I received Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo as a gift when I was probably ten, and it floored me… not that I really understood the French historical background and the intricate subplots for another decade or so. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m still chewing on it, but the definitive revenge plot hits the reader right away. So much so, that it sets the template for revenge stories the world over, including The Terminal List. This revenge story hits all the classic genre tenets, if only it hadn’t been told so often.
It has recently been retold in TV show form on Amazon Prime Video, starring Chris Pratt as Navy SEAL Commander James Reece, who lost his troops to an ambush in Afghanistan and then his family to a suspiciously-timed second ambush in California. Reece, consumed by grief, sees a plot that threatens America’s armed forces from within and goes on a vengeful rampage to track down everyone involved with the death of his loved ones in 400ish pages. The TV adaption makes good use of the extra time, to let the characters be stronger and more active. It also did wonders for the book series’ publicity, so there’s rare window to review both at once.
James Reece is not an everyman, but a superman. Carr himself puts it a little too well in the introduction, saying, “he is more skilled, witty, and intelligent than I could ever hope to be.” Reece also gets extremely lucky. At one point protocol unexpectedly sends him to a hospital, which ends up saving his life because the assassins sent to kill him go in the opposite direction. Refreshingly, Reece overcomes the lack of agency present in most revenge story heroes – rather than let more villains kick him around for too long, Reece gets down to business fairly early in the first act when he smacks an arrogant commanding officer, and immediately begins making the list of people to kill on the back of a crayon drawing by his late daughter. Hard-hitting images like that work most effectively to drive home the desperation behind the character, even as he stoically tries to finish out his mission.
Any quest needs helpers though, and though Reece does all the killing, he teams up with – you guessed it – a reporter. In the book, Katie Buranek is a blonde a decade or so younger than Reece. I wonder if we’ll see her in the climactic showdown? As a hostage, perhaps? While her Cold War backstory and family connection to Reece do provide a realistic skepticism, it’s nothing compared to the upgrade Constance Wu brings in the TV show. It makes much more sense for an experienced reporter to break the news about James Reece and not someone just out of her undergrad program. TV Katie Buranek’s years of media savvy take away any lingering naivete in the character. Long embroiled in a grueling career, TV Katie gives the very real sense that she needs Reece to be a story whether or not she actually believes him to a victim.
But desperation’s not the only motivating factor here. No revenge story, especially one about patriotism, can function without addressing loyalty in the form of Reece’s other sidekicks. Reece’s pilot friend Liz Riley (Tyner Rushing) gets a little less time to develop in the TV series, where she seems to drop in and out whenever he needs her. Reece and her have no sparks, but Liz’s loneliness from being a third wheel to Reece and his late wife adds another dimension. In the end, it’s their shared combat experience that cements her loyalty. Combat’s not really enough, however. Reece’s other main sidekick, Ben Edwards, is another comrade-in-arms and (spoiler alert) a villain, but you don’t need that alert because he’s played by Taylor Kitsch. Of course he’s a villain. Kitsch clearly has fun playing the outwardly buffoonish Edwards, on the surface a beach bum who mostly wants “get some cervezas, bro,” but in reality a CIA operative willing to sell Reece out for money. Alas, for Reece, betrayed by shallow masculinity.
However, Reece finds that his most public attackers are fueled by greed just as much as his alleged friend. Jai Courtney as Steve Horn is so much fun to watch as the “tactical” guy who’s never worked a government job, let alone served in the military. He manages to provide both the comic relief and the main force against Reece. He’s teamed for a short time with Sean Gunn as Agnon, a delightfully snivelling lackey who turns into a alpha-douche one moment and a creepy brownnoser the next. These “manly” men are just fun for Reece to take down, and the grim satisfaction that comes through in the text of novel conveys a message that somewhere morality must be intact.
However, confronting the government is the ultimate test for Reece and it comes when he must confront the government’s representative in the conspiracy against him, secretary of defense Lorraine Hartley. In the book, she’s just downright greedy and arrogant. In the TV show, Jeanne Tripplehorn gives her a little more of a conscience and a significant degree of deniability. It’s a huge split, because one character aggressively pursues Reece and the other finds herself unable to control the forces to which she has been bound. When Reece assassinates her, he’s cut the head off a snake, but unsure how many more will grow back.
When Reece finally makes his escape and completes one list, that same feeling that it will never end nicely follows him, but that’s the best way to write a thriller series. In fact, it’s pretty clear that this whole adventure had been designed for a long series because it relies on traditional storytelling to the point of predictability. As for the Amazon adaptation, it often feels like a second draft of the published novel. As I write this, the TV show has yet to be renewed, but there’s already four books written so there’s no shortage of material with which to work. So, if you’re in the mood for revenge fiction, this series is designed just for you, and there’s plenty to indulge in.
Three out of five stars.