I shouldn’t, but I’m rooting for the Taliban. Twenty minutes into Echo 3 (Apple TV+) and our buff heroes, brothers-in-law Prince (Michiel Huisman) and Bambi (Luke Evans) are trading bullets with Afghans in the snowy mountains. They’re part of an elite unit choppered to a remote region and tasked with springing American hostages for reasons unclear.
Perhaps it’s because the Americans in white helmets and snowsuits look like dead ringers for Star Wars Imperial Troopers, while their foes resemble medieval greengrocers who’ve found some guns and shut up shop for the afternoon – their support for institutionalised misogyny notwithstanding.
Or possibly it’s because this is another culturally colonialist production in which we’re supposed to empathise with western heroes’ psychodramas as they face off against underscripted others – think American Vietnam movies, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Homeland. Instead of hoping our white saviours will make it home, maybe it would be nice if their nameless foes of colour, just for once, make it to the end credits. Like that’s going to happen.
Mark Boal’s screenplay is adapted from the 2018 Israeli TV series When Heroes Fly (available on Netflix) which itself was adapted from Amir Gutfreund’s bestselling novel about military veterans on a rescue mission to Colombia. Boal made an award-winning name for himself with Kathryn Bigelow-directed movies The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty which, though purportedly about foreign conflict, depicted America at war with itself and with its foreign policies (the former dramatised a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, the latter the hunt for Bin Laden).
The aforementioned firefight is narrative pretext to punch up fateful tensions in Prince and Bambi’s relationship, what scriptwriting gurus call the inciting incident. Prince is a posh boy designated to become a senator and apt to go rogue in combat; Bambi a straight shooter and, like his beloved sister, Amber, self-identifies as a red-neck Kentuckian.
Minutes earlier, back in the US at Prince and Amber’s wedding, Amber tells her brother he’d better keep on eye on her man on any future missions: “He’s not just a guy in your unit. He’s my husband. You bring him home.” His resolve is quickly tested. “Wheels up in eight hours,” shouts their commander to Bambi, Prince and the rest of the unit at the wedding reception. Their mission? To free Americans, and take out any Taliban in their way.
In the resultant firefight, Prince gets separated from his unit and needs rescuing by Bambi, with tragic consequences that leave each staring crossly at each other at later social events back home. Essentially it’s an amalgam of The Deer Hunter, Band of Brothers, Phil and Grant’s sibling rivalry in EastEnders plus a sexy stay-at-home bride doomed to moon tearfully out of windows while her men straighten out Johnny Foreigner.
Then something incredible happens. Amber, we abruptly learn, is not what she seems, but a protagonist in her own right. She is a world-renowned scientist working at the cutting edge of psychedelic pharmaceuticals. “You could be the new Timothy Leary,” says her professor to his top student before she leaves the lab to fly out to Colombia to conduct research into why shamans don’t get addicted to local psychedelic fauna.
But just as she and her fellow scientists are happily gathering hallucinogens and tripping with local shamans on the Colombia-Venezuela border, a gang of tooled-up guerrillas arrive in their campsite. They’re equivalent to the earlier Taliban in having no individuation or comprehensible motivation. When they search Amber’s bags and find a military grade tracking device put there by her concerned husband, their suspicions are aroused. Cut to Prince and Bambi back home in the US, who discover from a CIA source not only that Amber has been abducted and her colleagues executed but she’s working for the CIA, most likely gathering data on guerrilla armies, drug cartels and/or other groups noted for their lack of appreciation of nosy Yanks in their jungly ambits.
Within seconds, the feuding bros are on the next flight to the Colombian jungle, united once more, lips pursed, banter minimal, pecs as oversized as their weaponry.
Questions remain to be answered in the next nine episodes. Can hallucinogens really be non-addictive and therapeutic? Is Bambi’s name ironic given that he looks butch enough to bench a human sandwich made up of Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker, Joel Edgerton from Zero Dark Thirty plus a filling of Channing Tatum in GI Joe? And will Boal’s drama series turn out to be not about tooled-up white saviours rescuing one of their own from execrably imagined persons of colour, but skewering the hubris of American exceptionalism? Ideally, the answer to all three will be yes.