See the best, skip the rest. Get expert opinion on the best and worst of film and TV.
Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to true lies well – filled with a cameo by Tom Arnold! – with harmful (released May 25 on Netflix), playing a famous super spy whose time and energy is divided between fighting international terrorists and keeping his work a secret from his family.
The twist, so to speak, is that this time he also has a daughter who he discovers is in his line of work! The premises don’t get much more trite than this, nor are they any slower executed. As a cigar-smoking, shooting hero, the action-movie legend remains as charismatic as ever. His first foray into television, however, is a comedy assignment that’s all too possible to turn down.
Schwarzenegger is Luke Brunner, a decorated CIA agent who is about to retire. Luke is eager to hand over his pistol, say goodbye to his teammates, and focus on winning back his ex-wife Tally (Austin Powers‘ Fabiana Udenio), who left him 15 years earlier due to his constant absences, the result of his clandestine career, which he hid from everyone, pretending to be a gym equipment salesman alongside his spy partner, Barry (Milan Carter).
However, before he can begin to rejuvenate his marriage, Luke is recruited by CIA Director Dot (Barbara Eve Harris) to complete one last task: neutralizing an arms dealer named Boro (The last of us‘ Gabriel Luna), with whom he shares a special bond. It turns out that Luke killed Boro’s father and vainly tried to keep Boro in line by serving as his anonymous benefactor.
Boro’s evil plan is to sell a portable nuclear suitcase to other bad guys, and since he knows Luke (under an old alias), he gladly welcomes Schwarzenegger’s protagonist to his base. What Luke finds are not just mercenaries, but his daughter Emma (Top Gun: Maverick‘s Monica Barbaro), who claimed to be employed by an NGO.
Both are predictably mad at each other for a lifetime of lies about who they are and what they do, and if those disappointments aren’t enough to bring them together as soul mates, their habit of prioritizing work before loved ones more than underscores their similarities – especially since Emma is in a serious relationship with dorky middle school teacher Carter (Jay Baruchel), who has no idea his girlfriend is a Atomic Blonde– grade butt kicker.
Created by Nick Santora, harmful is the story of a feuding father-daughter pair as they try to save the world, each episode marked by Emma blaming Luke for being a lazy father and Luke countering by first criticizing her taste in men (i.e. cowardly Carter ), and then berate her for lying to him when his heart (and libido) starts to wander.
After approximately 10 minutes of such argumentation, they’ve said all there is to say about their intertwined situations, and yet the series refuses to move beyond its central conflict. In its third episode, harmful is already bouncing around like a hideously scratched record, having its two protagonists rehash their fundamental grievances to insufferably pointless ends. Will they discover that they are really equals and learn to work together? Sure, but it’ll take eight hours of heavy discussion to get there.
there is more to harmful than just Schwarzenegger and Barbaro’s feud – though it’s just as sad. Emma is soon to collaborate not just with Luke, but with his team, a collection of colorful typefaces designed to give the material a playful personality. Barry is a bland fellow who loves all things nerdy and can’t stop making easy pop culture references (Harry PotterHan Solo, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Back to the future part II).
Newcomer Tina (Aparna Brielle) somehow has eyes for Barry, which is so ridiculous that it immediately rings out as a red flag. Aldon (Travis Van Winkle) is the handsome operative whose main skill is wooing women with his sexual charms. His best friend Roo (Fortune Feimster), meanwhile, is the prankster of the bunch, as is another character with lingering daddy issues – an element that’s almost as dark as his one-liners.
There’s a lot of action in harmful, but it’s of an amateurish kind, and downplayed by the show’s directors shooting and cutting the fact that the 75-year-old Schwarzenegger doesn’t move like he used to — or, for that matter, a lot. The star’s conspicuous lack of athleticism is an adrenaline drain on the proceedings, as is the PG-rated choreography that’s torn between thrill-seeking and humor.
Neither is in large numbers throughout these eight installments, which find Luke and his compatriots driving runaway bullet trains, breaking into Turkish prisons, and (in the most arbitrarily mushy subplot) torturing civilians to save Luke’s sick granddaughter. Long-drawn-out and devoid of laughs, these assignments simply provide more opportunities for Luke and Emma to butt heads – and, also, for everyone else to get mad at each other when their personal and professional lives collide.
Despite Schwarzenegger’s still robust magnetism, harmful it’s beneath its main attraction, awash as it is in simplistic parenting and work-life issues that never quite manage to offset their conventionality with wit.
Schwarzenegger repeatedly saying the word “chopper” and quoting Play the train mom (because he loves it – and his Twins– co-star Danny DeVito) is emblematic of the show’s lazy approach to comedy, and having Luke refer to his CIA-hired therapist, Dr. Pfeffer (Scott Thompson) as “Dr. Pimenta” and not knowing what the word “cuckold” really means doesn’t help. Even its inadequacy feels strained and aloof, epitomized by a joke about Roo’s mangled foot that’s undermined by the show’s reluctance to show us the grotesque in question.
Without Schwarzenegger’s participation, harmful would not exist; its writing is too unoriginal and cheesy, and its direction too flat and tame to survive on its own. That the Hollywood titan saw this Netflix venture as a way to revel in — and at the same time reaffirm — his reputation as a man of action is clear from the celebration of his history as a peerless, badass villain. Anyone interested in understanding why Schwarzenegger is one of the icons of his time, however, would be better off checking out the ’80s and ’90s classics that really defined his on-screen legacy.