There’s a scene late in AMC’s sexy spy thriller The Night Manager in which star Tom Hiddleston, tailored to a swoon in a bespoke suit, suavely gestures to the barkeep and orders a drink: “Excuse me, sir, could I have a vodka martini, please?”
After the miniseries run of The Night Manager, a slick and highly entertaining cat-and-mouse romp (but mostly a six-episode Tom Hiddleston audition to be the next James Bond), it’s a wonder that our dashing hero doesn’t freeze in the frame right there, as whimsical animations take over the screen to the tune of a Shirley Bassey torch song.
That’s not a spoiler. It might be an endorsement.
After all, there are many reasons to watch the show that’s already obsessed audiences across the pond before Tuesday night’s stateside debut. That it gamely fills in the gap while we wait on another Bond film—and cleanses the spy palate after the ghastly nonsense orgy that was Spectre—is the least of them. (And with his performance, Hiddleston more than earns a potential license to kill.)
Based on John Le Carré’s 1993 espionage thriller of the same name, The Night Manager stylishly updates the novel’s events for a more immediate modern-day resonance. (Specifically, in the midst of the Arab Spring.)
We meet Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston), a former soldier and the best damned night manager at a Cairo hotel you’ve ever met.
He encounters the mistress of a corrupt member of Egypt’s most powerful family. He senses she’s in danger. They fall, with the swiftness of 007 in pheromone-sniffing distance of a leggy blonde, in love—and in bed. And you know the rule about the first Bond Girl: tragedy ensues.
Quickly, he finds himself entrenched in an undercover mission to bring down the man responsible, an English billionaire named Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a corrupt arms dealer in the costume of a wealthy philanthropist.
At the behest of British intelligence officer Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), Hiddleston is soon criss-crossing the globe, assuming identities to help him infiltrate Roper’s inner circle and plunging into a bit of personal darkness along the way.
The tenets we’ve come to expect from spy thrillers are all there: the fetishizing of opulence, the giddiness of being dastardly, the beleaguered bravery of the hero, the sexiness of the whole “kill or be killed” mantra, and the bevy of baddies who are not what they seem. It’s all slick and silly but, like the best of Daniel Craig’s Bond outings, it has just enough unexpected edge to make it truly compelling.
The acting, especially, is spectacular. Everyone has to live up to lofty descriptions, and then the loftier challenge of characterizing those descriptions without succumbing to the genre’s worst clichés.
Laurie’s Richard Roper, for example, is branded by Colman’s Burr as “the worst man in the world.” The House star channels all the arrogance and danger such a moniker might project, but directs it with a calculated ease and tangible intelligence. This kind of story is famous for mustache-twirling, scenery-hungry villains. Turns out it’s far more interesting when the guy is actually human.
As for Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine, Burr nails it from the get-go: “You’re too bloody perfect, Jonathan Pine, that’s your trouble.” We meet him in episode one, fearlessly walking through the uprising in Egypt’s streets and making it to the hotel unscathed. “You walked? Through that?” he’s asked. “I’ve seen worse,” Pine responds, with that classic spy-hero shrug.
He’s all conscience and nobility as he tries desperately to help our first damsel in distress, and all heartache and vengefulness when he fails. As consequences become rabbit holes and Hiddleston, motivated by his dark-knight loss, dives in, Burr’s second estimation becomes Pine’s character’s arc.
“There’s half a psychopath in there,” she says, enlisting him in her life’s work of taking down Roper—at once warning him of what it will take and inspiring him to jump off the ledge. Of course, he does so with effortless, Bond-ian grace, barely a hair follicle budging as he leaps. “There’s not a scrap of you that won’t be used,” Burr says. “There’s not an hour that you won’t be scared, but you will nail him.”
Hiddleston, seemingly taking the torch from Benedict Cumberbatch as Hot Brit of the Year, is in a bit of a career moment, and his work in The Night Manager underwrites any potential Hollywood has invested in him.
He may just be the most in-shape graveyard shift hotel employee of all time, and The Night Manager blessedly sexualizes every ab on that washboard as often as it Bond-Girl-objectifies the series’ female leads (Elizabeth Debicki especially).
And while the Internet is a bounty of love letters and memes devoted to Hiddleston’s blue eyes—the kind that laser directly into your body and start heating up your nether regions—they’re also used here as an essential acting tool.
For all the badassery and action star thugness of The Night Manager, Pine’s character is really quite often a reactive one. And as the action cuts unsettlingly across timelines and far-flung exotic locales, it’s the way those eyes react to these new scenes that puts you both at ease while you figure out what the hell is going on and also excites you as you watch Pine figure out what the hell is going on and what his next move will be.
More, Hiddleston never tunnel-visions Jonathan Pine’s transformation from literal night manager to newest globe-trotting member of the coterie of kickass J-men: Jason Bourne, James Bond, and Jack Bauer. Behind every sorrowful stare, roguish ruse, real-time analysis, or even violent beat-down are the lingering pains that pushed him into this life in the first place.
Perhaps it’s PTSD from his days as a soldier in the Iraq War. Maybe he’s constantly haunted by the loss he’s suffered. To explain further would spoil things. But what Hiddleston’s accomplished is no small feat: an action hero with gravitas.
We’ve seen this all before. The good guy’s descent into darkness, the cat-and-mouse thriller, the escapist action series, the on-location porn. Does The Night Manager do it any better than we’re used to? Sure, quite often. But at least it almost never does it any worse.
At a time when goriness and the supernatural pervade event dramas, when the best miniseries admirably (if occasionally pedantically) blanket their narratives with issues, and the contenders for the next Don Draper have all gone down like weakly watered-down bourbon, The Night Manager injects the prestige series with a little bit of fun and sexiness. And with Hiddleston: a complicated lead who’s both shaken and stirred.