Netflix's Latest Binge-Watch Is Like 'Game of Thrones' Meets 'The Revenant'
Jason Momoa looks good in fur. Despite often appearing shirtless as characters like the fearsome Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones and the slippery Aquaman in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the 37-year-old actor possesses the type of broad shoulders that deserve to be covered from the cold by the finest Canadian pelts money can buy. Lucky for him, his Netflix historical drama Frontier, a co-production with Discovery Canada, gives him many chances to strut his stuff.
The six-episode series, set in the late 1700s, is more than just an icy catwalk for the former model. The role gives Momoa another opportunity to embrace his inner Drogo as he bashes heads, slits throats, and, in the opening scene of the third episode, cuts off a screaming man's ear -- which he then speaks into like a child mumbling into a walkie-talkie. It's a moment of severe brutality, but one Momoa plays for dark humor. Like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Rock, the actor finds joy in mayhem. He laughs at violence.
However, Frontier is not the bloody action movie stretched into a TV show it appears to be from the trailers. While the series combines the sprawling storytelling approach of Game of Thrones with the furry-vengeance themes of Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar-winning The Revenant, it doesn't exactly match the ambition of the former or the white-knuckle intensity of the latter. Instead, it settles for an occasionally schlocky but often entertaining middleground.
It's got Game of Thrones-style plotting
Momoa's Declan Harp, a part-Irish and part-Native American badass picking a fight with the evil Hudson's Bay Company, is the star of the show, but the first three episodes spend lots of screen-time setting up different narrative threads. There's lovestruck Irish bandit named Michael Smyth (Hemlock Grove's Landon Liboiron), enterprising barkeep Grace (Sons of Anarchy's Zoe Boyle), bumbling priest Father Coffin (Me and Orson Welles's Christian McKay), and villainous HBC boss Lord Benton (Penny Dreadful's Alun Armstrong). More characters are introduced each episode, often with little fanfare. Good luck telling them all apart.
Still, this is rich historical material with many potentially fascinating (and swashbuckling) stories to tell. In an odd scheduling coincidence, Frontier arrives on Netflix just as Tom Hardy's Taboo, set in 1814, explores similar personal conflicts, business deals, and political maneuvering. (Apparently Canadian geo-political trade conflicts are hot right now -- who knew?) Where the FX show paints a grimy, shit-covered portrait of Victorian-era London during the War of 1812, Frontier imagines a vision of the past with more romance, laughter, and adventure. San Andreas director Brad Peyton, who helmed the first two episodes and has a co-creator credit, brings a light touch to what must have been a grueling, punishing way of life.
Similarly, writers Rob Blackie and Peter Blackie pepper their scripts with seemingly anachronistic profanity, such as when Declan Harp calls another character a "fuckhead." That same irreverence extends to the quotes that begin certain episodes, which include wise sayings from modern writers like Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, and Ice Cube. It's bizarre, but at least they're trying something. In fact, the show could use more of Ice Cube's mischievous, button-pushing spirit. A little less steady boating, a little more steady mobbin'.
But it all comes back to Momoa
There's one thing that Frontier consistently gets right: Jason Momoa was born to snap necks. The Hawaiian born actor has drifted a bit in the years since he departed Game of Thrones, appearing in the little-seen Sundance drama Red Road and a handful of smaller movies. Though his heavily hyped role in this year's Justice League will likely make him a bigger star, he'll also be competing for screentime with a whole team of buff superheroes. Frontier isn't a perfect Momoa vehicle -- he's not the focus of every scene like Tom Hardy is in Taboo -- but it understands his appeal.
And he's good in it. The best parts of the show involve Declan's efforts to serve as an intermediary between foreign traders and the land's indigenous people. As we learn more about his backstory -- like Leo in The Revenant, his wife and son were murdered -- he becomes a more compelling figure, one maybe even capable of carrying a show as water-logged and busy as this one. He projects weary wisdom and steely menace with equal vigor. He also knows how to toss a cheesy, sub-par line like a well-thrown tomahawk.
Let's be clear: this is not going to be your favorite show. It's not even going to be your favorite Jason Momoa show. But there's enough intrigue, bloodshed, and shots of gorgeous snow-capped mountains to keep fans of rowdy costume dramas coming back for more. It's perfect escapism for Americans fantasizing about fleeing for the border in these apocalyptic times: maybe you can't move to Canada, but Frontier will come to you.
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