24: "Redemption"

There are a lot of ways in which 24 is pretty inde-fucking-fensible. The fascist subtext; the casual use of torture (the series comes with a lot of potential drinking games built in, but few offer greater chances for alcohol poisoning than doing a shot every time a character, good or bad, talks about "breaking" someone like they were getting ready to do their taxes); the off-again, on-again flirtations with misogyny; and did I mention the whole fascism thing?

But I'd say the series' worst crime–the flaw from which nearly all others spring–is its central premise: the whole "these events occur in real time" crap. Sure, it sounds cool; restricting an entire season to one twenty-four hour period should be a clever way to keep the tension high from episode to episode, and keep the writers focused on the task at hand. But if you've watched enough of 24, you know that the real-time gimmick, apart from hilariously implausible, actually leads to more digressions and foot-dragging than you'd get in a month's worth of Spanish soap operas.

Too much of each season is wasted on desperate attempts to drag out the main story so it will fill the whole day, cramming episode after episode with tortured, circuitous plotting that only makes sense in the moment-to-moment. You've got the hero, Jack Bauer, and you've got a small handful of people he can trust. The rest is kid's stuff, characters reduced to mechanisms like a never ending series of Snakes and Ladders, serving either to hinder Jack in his attempts to save the day, or else give him (and us) the briefest illusion of forward momentum.

The end result is a cast full of semi-familiar faces who rarely engage us because he we know their actions are defined by a writer's expedience, and not by anything remotely resembling internal consistency. Then there's the plotting; you generally get one solid story centered on Jack, but everything else is up in the air, ranging from the passable to the tedious to the actively painful. Do we really need another typical suburban family thrown into turmoil? Yet another mole working for CTU? Kim Bauer, at all?

"Redemption" takes place from 3 to 5 pm, so at least the opportunities for wasting our goddamn time are severely reduced. Keifer Sutherland has gone on record as saying the TV movie could serve as a test balloon for the big screen adventures of our favorite wandering information retriever, but the comment is misleading; of the hour and twenty-six non-commercial minutes that make up the "movie," a good half hour at least is spent on putting things into play for Day 7. In the end, all you get is some minor satisfaction, along with a lot of set-up that by necessity goes nowhere.

But hey, minor satisfaction is better than nothing. I find torture repulsive, a lot of the thematic elements leave me cold, and calling the plotting "Goldbergian" is an insult to overwrought contraptions everywhere; but at its best, 24 is a decent action series with a likeable lead. Sutherland is really the only reason the show has lasted as long as it has–he's managed to invest a square-jawed stock hero with surprising depth. Sometimes even the writers get it right. The fifth season (Day 5) was as good as the show's ever been, delivering a big twist that didn't disappoint, getting the most out of Peter Weller, and having what was easily the series' most satisfying resolution. Sure, the Chinese were still hella evil and we did get a female employee at CTU who liked to charge men with sexual harassment just because she was batshit crazy, but hey, other than that, it sort of worked.

So 24 can sort-of-work. And when "Redemption" sticks with Jack, it largely does. He's hiding out in Africa at a friend's school for orphaned kids; apparently the US government has been tracking him since last season with a subpoena, demanding he come back to Washington and answer for all that pesky torturing and all those dead suspects. See, Jack was just doing his job–everybody knows that–but the bureaucrats won't let him be; a weasely, bespectacled dude named Frank Trammel tries to force the subpoena into Jack's hands without much success.

Carl Benton (Robert Carlyle!) reads the letter after Jack storms off, and the two men have a chat about the horrors of combat, finding one's place in life, how hard it is to be a good man, etc. Jack's decided it's time to move on; not only was Trammel able to track him down, he's also befriended a local boy named Willie, and when Jack starts making friends, bad things happen. Carl tries to convince him to stay, but Jack's having none of it.

Meanwhile, back in the states, there's a series of roughly tangential scenes that will probably only really matter next year. We meet Hodges (Jon Voight!), yet another bad guy businessman who's been selling weapons to the revolutionary General Jumah (Tony Todd!) and his army, who are moving on the Sangala capital, which just happens to be where Jack and Carl are currently playing den mother. Hodges is working with a shady investor's firm, and one of the employees, a Christian Slater look-alike named Chris, catches wind that something bad is going down. Too bad for him, as soon after a pair of creepy hired killers show up at his apartment to prevent him from sending out any secret files; but Chris managed to pass along at least some information to his friend Roger, the son of President-Elect Taylor. (We also learn that at least one of the Secret Service guys guarding Roger is working for Hodges.)

We get face time with Taylor, and exiting President Powers Boothe; they snipe some over Boothe's decision not to lend military aid to stop Jumah's attempted coup. Again, it's not exactly relevant to anything else, but it could theoretically be important next year, although I'm not holding my breath.

Back to Jack; the coup is going to get in the way of his exit strategy, because Jumah and his number one guy, Colonel Demarco, need more men for their army, and they satisfy this need by kidnapping and forcibly recruiting local children. And wouldn't you know it, Benton's school is just full of those. Benton makes an emergency call to Trammel for aid, and learns that the American embassy is being evacuated; Benton's kids can get out, but they have to be at the embassy before the last helicopter leaves at five. The city isn't that far away, but Jumah's men stand directly in the way.

"Redemption" works well enough when it stays with Jack trying to get the kids to the embassy on time; the constant cutting back to the Washington D.C. subplots muddles the tension, but the two action set-pieces were cool, and Benton gets a nicely bad-ass exit scene. Jack gets everybody to the embassy on time, and of course the weasely bureaucrat turns the tables on him–with Benton gone, the kids can't get into the US without a legal guardian, so Jack has to accompany them. Which means he has to finally give in to the subpoena. In the last minute, while President Taylor delivers what may be the dullest inauguration speech on record, we see Jack flying away, forced to return once again to the country that doesn't deserve him.

That's it, really. One finished plot, along with a bunch of random bits. Which doesn't make for much a of movie, but as a preview of coming attractions, it passes the time.

Grade: B-