Review: Human Target (Pilot, Fox, 2010)

Director: Simon West
Writer: Jonathan E. Steinberg

The odd track my life has taken through and around comics over the last ~25 years means there’s a lot that I’ve missed that I’m only now getting to. While it occasionally makes me feel like I’m behind the curve, it does have the bonus of discovering a lot of things as if they were new. I was lucky enough to have to have a copy of Human Target: Living in Amerikaput in my hands by Cliff Chiang himself last summer in San Diego. (Overall, 2009 was a good year for me and hard-boiled crime comics. I also picked up Darwyn Cooke’s absolutely breathtaking Parker: The Hunter,and Ed Brubaker’s deluxe edition of Criminal.)

Human Target

Mark Valley as Christopher Chance

Human Target has an interesting hook to go along with it in addition to being a pretty lively hardboiled detective style crime drama. The protagonist, Christopher Chance, assumes the identity of a client in some form of trouble, usually the kind of trouble that needs a solution beyond the law, in order to draw the bad guy(s) out and, hopefully, turn the tables on them. Usually there’s an attractive woman involved, and Chance fights an ongoing battle with losing himself in the role. It adds an interesting psychological twist to the genre.

Therein lies my first real problem with Fox’s new tv series based on the character. There are no disguises. The mechanic seems to have been changed to Chance (played here by Mark Valley) conveniently taking the place of another person close to the client. In the pilot, he assumes the role of the client’s new translator, the previous one having just been conveniently fired. I can only imagine the change was made so as to avoid either hiding Valley’s face for an entire episode, or having to depend on other actors entirely. The changed setup might be more realistic, but still requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. (I find myself reminded of Bart and Lisa’s objection to Knightboat on The Simpsons. “Oh, every week there’s a canal.” “Or an inlet.” “Or a fjord.”) The act of physically losing his own identity is one of the things that makes Christopher interesting; reducing him to a pariah who kicks people by removing the disguise aspect loses something in the translation.

I can, however, look past a lot of things for good action fun, and for a pilot, the first episode of Human Target moderately delivers. I could wish for, say, the fight choreographer from Leverage, but Target has its moments. The scene where a classic  Air Vent Escape leads to a cargo compartment fight feels like a budget Bourne movie with all the quick, jarring cuts but no camera shake, which actually makes the jarring cuts more irritating. Fortunately, the fight ends on an amusing note and mostly makes up for the moment of viewer annoyance.

At the end of the day it’s the characters that make the difference. Even taking into account that this is his first episode in the role, Valley’s Chance is a bit flat and lacks some charisma. I allow that this might improve as the series continues, but right now it’s a little tough. I can only assume the trademark white sideburns were also lost to vanity, though I suppose they’d hinder Chance’s attempts to hide in plain sight.

Chi McBride plays Chance’s business partner Winston decently, but seems saddled with the role of resident nag.  Winston dislikes Chance’s jobs, loathes his friends, and constantly points out that Chance might be either suicidal, nuts, or “yes.” I find myself wondering how he makes a living.

Jackie Earle Haley is a treat to watch as Chance’s shady friend Guerrero, though. I found myself already wishing for a spinoff show just watching Haley tear into his hitter role. His opening scene– turning a pair of thugs from being ready to break his kneecaps to leaving with their tails between their legs through sheer force of will–  a great bit of television. I might give the next few episodes a go just on Guerrero’s characterization and Haley’s performance alone.

All in all, it’s a decent first showing, but I worry that it won’t hold up over the long run unless the showrunners address some of the weak points. Human Target seems to have traded away the nuances of the comic in favor of standard, hotheaded Fox-series action– the showing I watched did air right before the season premiere of 24, after all. We’ll have to wait to find out if the trade was worth it.