First look Amazon UK TV review: Treadstone
James R | On 14, Jan 2020
Turning a movie into a TV show is far from a recipe for success, although that hasn’t stopped people from continuing to try. While some – Scream, The Exorcist, 12 Monkeys, What We Do in the Shadows, Westworld – find fresh ground in retreading familiar territory, many fall into holes of their own digging. Treadstone, spun off from the Bourne Cinematic Universe (as nobody has called it), showed all the warning signs of being the latter – a programme based on a cinema franchise that began 18 years ago and last had a sequel in 2016 (after another unsuccessful feature spin-off). But the action thriller is a surprisingly slick affair, one that hops, skips and jumps through the Bourne universe at its own pace.
The series begins in East Berlin, 1973, with a kidnapped American being brainwashed and indoctrinated into a Soviet behaviour modification program – a program not dissimilar to the USA’s Treadstone, which trained volunteer soldiers (such as Jason Bourne) into becoming lethal covert operatives. The Soviet scheme, though, is called Cicada, named after the insects that emerge every year. While that sounds like the same old formula for a story of amnesia, identity, corruption and state security, Treadstone succeeds by moving away from one man’s quest to discover a secret that the audience already knows. Instead, our American – John Randolph Bentley (Jeremy Irvine) – is just one of many operatives around the world and, one by one, they’re all being reactivated.
Irvine, who impressed in War Horse, is excellent as Bentley, a resilient soldier who is broken by his handler, Petra (Gabrielle Scharnitzky – and, in flashbacks to younger Petra, Emilia Schüle). Even when he escapes, by stabbing the sinister Dr. Meisner with his own spectacles, his old colleagues don’t believe he hasn’t been turned by the enemies. After all, if the hallucination he has that tricks him into killing three men is anything to go by, he could easily have been allowed to escape and go out into the world as an unwitting sleeper agent.
That kind of paranoia and fear is all too timely, and it fuels every strand, as we trot the globe between similar tales of uncertainty. Showrunner Tim Kring has previous experience of such large-scale juggling with Heroes and he manages to keep things moving as the sinister conspiracy mounts.
The key to linking it all is Tracy Ifeachor‘s Tara Coleman, a journalist who exposed a Cold War nuclear missile scandal and therefore won the trust of North Korean general Kwon. He recruits her to find his daughter, while being hunted down by Soyun Pak (Han Hyo-joo), a piano teacher who – you guessed it – is another Cicada agent, and transforms eerily from a quiet tutor to an English-speaking, tightrope-walking assassin.
Tara is also being tracked by CIA agent Matt Edwards (the likeable Omar Metwally), who is busy trying to piece together what’s going on as well. He leads us to a doctor who worked on Treadstone’s mental conditioning tech, which gives us a gradual thread of exposition laced with a dark sense of humour.
But the compelling hook isn’t so much unfolding the mysterious plot – which can be broadly swept aside as a Cold War-esque web of brainwashed spies – as the action that perforates it, and the shock that follows by those carrying it out. Doug (Brian J. Smith) dispatches a host of dubious types in a bar, after being fired as an oil worker, a sequence that, much like Bentley’s fisticuffs in the opening set piece, delivers thrills with the kind of up-close brutality that made the Bourne films so hard-hitting, then hits harder by capturing the horror of not understanding where that brutality came from.
Filmed with a gloomy filter and some hyperactive editing, the result isn’t groundbreaking or even hugely original, but from Petra and Bentley’s complex relationship to hints of hidden secrets between Doug and his wife, there’s enough intrigue to keep you tuned in – and a fast enough pace to stop you questioning whether any of the plot actually makes sense. Is it as good as the first three Bourne films? No. But you’ll still wake up and find yourself halfway through the season before realising it.
Treadstone is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.