‘Special Ops: Lioness’ Review: Zoe Saldaña, Nicole Kidman Roar in Taylor Sheridan Spy Thriller

Paramount+ series finds ‘Yellowstone’ creator pivoting to the Middle East, with gripping story that mixes action and personal drama

Now that Taylor Sheridan has won the Western TV revival with “Yellowstone” and its universe of prequels, he’s pivoting to the Middle East. “Special Ops: Lioness” is a contemporary female spy thriller where the white hats are CIA special forces and the black hats are Middle Eastern terrorists. Helicopters and heavy artillery replaced horses and shotguns.

Sheridan’s recent Emmy-nominated inexplicable snubs aside, the multi-hyphenate can tell a gripping story that mixes deep action with interpersonal drama. Here, as showrunner and sole writer, he’s crafted an eight-part series reminiscent of films like Breathtaking but intimate, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker.” We have the fog of war and how it distorts reality when the warrior returns to the United States.

At its center is athletic beauty Zoe Saldaña. She plays Joe, a CIA special ops team leader who is used to, if not quite comfortable with, making life or death decisions on the fly. With blood on her hands, she leads a dangerous game. His top-secret team searches for high-value targets by identifying their wives, girlfriends and children. Once those bonds are established, she inserts specially trained female undercover agents, like badass Marine Barbie Cruz Manuelos (star Laysla de Oliveira), to befriend the beloved ones. Once located, the agent provides eyes within generating information to flush out and capture terrorists.

A lot of things can go very wrong, very quickly. And often, it is.

Saldaña (the blue-skinned matriarch Neytiri of Avatar and the green-skinned Gamora of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise) holds the role: tough, bossy and as much in control as possible given the general chaos, the instability and constant danger. . Work-life balance? This privileged mother of two and wife of silver fox Neil (‘Yellowstone’ actor Dave Annable) seems more comfortable wearing a body armor in a sandstorm than breaking bread at her coffee table. suburb. With the terrorists, she is a warrior who knows who she is fighting against. For Joe, his own mercurial children present more mystery. We feel his pain.

Sheridan recruited a ringer to direct four episodes, including the pilot and finale: John Hillcoat. The Australian director directed Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in “The Road” and Guy Pearce in “The Proposition”. He knows how to visualize and tell a story that is both intimate and epic, propelled by dangerous circumstances that can be post-apocalyptic in its proportions.

A switch hitter with a knack for evoking strong performances, Hillcoat also thrives in quality television. He directed all six episodes of the Emmy-nominated limited series “George & Tammy” which won Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

In addition to driving strong performances, this level of talent behind the camera generates high-quality, striking visuals. The action sequences hook up well. The pacing is quick when it needs to be and smooth where it counts – whether in the opening all-out assault on an ISIS hornet’s nest in the desert, a swanky Kuwaiti luxury mall, or in the flattering soft light from Joe’s room.

With Saldaña, the series has big name acting skills attached. Michael Kelly and Nicole Kidman are CIA bureaucrats up the food chain. They share a scene in the first episode, berating Joe after a botched operation the agent was responsible for. Presumably, their characters will have more to do in subsequent shows. From the first, Morgan Freeman is still only a face on the poster.

All of this analysis stems from the screening of the pilot, which airs on Sunday. As the end credits rolled on Sheridan’s well-crafted thriller, I immediately wanted to find out what happens next. I had already invested myself in how Saldaña will lead her patriotic supermother through the dangerous benches and whirlwinds of international espionage — and motherhood at home.

“Special Ops: Lioness” airs Sunday, July 23 on Paramount+.

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