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Citadel review: a hollow spy thriller

Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas look at each other on a train in Citadel.
“Citadel is the latest addition to the Russo Brothers' growing collection of disappointing, low-brow genre exercises.”
Pros
  • A breakneck pace
  • Stanley Tucci and Lesley Manville's scene-stealing supporting performances
Cons
  • Clunky expositional dialogue throughout
  • Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas' stiff lead performances
  • Rough visual effects throughout

Citadel desperately wants to keep you on your toes at all times, but the most surprising thing about the new Amazon Prime Video original series is just how bad it looks. Like many of the movies and TV shows that Anthony and Joe Russo have been involved in, Citadel looks simultaneously expensive and cheap. Nearly every scene in its first three episodes, which were the only installments that were provided ahead of time to critics, are covered in filters that make everything in Citadel look shockingly low-rent. Even many of the show’s early action set pieces are hampered by bad CGI that makes the actors on-screen look like rubber dummies.

The series, which was executive produced by the Russo brothers, is a big-budget spy thriller with clear franchise ambitions that, whether intentional or not, feels more deeply indebted to the kind of zero-calorie storytelling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than it does to the James Bond or Jason Bourne franchises. That is to say that not only is Citadel a lightweight genre exercise, but it’s one in which the show’s characters are constantly forced to explain what’s happening on-screen even when you don’t need them to.

All of these decisions are designed to make Citadel go down easy. What wasn’t intended, however, is the cringe you’ll likely feel every time one of the show’s characters steps doe-eyed into another ham-fisted spy movie cliché.

Priyanka Chopra Jonas wears sunglasses on a train in Citadel.
Courtesy of Prime Video

Created by David Weil, Citadel follows Mason Kane (Richard Madden) and Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), a pair of lovelorn, but potentially treacherous spies who work for the show’s eponymous global espionage organization. When a seemingly simple job goes horribly wrong in Citadel’s opening episode, Mason and Nadia not only end up on different continents, but with all of their memories of their spy lives erased from their brains. From that point on, Citadel follows Mason and Nadia as a series of unfortunate developments force the two of them to reunite and go on the run, all while trying to piece together the wreckage of their lives.

Along for the ride is Bernard Orlick (Stanley Tucci), a smart, smarmy spy operative who somehow managed to survive the Citadel purge that left many of its agents, including Nadia and Mason, either dead or stranded without any idea of where to go or what to do next. Bernard locates Mason early on in Citadel, and it’s his actions that ultimately kick the series’ second act into gear. Unfortunately, Bernard’s reunion with Mason puts them and Nadia directly in the path of Dahlia Archer (Lesley Manville), a villainous representative for Manticore, a spy organization that originally was built to destroy Citadel.

As Dahlia sends her go-to enforcers, a pair of twins named Anders and Davik Silje (both played by Roland Møller), after Mason and Nadia, the two are forced to try to bring Manticore down while also navigating their own uncertain, complicated romantic history. In its third episode, Citadel even goes so far as to press pause on its present-day storyline for a prolonged flashback sequence that fills in several key moments in Mason and Nadia’s relationship. Try as it might, though, the series doesn’t make a convincing enough case for Nadia and Mason’s romance to let it actually ground Citadel‘s overstuffed espionage plot.

Stanley Tucci wears glasses and an earpiece in Citadel.
Paul Abell/Prime Video

Part of that is due to just how weighed down Citadel is by its own lore. It’s hard to become invested in Nadia and Mason’s relationship when nearly everything that seems to come out of their mouths, even when they’re flirting with each other, feels like a clunky kind of explanation. For their parts, Madden and Chopra Jonas don’t have enough chemistry on-screen to make up for the lackluster way in which their romance is written, either. Like everything else in Citadel, Mason and Nadia’s relationship feels more like a sketch of something you’ve already seen before than it does a passion-filled romance.

Only two of Citadel’s players make it out of the series relatively unscathed, and that’s Tucci and Manville. The two actors have long been regarded as some of the most talented and reliable screen performers alive today, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that they manage to bring delicious shades of camp to every ridiculous, jargon-filled line that Citadel throws at them. Nonetheless, Tucci and Manville are the only two actors in Citadel who seem aware of what kind of show they’re actually making, which is to say that they’re having the absolute time of their lives on-screen in the Amazon series. They make it easy, in fact, to occasionally get caught up in Citadel’s specific brand of ridiculousness.

Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas face each other in a restaurant in Citadel.
Paul Abell/Prime Video

Citadel, thankfully, doesn’t feel the need to rest too long on any of its many overblown twists and plot beats, either. The series clips along at a breakneck pace basically from the moment it begins, which makes it considerably easier to get through each episode without feeling the weight of the time spent on it. Of course, the show’s brisk pace doesn’t make its trope-filled espionage story any better. It simply prevents it from feeling as laboriously self-serious as it might otherwise have.

Whether or not its flaws prevent Amazon from following through on its franchise plans for Citadel remains to be seen. Not only has the series already been renewed for a second season by the streaming service, but several international spinoffs are said to be currently in development. The Russo Brothers, in other words, seem intent on building another franchise for themselves. Unfortunately, whatever goodwill the pair had accrued with their Marvel efforts has been steadily eroded by projects like Cherry, The Gray Man, and now Citadel. Their names being attached to a project shouldn’t be seen as an incentive anymore, but a warning.

The first two episodes of Citadel are streaming now on Prime Video. Digital Trends was given early access to the first three of the series’ first six episodes.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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