TV Preview

'24: Redemption' Puts Jack Bauer in a New World

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008

Jack's back after a good long rest, but he's not where we left him so many months ago on "24." He's no longer in L.A., where the freeways were always magically empty and the cellphone service was flawless. And he's not in the usual frame of mind, either. America's hardest-working counterterrorism agent apparently doesn't go for that torture stuff anymore.

No, from the look of things, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is living in a post-Cheney, post-Abu Ghraib, post-Gitmo world. In fact, in a two-hour TV movie (tonight at 8 on Channel 5) that is a "prequel" to the new season that starts in January, tough-guy Jack is -- awww -- on a humanitarian mission, out to save some nice orphan kids.

No, really.

Small as that sounds, the newly retooled "24" seems to have benefited from its lengthy hiatus, which was prompted by the Hollywood writers' strike earlier this year. The movie, called "Redemption," is a gripping and satisfying tale in its own right, and nicely sets up what's likely to come when the series finally returns in a few weeks after an 18-month absence. The retreaded "24" retains enough familiar "24" plotlines and characters (the indispensable Jack, of course) while refreshing the show with new some themes and locales, including Washington, which figures prominently in this, its seventh "day."

Three years after his last bit of unpleasantness, Jack is in self-imposed exile. He's not only disillusioned with the leaders of his country, who betrayed him, but he's also now on the lam. A new Congress is looking into the outgoing administration's handling of the war on terror, and they'd like to ask Jack a few questions about the "illegal detention and torture of prisoners." That can't be good.

The subpoena catches up to ex-agent Bauer in the tiny African nation of Sangala (South Africa, at its grittiest), where he's temporarily helping out an old friend at an American school for local boys. Jack can shake the summons if he keeps moving, but before he can do so, geopolitics intervenes.

It seems that Sangala, whose government is allied with the United States, is verging on a coup by a rebel army, whose brutal leaders force children into its ranks. The rebels are secretly funded by one of "24's" stock figures, the Shadowy Business Guy (played this time by the great Jon Voight). SBG's motives aren't fully apparent here, but give him time; he didn't go to Shadowy Business Guy college for nothing. Jack, of course, puts aside his subpoena-dodging long enough to help the children.

Meanwhile -- "24" has always been very big on "meanwhiles" -- a new president is about to be sworn-in in Washington. The new president (Cherry Jones) thinks military intervention in Sangala might not be such a bad idea, if it averts a Rwanda-style bloodbath. But she's opposed by, among others, the creepy outgoing president (Powers Boothe). Longtime "24" fans know where this is all headed: a very complicated plot to subvert the presidency and reorient events toward maximum chaos.

Before we get there, however, Jack has to extricate himself and his charges from the mounting mayhem around them. As in "Hotel Rwanda," which seems to have informed this story, the U.N. representatives are powerless to do much about the fighting ("24" gets a little heavy-handed in the depiction of a U.N. official's cowardice). There are well-staged crowd shootouts, helicopter combat and lots of stuff blowing up.

There's one gruesome scene of torture (this is "24," after all), this time involving a very nasty blade. But perhaps in keeping with "24's" new post-Bush-administration paradigm, our man Jack is on the receiving end, not dishing it out in the name of counterterrorism.

Sutherland still makes a fine action hero, though the years may be catching up to his iconic character. Jack doesn't quite move as he did way back in Season 1, when his whole nightmare began. Nevertheless, he's still capable of dodging automatic-weapons fire, not just once in two hours, but multiple times.

On the basis of all this, it's tempting to conclude that "24" has gotten its mojo back. It may have, but it's still early in the day. "24" has always been a strong starter, as conspiracies are laid out, new characters are introduced and new dangers are raised. It's the middle episodes that have always been problematic. As last season depressingly demonstrated, the series hits turbulence as the conspiracies and plots begin to back up and spill over, requiring ever more ludicrous resolutions involving miracles of timing and physics. Please, stop them before they subplot again!

Nevertheless, the time away may have given the producers time to actually think through their plot machinations. Perhaps, too, the change of scenery will provide the needed pick-me-up for this flagging franchise. It's not giving away too much to report that Bauer's Counter-Terrorism Unit has been written out of Season 7, as has L.A. (the CTU gang now works for a semi-secret unit of the FBI in Washington).

A bigger question might be what "24" has left to say about the war on terrorism. Debuting on Fox not long after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the series became a pet of conservatives for its unapologetic approach to national security. It played perfectly in an age of unseen dangers, and in an era of extraordinary rendition, secret CIA prisons and "enhanced interrogation techniques" (actual military interrogators reportedly studied "24").

But that era is over. Torture has been discredited and abandoned as official policy. "24" seems to have gotten that memo. Now it has to figure out what to do about it.

24: Redemption (two hours) airs tonight at 8 on Channel 5.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company