There's Nothing Noirish in Hulu's Grating, Hyper, Tiresomely Violent Reprisal

Bloody revenge fantasy draws more from the 1970s than anything cutting edge.


Reprisal. Available Friday, December 6, on Hulu.

The publicists for Hulu's new revenge drama Reprisal's describe it as "hyper-noir." Actually, it's more an object lesson in how those two terms can't be used together.

Film noir is darkly underlit, a creature of the shadows. Its dialogue is cynical but clever. Though its sexuality may be frenzied, it's about seduction, not rape.

"Hyper" implies the opposite: Garish. Extreme. Grating. Which is actually a fairly good description of Reprisal. Throw in "charmless" and "crude" and you've pretty much painted the whole picture.

Reprisal stars Abigail Spencer in a role almost inconceivably opposite the one with which she made her mark, as the perkily cute historian in the time-travel action drama Timeless. Here she's cast as a Dixie Mafia moll named Katherine who, when she finds herself on the other end of the gang's violence, seeks grisly vengeance.

Her specific target is her brother Burt (Rory Cochrane, 24), who for reasons unclear (at least at the show's beginning; the flashback-riddled Reprisal is allergic to linear story-telling) had her dragged behind a pickup truck and left for dead.

But anybody who gets in her way—or even annoys her—is fair game. Collateral damage is a way of life in Reprisal, which has a body count roughly the size of the one for the Korean War.

After a brief prologue with that truck-dragging scene, Reprisal jumps several years into the future. Katherine has changed her name to Doris and her hair to a blonde wig as she prepares to infiltrate Burt's redneck empire of money-laundering bars and gun-running gangbangers.

Her advance guard is Ethan (Mena Massoud, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan), a street punk with a heart of gold but the impulse control of Godzilla. He's managed to sign on as a member of the River Phoenixes, the band of enforcers who are even more mindlessly vicious than the rest of Burt's hoodlum cadres. Another potential mole: Meredith (Madison Davenport, Sharp Objects), Doris/Katherine's niece, a sulky stripper at one of the bars. What exactly they're planning is hard to say, but it seems likely to trigger a shortage of Hollywood fake blood.

The potential of this scenario can be argued, but the execution cannot: It's an awkward mishmash of styles that gives Reprisal a pervasive air of unreality.

Characters absorb vicious beatings (frequently, constantly, unceasingly), then pop back up as if nothing has happened. They're tracked through crowds on gaudy one-shot takes that signify nothing except the self-proclaimed virtuosity of director Jonathan van Tulleken, a Brit who is deliriously out of touch with the blue-highway American culture he's trying to depict. His idea of a cracker strip joint looks like something out of Moulin Rouge.

The series' era is deliberately—and pointlessly—obscured; the landscape is dotted with diners and phone booths, but much of the costuming is glam-trash '90s or beyond. The acting is largely over-the-top pulp. And it's hard to say—verrrry hard—which is more cryptically opaque, the show's writing or its editing.

Despite all these pretensions, the only thing cutting-edge about Reprisal is its knives. It's more like a hyper-stylized version of Walking Tall or one of those other revenge-of-the-rednecks films that contributed so greatly to the unbearableness of the 1970s. (Note correct usage of "hyper.") Its purported ideas are at least as out of date. Does an obsession with vengeance contort righteousness into villainy? I dunno; let's watch Death Wish and find out. Do we need to smash the glass ceiling on female serial killers? Consult the feminist classic Hannie Caulder. But when it comes to Reprisal, heed Abigail Spencer's warning: "I come from bad blood, bad blood and dark days."