Is Chris Pratt a Viable Action Star? His Military Turn in ‘The Terminal List’ Is a Serious Test

·11 min read

About midway through “The Terminal List,” Chris Pratt gives the speech. You know the speech. It pops up in military action movies or shows when the enlisted hero has to explain why he does what he does. Typically, it sounds a lot like Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” — “You want me on that wall, you need me on that wall” — only without the villainous underpinnings. More honorable speeches echo Eric Bana in “Black Hawk Down,” or Mark Wahlberg in “Lone Survivor.” But Pratt is giving the pissed-off version, taking Col. Nathan R. Jessup’s righteous fury and applying it to another popular genre trope: the rogue mission.

“You know downrange, what they like to say is that what we do is for freedom,” Pratt, playing Navy SEAL Commander James Reece, says. “But what it really is, there’s evil in this world. It’s our job to look it in the eye because most folks don’t have the balls. That’s the job. We do it. All you gotta do is pay your taxes and stay out of our way.”

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Now, “because most folks don’t have the balls” may lack the Sorkin-esque flair of “words like ‘honor,’ ‘code,’ ‘loyalty’ — we use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline,” but then again, Pratt is no Nicholson. He’s the hero, not the villain. He’s telling it like it is for a bad man he’s about to punish, not getting tricked into confessing his irrepressible truth. And he’s not an Oscar-winning, classically trained, Actor. He’s just a dude, playing another dude.

…disguising a dude trying to become the next great action star. Pratt, technically, has been an action star for some time now, but he broke out in comedies and, arguably, remains best known for being funny. Over the years, his marquee projects have involved fewer jokes and more thrills, culminating in his latest leading role in “The Terminal List” — a black-as-night military thriller. But whether that’s the right direction for Pratt’s skillset and career begs a deceptively tricky question: Do people really want to see Chris Pratt as an action star?

His first military role came in “Zero Dark Thirty,” and as soon as he got jacked, blockbuster parts rolled in. Two years later, he led “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Then he ran the “World” in the second “Jurassic Park” trilogy (as Navy veteran Owen Grady). In between Marvel projects and dinosaur fights, he slung guns in “The Magnificent Seven” remake, risked his life for space romance in “Passengers,” and time-traveled into “The Tomorrow War.” The man’s resume as an action star speaks for itself.

Or does it? “The Tomorrow War” went straight to streaming, so it’s difficult to compare a movie included in subscribers’ Prime memberships with ones they specifically pay to see. “Passengers” disappointed at the box office (even with Jennifer Lawrence as the co-lead), and whatever success is attributed to “The Magnificent Seven” — like his far more profitable MCU and “Jurassic” projects — isn’t necessarily tied to Pratt. (That’s a Denzel Washington movie first and a remake of a classic western second.) In addition, almost all of Pratt’s action vehicles (“Guardians” movies aside) have been met with a critical drubbing, and his three non-franchise action flicks provided few, if any, indication they could stand the test of time.

Enter “The Terminal List.” His latest effort arrives in almost identical fashion to his last streaming project. Like “The Tomorrow War,” “The Terminal List” is being released on a Fourth of July weekend. Both are available via Prime Video (predominantly). Both star Pratt as a military officer (an active Navy Commander in “Terminal List” and a retired Green Beret in “Tomorrow War”) whose primary mission is an unexpected one. Prime Video doesn’t release viewership statistics, so like last year’s semi-verified hit — which, in addition to Prime Video putting a sequel into development, third-party services collectively gauged as an above-average performer for the service — we won’t know exactly how well “The Terminal List” does even after it’s been out for a few weeks.

Even with these key similarities, Pratt’s latest still marks an evolution of his public identity and a test for his broader appeal. In “The Terminal List,” Pratt plays James Reece, a Navy SEAL commander deployed on a dangerous mission that proves to be a catastrophic failure. His team is slaughtered. He barely escapes himself, and the man who returns to his wife, Lauren (Riley Keough), and daughter, Lucy (Arlo Murtz), suffers severe memory problems. Then tragedy strikes at home, and the still-recovering marine has to sort fact from fiction in order to save his life, avenge the fallen, and expose the truth.

