Special Ops: Lioness review – like a female Mission Impossible

Zoe Saldana and Nicole Kidman lead a starry cast in this drama about an elite all-woman unit of marines. It’s absolute nonsense, but it’s solid, action-packed entertainment

Blimey, but Special Ops: Lioness is some brilliantly executed nonsense! This is nothing but a compliment, by the way. Full-blooded, uncynical nonsense is a vital part of a well-balanced TV diet, but it is difficult to do. There’s only so much Succession steak and fibrous slices of documentary you can eat, you know.

Lioness is inspired by a real-life CIA programme that used female military personnel, first simply to search local women during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then to distribute information among them and gather information. Creator Taylor Sheridan (Mayor of Kingstown, Yellowstone and its prequels, Tulsa King, among much else) takes that premise, adds a starry cast led by Zoe Saldana, including Nicole Kidman and Morgan Freeman, and runs with it.

Saldana is Joe, an experienced marine in charge of the Lionesses. She is also a wife – to a supportive husband, Neil (Dave Annable) – and a mother of two, only the eldest of whom hates her, so she is doing very well.

Her Lionesses are an undercover all-female unit dedicated to befriending the wives, girlfriends or daughters of high-value terrorist targets and then either getting them to betray the CIA’s wanted men, or simply gathering enough intel from the laydeez that the undercover marine can do it herself. We are introduced to Joe as she orders a strike on a compound in which one of her team has just been discovered by Islamic State, and is about to face a brutal death at their hands long before an extraction mission can be mounted. She is duly hauled in for a debriefing, where her boss (Kidman) stands up for her because girl power. Kidman is kept largely in shadow, but whether this is to increase the sense of mystery about her, or because, when we do see her, it is clear that her face is now the product of an extraordinary set of choices for anyone whose livelihood might be said to depend upon the convincing expression of human emotion, I do not know.

Nicole Kidman as Kaitlyn Meade in Special Ops: Lioness.
Nicole Kidman as Kaitlyn Meade in Special Ops: Lioness. Photograph: Greg Lewis/Paramount+

Anyway. Joe must now recruit a new woman for the team. As luck would have it, there is a perfect candidate coming up through the ranks. Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira), who literally crashed through a recruitment office door when running from her abusive boyfriend, and discovered her calling. We know she is good because we have seen her scoring off even the male charts for physical prowess in training, and acing all the mental tests. After that she is called into her superior’s office and manages to answer with a straight face the question: “We are strong. We protect the weak. We are merciless in that endeavour. Is that an endeavour you wish to pursue?” She could be one of the rare few who makes a difference individually rather than as part of the mighty marine machine, but she will have to give up the life she knew and walk away. “I have no life, sir,” she replies, and he – and I suspect a large proportion of the audience at home – responds immediately: “You do now.”

Raargh! Marines are the best! American exceptionalism lives! This is Top Gun, but without planes! Mission Impossible, but with girls! Jacqueline Ryan, if Jack Ryan is an immediately identifiable enough spy thriller brand for that joke to work.

Soon Cruz is being briefed by Joe and establishing an antagonistic personal dynamic with her that may yet – and I’m going to go out on a limb here, as only the first episode was made available for review – evolve into a relationship of mutual respect. And maybe, even in the fullness of time, a friendship that helps lay their respective demons to rest.

Cruz is given a new identity and becomes best pals with the target’s daughter, Aaliyah (Stephanie Nur), by what seems like the overly simple expedient of standing next to her in a department store, and we’re away for what promise to be a stylishly shot, expertly plotted and paced remaining seven episodes.

There are hints here and there that it could become something better than the high-class hokum the pilot delivers. There is a nicely unapologetic and uncompromising vibe around the protagonists – in De Oliveira’s performance particularly – that is rare and refreshing, and the brief scenes so far with Joe and her husband suggest that relationship could also bring a touch of grounding realism to proceedings, andan opportunity, should one wish to, to invest a little more in the sex-swapped but otherwise fairly standard action figures that abound.

But, if you like your politics simple and your intra-marine bonds unbreakable, this is already the series for you.

  • Special Ops: Lioness is on Paramount+


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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