The Burn Notice prequel movie, The Fall Of Sam Axe, debuts tonight on USA at 9 p.m. Eastern.
One criticism that’s often been leveled at Burn Notice—and I should know, because I’ve oft leveled it myself—is that the show all too rarely breaks from its traditional format. There are exceptions, but most episodes stick to the formula creator Matt Nix established in the first season: A stand-alone case requiring star Jeffrey Donovan to adopt a ridiculous accent, a few explosions, shoot-outs and MacGuyver-esque homemade gadgets, and maybe a minute or two devoted to the larger mythology, all set against the fun-and-sun backdrop of South Beach. It’s a recipe that’s worked more often than not, and no doubt, there’s plenty of pressure from the USA network to keep it that way, but you can’t blame Nix if he’d like to stretch his wings a bit now and again.
That’s why this prequel centered on Bruce Campbell’s Sam Axe character and his final mission as a Navy SEAL sounded promising when it was announced last fall. Here was an opportunity to shake up the established Burn Notice conventions a bit and to have a little fun with a fan favorite character. After all, there’s no such thing as too much Sam Axe, right? (Since this review is going up before the movie airs, I’ll save my more spoiler-ish comments for the “Stray observations” section, so you can easily skip over them.)
The Fall of Sam Axe opens in February 2005 at the American embassy in Bogota, Colombia, where Sam, resplendent in his dress whites, is being interrogated by his superiors about a mission that has apparently gone awry. Flashbacks reveal that Sam brought his last assignment upon himself after being caught in flagrante with the admiral’s wife, an offense that gets him sent to Colombia to observe and report on a violent group of insurgents known as Esparda Ardiente. Hoping to secure additional support from the U.S. government to combat these rebels, a Colombian official attaches Sam to a military unit led by the American-trained Veracruz. Together, they attempt to secure the next intended target of the insurgency: a strategically located Doctors Without Borders-type medical clinic.
Even a casual Burn Notice watcher will quickly realize something fishy is going on, and indeed, it soon becomes clear that nothing is as it seems. Before long, Sam finds himself teamed up with the clinic staff (including the lovely Kiele Sanchez, best known as everyone’s favorite Lost character, Nikki Fernandez, as a food relief worker) and a ragtag group of farmers and goat herders to combat a larger menace, breaking pretty much every Navy protocol along the way.
As a showcase for Campbell’s always enjoyable portrayal of Sam Axe, this stopgap movie delivers just about everything you’d hope for, short of a round of mojitos. (Sam does try to order a beer during his debriefing at the embassy, but no dice.) It’s clear that this mission didn’t make him the man he is today; he’s always been the slightly bumbling, lantern-jawed hero, quick with a wisecrack and generally overconfident in his abilities, but with a streak of nobility that always finds him on the side of the little guy, regardless of his own self-interest. Campbell doesn’t do anything you’ve never seen him do before, but his borderline-cartoonish B-movie gusto is particularly welcome here, given the overall generic quality of the production.
As written by Matt Nix and directed by Jeffrey Donovan, The Fall of Sam Axe has the routine rhythms of a straight-to-DVD action movie sequel. Something blows up every 10 minutes or so, but aside from one startling moment with a chainsaw (perhaps a winking nod to Army of Darkness), there’s nothing creative about the mayhem. The notion of Sam training a group of misfits into a well-oiled fighting machine is promising on paper, but there are no personalities in Sam’s army; they’re just a bunch of extras in serapes. In a way, The Fall of Sam Axe is reminiscent of the stopgap 24 movie, Redemption, which saw Jack Bauer aiding a group of orphans in a fictional African country; they’re both about heroic white-guy rogues from the U.S. government protecting the Third World masses from their own evil overlords. It’s all a bit patronizing, and it doesn’t help that the situation is resolved with the same sort of “here comes the cavalry” deus ex machina we saw near the end of the most recent season of Burn Notice. Fans should enjoy Campbell’s performance, but Sam Axe deserved a more interesting fall.
- In addition to directing the movie, Jeffrey Donovan makes a cameo appearance as the pre-burned Michael Westen. A scruffy, bearded Westen meets Sam in a bowling alley to offer advice on dealing with his bedroom indiscretion. Fortunately, no silly voices are involved.
- The secret origin of Sam’s recurring “Chuck Finley” alias is finally revealed! If you’d always assumed it had something to do with the former Angels pitcher of that name... well, you might be onto something there.
- Sam picks up a new nickname in Colombia: “La Barbilla.” If your Spanish is rusty, that means “The Chin.” Yeah, he doesn’t get it, either.
- I reviewed The Fall of Sam Axe from a screener of the rough cut, which generally means the special effects and sound mix are incomplete. (We professionals are supposed to see beyond such things, of course.) In this case, it was quite obvious that Bruce Campbell had not yet done the bulk of his voice-over work, as Sam Axe’s narration was delivered by at least three different actors at various points. This had the effect of lending a weird Lynchian multiple-personality subtext to the proceedings—an effect that those of you watching on USA will mercifully be spared.