“The Tomorrow War” - Credit: Amazon
“The Tomorrow War” - Credit: Amazon

Amazon

Compared to “The Tomorrow War,” what stands out right away is the grim tone. As befits its title, “The Terminal List” is deadly serious throughout. Taylor Kitsch, as Reece’s basic training buddy Ben, sadly does not provide the same comic relief as Sam Richardson. Reece’s enemies aren’t vicious, CGI aliens, but flesh-and-blood men; men he tortures and executes throughout the eight-episode season. Its gruesome nature is striking, even for those who can get on Reece’s cold-hearted wavelength. Without getting into spoilers, Reece’s motivation isn’t as noble Dan Forester’s. In “The Tomorrow War,” Dan is drafted into service to protect humanity, including his wife and daughter. In “The Terminal List,” James Reece is out for revenge — and boy does he get it.

Playing James Reece both advances and narrows Pratt. Robbed of Starlord’s consistently disarming humor or even Dan Forester’s absurdity-acknowledging quips, he has to ground his character on a sliding scale between anguish and anger. Luckily, that’s a range action fans have grown accustomed to over the years. A stereotypical “man’s man” in the movies (or TV) doesn’t have a vast emotional spectrum, and men in the military are often depicted as closed-off; repressing their complicated feelings behind a socially acceptable stoicism. So while James Reece cuts Pratt off from his best asset — comedy — it does so without requiring additional dimensions in return.

Still, great actors know how to expose a character’s complexities even when the character isn’t conscious of them. Bradley Cooper’s turn in “American Sniper” earned him an Oscar nomination, and even in brief scenes like this one, it’s easy to see why. While being thanked by another soldier for saving his life, the seemingly simple exchange is loaded with subtext embodied by the actor. There’s a melody of emotion dancing behind the indifferent expression on Cooper’s face, but it’s also conveyed in his physicality. He’s uncomfortable, both with the expression of gratitude and with his young son hearing it, but he doesn’t want to be disrespectful or unwelcoming to a fellow veteran. He’s still tied to the oft-referenced brotherhood, even as he’s becoming disillusioned with war and his family’s role in it.

All of those feelings come through without expository assistance from the script, or even Cooper’s scene partner, Jonathan Groff, who gets to play his role with pure sincerity, rather than give over-the-top, instructive reactions so the audience knows what to see in Cooper’s troubled sniper. Whether viewers specifically recognize the attributes of performances like Cooper’s doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they feel them.

“The Terminal List” is a far cry from “American Sniper,” even though Pratt seems to be channeling Cooper throughout (with his depression beard, growling baritone, and deadened expression). His series isn’t a true story, nor does it dwell much on verisimilitude outside the consistent military jargon. (If you drink every time someone says “brother” or uses acronyms, get ready for a July 4th hangover.) Still, it rests the drama on Pratt and rarely does the actor manage to convey more than one emotion at a time. Nor do his chosen states of mind feel sharpened in a way that action fans tend to appreciate. Imagine Keanu Reeves’ indelible rage in “John Wick,” Mark Wahlberg’s swagger-infused shit-talking in “Sniper,” or the way Bruce Willis’ icy stare remains unquestionably intimidating, no matter the film. In the past, these actors have been (falsely) accused of being one-note, inauthentic, or otherwise muted. They emerged as viable action stars anyway by hitting the targets provided in each assignment.

