• Determined Doris (Abigail Spencer) with her right-hand man, Witt (W. Earl Brown). (SBS)Source: SBS
Vengeance and violence, formidable women who defy expectations, references to a gone-too-soon Hollywood heartthrob – this new rockabilly noir series has it all.
By
Sarah Ward

20 Apr 2020 - 11:40 AM  UPDATED 16 Apr 2020 - 12:29 PM

A woman wronged, left for dead and determined to seek revenge. Greaser gangs who brawl by day, then while away their nights in sleazy roadside bars filled with sultry pin-ups. An elusive criminal mastermind who leaves his underlings trembling at even the mention of his name – all except the sister who’ll stop at nothing to put him in his place.

That’s the premise of Reprisal, the slick, dark and complex new vengeance-fuelled rockabilly neo-noir series that plays like the lovechild of Kill Bill, Sin City, Grease and Sons of Anarchy.

It all begins, as many a tale about a resourceful and resolute femme fatale has, with an inciting incident: the first teetering domino that topples to sets the show’s whole chain of events in motion. In one of the initial images viewers are given of Katherine Harlow (Abigail Spencer), she’s chained behind a truck, horrified at the bloodied bodies around her and pleading with her brother, Banished Brawlers head honcho Burt (Rory Cochrane), not to take the next step. Her cries fall on deaf ears, the vehicle speeds forward and Katherine’s fate is seemingly sealed.

“Some years later”, in Detroit, blonde-bobbed Doris Quinn has sprouted in Katherine’s absence. Married to restaurateur Thomas (Ray McKinnon), she has kept mum about her past, even when specifically asked by her devoted but terminally ill and rapidly ailing husband. “I come from bad blood, Tommy. Bad blood, dark days. You changed all that, though, a good man like yourself,” she tells him.

She’s unwilling to puncture the facade of their wedded bliss with details of her rough background, not knowing that Thomas built his hospitality empire with help from local mob boss Big Graham (Ron Perlman), a hulking menace who isn’t too keen on Doris’ involvement in the business. 

A classic pulpy noir scenario

In a propulsive first episode, Reprisal lays its cards on the table, with audiences never in any doubt that Katherine/Doris’ past and present lives will converge. Complicating matters, however, is the initiation-by-fire that new Banished Brawlers recruit Ethan (Mena Massoud) endures when he tries to work his way into the gearhead gang.

Also throwing spanners into the works are the goings-on – both above board and illicit – at Burt’s chain of Bang-a-Rang clubs, where his daughter Meredith (Madison Davenport) both dances and deals drugs, and where second-in-charge Joel (Rodrigo Santoro) attempts to oversee operations. And, the Quinn family dramas continue, with Thomas’ son Colin (Michael Esper) in league with Big Graham.

Sporting a steely gaze that’s as potent as her self-defensive skills – which she puts to the test often – Doris is naturally unperturbed by any ostensible roadblocks in her path. That’s not her remit, or her character archetype’s. Femme fatales aren’t scared off by a challenge or bothered by traversing morally ambiguous territory. And, as the genre’s name makes plain, noir narratives lurk in hardboiled, murky, ethically dubious territory by design.

Indeed, if Reprisal had existed a century ago, spinning its tale of vengeance, gangs and murderous mayhem, it would’ve done so upon the cheap stock of a pulp magazine. The series’ revenge-filled scenario feels ripped from the pages of a noir pulp fiction story, perched as it is upon the shoulders of a clear antihero navigating a treacherous and lurid world, and doing whatever it takes to come out on top – and casting its protagonist as both a victim and a perpetrator amidst a spiralling blend of sex, violence and corruption, too. 

Trope-breaking women

That said, as created and co-written by Josh Corbin, Reprisal is eager to carve out its own niche. Neo-noir loves a complicated femme fatale, which means that Doris isn’t unique; however the fact that she’s the series’ focus, primary instigator and most formidable force is hardly commonplace, either.

Even in a genre that’s overflowing with thorny, enraged, empowered ladies, she stands out. If women in noir can be compared with roses – alluring to look at, and as spiky and prickly as they are appealing – she’s the prized flower in the garden.

Not only is Doris Reprisal’s main player – never standing in the shadow of a man; instead always casting her own – but crucial to the show is the character’s multi-faceted and -layered depiction. She’s ambitious, intelligent, organised and unswerving when it comes to achieving her aims; however she’s also far from perfect.

She frequently puts her own needs above others, including Colin’s mousy wife Molly (Bethany Anne Lind), who gets immersed in her revenge scheme. She’s committed to holding her own in any situation, but that doesn’t mean that she always makes the right choice. And she’s stubborn to the point of ignoring any and all advice when it doesn’t suit her.

Reprisal also paints its other main female characters with the same textured brush, and allows them the room to defy expectations in their personalities and their choices. Meredith, Molly and Bang-a-Rang pin-up matriarch Queenie (Lea DeLaria) can’t be defined by just one trait, no matter how much the men around them often wish otherwise.

Meredith isn’t an exotic dancer with a heart of gold, but a woman working every angle she can to get by regardless of – and often in spite of – her father. Molly is never a mere meek offsider caught in Doris’ plan like a rabbit in a trap, and Queenie rules her roost, takes gruff from no one yet ripples with tough love.

Recognisable pop-culture references in a distinctive, lived-in world

Of course, where Reprisal and its trope-breaking women tread, other pop-culture entities have stepped previously. This is a series that twists familiar parts into an entertaining new shape, while happily wearing its many sources of inspiration on its rolled-up sleeves. The blood-soaked carnage of Carrie, the meticulous onslaught of violence of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, the ’50s-era aesthetic and cliques of West Side Story, a bustling bar that could’ve stepped out of From Dusk Till Dawn (sans vampires) or Twin Peaks – throw in the behind-the-wheel fury and empowerment of Thelma and Louise, and Reprisal isn’t short on visible influences.

One of the series’ most idiosyncratic inclusions follows that same path: a gang-within-a-gang called the 3 River Phoenixes. Fans of ’80s and ’90s cinema, and of one of Hollywood’s rising stars of the time, will have no trouble spotting the reference, with Reprisal name-checking the gone-too-soon star of Stand By Me, My Own Private Idaho and Sneakers. In the show’s narrative, the 3 River Phoenixes move the Banished Brawlers’ money and contraband, literally.

 

They’re the first step into the crew’s world, with Ethan joining the trio alongside existing members Matty (Rhys Wakefield) and Johnson (David Dastmalchian). Their symbolism spans much further, though – in taking their moniker from a Hollywood heartthrob who met a tragic and untimely end, the 3 River Phoenixes become the poster boys for Reprisal’s pivotal blend of the tantalising and the dangerous.

The overt references, the subtle nods, all of the above contribute to the show’s distinctive, lived-in world, and to its gleeful stylistic melange. The Banished Brawlers and their rival gang, The Ghouls, could’ve stepped out of a film set seven decades ago, as could’ve the series’ choice of classic wheels and retro threads – and yet mobile phones are indispensable.

Mixing the old and the new in both its style and its inspirations, an enticing tapestry arises. Indeed, that’s Reprisal’s entire approach, weaving in strands both recognisable and unique to stitch together quite the wild, engrossing and purposefully pulpy ride.

Season 1 of Reprisal premieres on SBS at 8:30pm on Wednesday April 22 with a double episode. Single episodes then air weekly, and are available at SBS On Demand the day of broadcast.

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