I was always going to be an easy sell for Arrow, the new CW-produced TV series based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow. I was a comics retailer for seven years, I’m still a comics journalist in various capacities and I’ve written one or two in my time. Nothing large, nothing you’ll have heard of odds are but I speak fluent comic. I can order coffee in it, book a hotel room, ask directions to the cinema and arrange for a meal with a variety of people, all of whom have different dietary requirements. I speak comic fluently. With that in mind, Arrow was always going to attract my attention. If nothing else, the several sterling years service Justin Hartley did as Green Arrow on Smallville are amongst my favorite supporting character turns of recent years. Hartley played Oliver Queen as an analogue of the movie version of Tony Stark; quick witted, dry, self destructive. He was a billionaire playboy genius philanthropist too, he was just much more interested in team work than Tony ever was.
Arrow, and Stephen Amell’s portrayal of Oliver Queen, are very, very different.
For a start, the stylistic change since Hartley’s years on Smallville is there for all to see. We’re in the era of the Mixed Martial Artist and Parkour runner as male body image ideal and that’s exactly what Amell looks like. He has a shaved head within a scene of getting back to the states and his workout regime is one part Parkour, one part Yoga and one part Muay Thai kickboxing.
Let’s stop and talk about violence for a moment, specifically the martial arts. The fighting style of an action character, nowadays, is as much a calling card as their costume or their car. One of the things that made Haywire so distinctive was not only Gina Carano’s status as a legitimate world class martial artist but a world class Thai boxer. She moved, and fought, differently to everyone else in Western action cinema and it left an impression that’s propelled Carano out of the myriad failings of that particular movie into what looks to be a long and deserved career.
The sense of veracity, of real effort and skill she brought with her locked neatly into the functional brutality of the Bourne movies. Both Matt Damon and Jeremy Renner’s characters are trained in how to cause as much damage as fast and efficiently as possible and the end result is a series of fight scenes which tell you as much about what isn’t present as what is; they fight on auto pilot, precise human drones executing their orders where characters like Carano’s Mallory have a welcome, and at times vital, frayed edge to them. Likewise, Arrow. I was impressed initially that Amell looked the part and that the stunt team had given the character a coherent fighting style. Form follows function and character follows form in stories like this.
Amell’s Queen isn’t just a hood, an old bow and a seething sense of justice though. This sort of character, Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, Oliver Queen, is very much a cookie cutter in terms of initial narrative form. All three have horrific past trauma, all three have vowed to use their wounds as the foundation to make amends to the world. All three pretend to be feckless playboys. Although, let’s face it, it’s a safe bet for Tony we could call it method acting.
But with Oliver Queen, Amell lets you see the effort it takes to put the mask back on. It’s an extremely still, measured performance and the only times he lets himself be awkward are when he’s shifting gear back up into feckless billionaire mode. It almost pains him to do, there’s such a palpable sense of Oliver wanting to get the real work done and resenting having to put his ‘face’ back on. Five years alone on what may be the most unpleasant looking island in recent televisual history haven’t just honed Oliver Queen, they’re stripped everything away. He’s a sharpened point of obsidian, just like one of his arrowheads and anything that gets in the way is a nuisance at best and a threat at worst. This is a man with no qualms about killing, almost no sense of grey areas and that, for now, is clearly powered by what we see him start to learn about his father. There’s no front left to Oliver Queen and putting one feels pained, forced, uncomfortable.
It’s a central performance of remarkable nuance for what should be the latest instalment in the CW’s ‘Pretty people hitting one another’ programming band and, were it the only good performance in here, it would still be enough to hang the show off. However, the rest of the cast is built up in such a way that it becomes clear Oliver has swapped a shipwreck for a jungle. If the island belonged to Prospero, then Starling City belongs to Claudius.
Or, more specifically, Colin Salmon as Walter Steele. Salmon is indicative of much of the rest of the cast, all of them well known for being solid to exceptional supporting players. Salmon had a memorable turn in the first Resident Evil and was the best Bond the Broccolis were too afraid to cast during the Pierce Brosnan years, reading Bonds’ lines during screen tests but relegated to a supporting role for the actual films. He’s joined by Katie Cassidy, who made her name as the first, savagely effective incarnation of the demonic Ruby on Supernatural. Here she’s Oliver’s former lover, Dinah Lance. The producers have sensibly ditched the incomprehensible comic origins of Dinah and instead positioned her as a Lois Lane-alike, albeit an attorney. The transition from two fisted vigilante to lawyer is remarkably smooth; she still likes to fight, it’s just a different kind of combat, and Cassidy plays the role with exactly the weary, aware charm it requires. She’s one of the most interesting leading ladies of her generation and Arrow shows every intention of giving her a role to sink her teeth into.
That same charm is present in John Ramsey’s role as Diggle, Oliver’s assigned bodyguard. Ramsey’s turn in a recent season of Dexter was a standout and he impresses here too, albeit in an entirely different way. Diggle, named for the writer of Year Zero, the story much of Oliver’s origin in the show draws from , is a polite, quiet wall of physical calm and, as a result, near infinite threat. His interactions with Oliver are courteous, intimidating and very funny, but what really impresses is that Diggle is written as a man with his eyes open. One memorable scene, at Oliver’s welcome home party, sees him confiscate drugs from his little sister and throw them away. He does this all but silently. Diggle notices. It’ll be interesting to see how his relationship with his boss changes based on that little moment.
Diggle, though, is not the only one to notice it. Oliver’s best friend, Tommy Merlyn, played by Colin Donnell, is every inch the feckless playboy Oliver can no longer pretend to be. Tommy assumes his friend will drop straight back into a life of debauchery, complete with wine, women, song and litigation. He’s charming, feckless and amoral. Next to Oliver he barely looks alive, despite being the more animated of the two. What makes him fascinating though is the tiny little hints, breadcrumbed through the script, that Tommy notices far more than he lets on. Tommy sees Oliver dump the drugs and, when they’re kidnapped earlier in the episode, Tommy’s statement to the police feels rehearsed, edited. He may be the more brash of the two, but Tommy could be as much a threat as anyone else on the cast. Each one presents a different threat to Oliver, whether it’s the natural affection he feels for Reza, the maid who raised him , or the fact that Tommy doesn’t register as a threat at all. He’s even under threat from the law, in the form of Detective Quentin Lance, played by yet another effortlessly great character actor, Paul Blackthorne. The father of Dinah, and her sister, who Oliver took with him on the disastrous cruise five years ago and died when the boat sank, Blackthorne plays Lance as a calm, focussed, enraged father. He knows there’s more to Queen than he’s letting on, but his own prejudices are already starting to lead him down the wrong path.
A best friend who may be more than he seems, a former lover grieving not only for the loss of their relationship but of a relative, a grieving father determined to bring him to justice, a father in law with everything to lose, a bodyguard who sees too much and, in the closing seconds of the first episode, a mother directly responsible for his time in hell. This is a cast of characters of near-Shakespearean inter-relation, each one intimately connected to at least one another and each one with their own agenda and quite happy to defend that agenda with other people’s lives. No one is safe, no smile ever meets the eyes and nothing on the surface is true. There’s something rotten in Starling City, and it’s least favorite son, driven by his dying father’s legacy, has returned to clean it up. The oldest stories are often the best ones and the only question Arrow leaves hanging is whether or not any of the cast will be upright by the closing curtain.