Pratt hasn’t found that trademark second gear — not yet, and certainly not with “The Terminal List.” Reviews have been scathing. As of its July 1 premiere date, the show’s Metacritic rating sits at 35, indicating “generally unfavorable reviews.” TV Guide’s Liam Mathews offers the kindest individual assessment, calling Pratt’s performance “strong in the most serious lead role of his career.” But then there’s The AV Club’s Todd Lazarski, who writes Pratt sports “an occasional thousand-yard stare so vacuous, so PTSD-soured that it looks like he’s either forgotten his dialogue or is taking a beat to consider how the winding paths of his varied career got him here.” Daniel Fienberg, reviewing for The Hollywood Reporter, concedes Pratt’s “unrelentingly glum” turn could be covered up by action if contained to a movie’s shorter runtime, but this eight-hour series “makes use of none of Pratt’s established appealing traits.” Variety’s Daniel D’Addario sums Pratt up in the headline: “charisma-free.”

After eight hours without a smile, let alone a joke, “The Terminal List” begs another question. Why is Pratt pursuing action stardom if he’s better suited for comedy? For one, his respect and investment in the military appears personal. His brother, Daniel “Cully” Pratt, is an Army veteran who served for eight years. Pratt often expresses his thanks to servicemen and women, via interviews and social media. Twitter reaction to his various associations and comments may also play a part in his devotion to the action genre, which courts an audience who’s less active on the platform, at least in terms of calling out celebrity faux pas.

Overall market conditions may also be affecting Pratt’s pursuit of action stardom. There are more opportunities (and more lucrative opportunities) in action than comedy. While many may always think of Pratt as Andy Dwyer, “Parks and Rec’s” affable doofus, the financial upside for him to stay fit for action flicks rather than coast on supporting or even lead roles in comedies is clear. In film, fewer comedies are being made, especially with theatrical releases. In TV, network sitcom hits are few and far between. Popular or respected comedies like “Barry,” “Atlanta,” “Hacks,” “Only Murders in the Building,” and even “Ted Lasso” aren’t just comedies. Some are stealth dramas, some are black comedies, some are mysteries, and some, yes, are action-driven.

Chris Pratt and Taylor Kitsch in “The Terminal List” - Credit: Courtesy of Prime Video / Amazon Studios
Chris Pratt and Taylor Kitsch in “The Terminal List” - Credit: Courtesy of Prime Video / Amazon Studios

Courtesy of Prime Video / Amazon Studios

Since comedy is widely considered subjective, action-dramas are safer bets (especially from a studio executive’s mindset). Just look at “The Terminal List”: Arriving just in time for July 4th celebrations, it’s draped in American flags, crisp military uniforms, and plenty of rah-rah freedom rhetoric. Maybe it’s not the best show, but many may feel like they should watch this weekend anyway. Beyond the holiday — and beyond the parallels to his past Prime Video project — the series ticks off genre cliché after genre cliche: There’s a conspiracy. There’s a rogue agent. There are flashy (though very dark) action scenes aplenty. Twists stack up almost as high as bodies. Any audience member who just wants a straightforward action series will get exactly what they expect.

Is that good enough to entrench Chris Pratt as an action star? Defining an action star’s public demand is extremely complicated. Movie stars are all but extinct; Hollywood replaced them with franchises, brands, and I.P. Then there’s streaming, which makes gauging star power difficult given how viewing statistics are kept hidden, and what’s actually seen is often dictated by an algorithm anyway. An audience’s investment in an actor may not outweigh their investment in a platform — they may settle for a show with a less desirable lead simply because it’s the one available on the service they’re paying for.

For Pratt, his third military role looks to complete the transformation from sitcom sidekick to action hero, but even with big blockbusters behind him, the key endorsement is ultimately up to viewers. Back in 2011, for a story pegged to the release of Tom Hardy’s new movie, “Warrior” (where he plays a marine who becomes an MMA fighter), the LA Times caught up with Sgt. Cy Sibounma, and the motor transport chief who completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan summed up his thoughts on actors playing military men clearly.

“You can get the haircut right, the boots, but you can’t emulate a Marine,” Sibounma said at the time. “It’s the intangible things that movies get wrong, the character, what’s inside.”

Looked at through the opposite lens, that’s what movies get right: They show the audience what’s inside an actor, and it’s up to the audience to decide if that’s someone they can respect.

“The Terminal List” is available on Prime Video.

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