The television mini-series called “The Mosquito Coast” that premieres Friday on Apple TV+ has so little in common with the best-selling 1981 novel of that name that comparison doesn’t get you far. This is true even though the novelist, Paul Theroux, is an executive producer of the show and his nephew Justin Theroux is the star.
There are, in very broad outline, a few points of contact. The main character, Allie Fox, is still an underemployed genius and a crackpot inventor, who on the spur of the moment transports his family to Latin America. People die as a result of this decision. There are vultures, a farmer named Polski and a box that makes ice using fire rather than electricity.
But in the hands of the writer and producer Neil Cross, best known for the cult-favorite British cop show “Luther,” this “Mosquito Coast” is a new beast entirely. What began life as an allegorical adventure-fantasy about American exceptionalism and decline — and stayed that way in the 1986 film starring Harrison Ford — is now an action thriller of the slowly unfolding, tastefully photographed variety. The story, through the first season’s seven episodes, is a Mexico-set narco-noir in the foreground and a deep-state American conspiracy puzzler in the background, closer in spirit to Robert Stone than to Paul Theroux.
The biggest change is in Allie. Instead of the charismatic, cranky and increasingly crazy visionary who voluntarily uproots his family in search of a paradise in the Honduran jungle, we get something more TV-ordinary — a mystery man, hiding from the government, whose past remains murky (facilitating possible future seasons). Forced to flee the country with his wife and two teenage children, this new Allie exhibits can-do MacGyver-like practical skills, though they are significantly reduced from the book, as are his ruthlessness and his propensity for “the world is going to hell” rants. As played, with an affable low-key intensity, by Justin Theroux, he has the affect of a slightly sociopathic soccer dad.
If you haven’t read, or didn’t like, the book, this “Mosquito Coast” has its charms. Justin Theroux and Melissa George, as Allie and his wife, Margot, work well together. They find some new notes in the familiar action-movie scenario of loving-but-squabbling parents on the run, trying to limit the damage they’re doing to their children. Logan Polish is good as the elder child, an alternately loyal and rebellious daughter.
The Mexican locations, both rural and urban, are photographed in an elegant, sometimes gorgeous (if also somewhat static) fashion. The films of Alejandro González Iñárritu may come to mind; the show’s stylistic ambitions are also signaled by visual references to Orson Welles films like “Touch of Evil” and “The Lady From Shanghai.”
And Cross, who created the series and wrote or co-wrote the first three episodes, is a skilled melodramatist who knows how to keep you hooked into a story, even when it starts to leave reality completely behind (as this one does around Episode 4). The flight of the Foxes brings them into contact with federal agents, human traffickers, border militiamen and drug cartels in a slowly dizzying whirl of coincidence and gratuitous violence.
Looniest, and most entertaining, is the arrival of the always vivid Ian Hart in skinny black suit and fedora, wielding a straight razor and commanding an army of Mexico City street children. Between assassinations, he pecks away at a novel on a vintage Smith Corona, in what one hopes is a Warren Zevon reference.
For those who value common sense and normal psychology, the secrets and thrills of Cross’s “Mosquito Coast,” no matter how artfully presented, probably won’t compensate for its general battiness. And the taste for the lurid that he has demonstrated in his British shows is on regular display here, in flashes of dead-animal grotesquerie, baroque killing methods and a tableau mort out of “Silence of the Lambs.”
The larger problem with this first season is that, despite its drumbeat of violent action and its continual tugging at the themes of family devotion versus parental secrecy, nothing really happens. In terms of story and character, we end up exactly where we started. There is a hint, though, that the Foxes might actually be on their way to the Mosquito Coast, which would at least constitute a reason for having kept the title.
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