAL training, not to mention the connections (like frogman buddy Ben [Taylor Kitsch], who provides some whiffs of comedic relief) who have technology and planes for getaways. But unlike with Jack Reacher and Jack Ryan, if “The Terminal List” were a person you would not shake their hand. You would call for help.
Reece’s questions are only the beginning for other matters of business that seek to be as explosive and twisty as possible. There are many other pieces here in service of getting to the truth, like Constance Wu’s Katie, an intriguing character in the wrong show. She investigates military action but has one of the show’s few good lines: “I don’t criticize your work; I question your assignment.” Katie is a watcher who is herself being surveilled by the FBI, especially as Reece becomes a larger person of interest. There's a larger conspiracy afoot, and it involves special interest groups that can sway military budget bills. At the least, “The Terminal List” has a standout larger villain with Jai Courtney, a buff and business-savvy man with a soldier's expertise who is also seeking to make billions off something that would change war forever. He's a dynamic, larger-than-life adversary for Reece. It's almost laugh-out-loud funny what "The Terminal List" does with this potential.
“The Terminal List” gets its name from a list that Reece creates on the back of his dead kid’s drawing, with new names added and crossed off, sometimes with blood. To take care of this, the series gets into stark, indulgent 50-minute episodes that exist for no greater need than seeing Reece win, like when he ventures to find the hired hands who attacked his wife and child. At first it is an uncertain, psychological question, but no, it’s very literal, and it is answered with an '80s-wannabe action scene that also shows how savage Reece can be when it comes to getting his prized kill. You practically expect the camera to zoom way out and show the previous scenes as just the imagination of a young kid playing with action figures. It would make more sense that way.
In another instance, Reece performs an act of terrorism in San Francisco, because, well, he has a to-shoot list that needs marking, and he has the skills to pull it off more or less by himself. There’s also a moment in which Reece snipes one of his moving targets while accompanied by Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” albeit the dramatic movie trailer-ready, tone-deaf version we never needed, but nonetheless can accompany a cool shot of a car tumbling down the road. These sequences nonetheless give “The Terminal List” its purpose, as the plotting is so removed from its original feel that it barely has overall tension, with its emotional stakes themselves becoming touch-and-go. Every now and then, Reece has a vision of his wife and child, which are meant to stoke our reserves of anguished justice. At the most, they remind us how Pratt’s serious acting still does not have much depth to it, and he does no service to that with his performance in this openly deranged show.
But it doesn’t matter who plays this role, as Reece is not about charisma or personality. James Reece is the ultimate soldier id. He’s the myth of the American soldier molded by numerous war movies before him, without remembering that he is a myth. So much within action tales, whether based on cops, secrets agents, or soldiers, can be gratuitous, and that can be their gritty fun. But “The Terminal List” is gratuitous with a dead-serious face, one that is introduced as being unstable before its accompanying body is then treated like our instrument of truth. Released just in time for the Fourth of July, “The Terminal List” is jingoism at its finest, and absolute worst.
Six episodes of season one screened for review. "The Terminal List" premieres on Prime Video on July 1.
Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.