They’re not messing around. They are coming in HOT, and the action is fast and furious.
I’m talking about the main characters in the four-part limited series “DMZ” on HBO Max, and I mean that in more ways than one. After a quick and frenzied prologue, we’re plunged into the main story with great vengeance and furious anger (as the man once said)—but even as the fists fly and shots are fired and chaos is the order of the day, I gotta say: These are some great-looking rebels and revolutionaries, and it’s pretty clear they know it.
When two main players find themselves at odds and decide to duke it out, bare-knuckled style, they tear off their shirts with the panache of Thunder Down Under dancers just to remind us of how they’ve managed to keep those pecs pumping and those abs six-packing, even as the world crumbles all around them.
A four-episode series available Thursday on HBO Max.
Based on the comic-book series created by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli and adapted by Robert Patino (“Sons of Anarchy”), “DMZ” takes place in the obligatory near future, where America has been torn in half by the Second Civil War, with the USA holding territories in the Northeast part of the country while the secessionist Free States Armies control most everything west. In between is the island of Manhattan, a demilitarized zone where various factions and gangs that look like something straight out of “The Warriors” (excellent costumes and makeup work!) are in command of their respective neighborhoods, with the leaders of the two most powerful crews about to face one another in an election to determine the first governor for the proposed Independent State of Manhattan.
Get it? Got it. In the aforementioned prologue, we see New York City medic Alma Ortega (Rosario Dawson—I told you this cast was gorgeous) get separated from her young son Christian (Bryan Gael Guzman) during the evacuation of New York City—losing him in the crowd just before one of the last buses is to leave. Cut to eight years later, with Alma risking her life to enter the forbidden DMZ in search of her son, despite warnings about 300,000 residents living in a world devoid of government, police or law of any kind. “These are people at their worst,” Alma is told.
Well, yes and no. True, anarchy is the rule of the day, but while some neighborhoods are hellholes where just crossing the street might get you shot, other factions are so colorful, so brimming with street life and music and neighborhood cheer, you half-expect everyone to break into a choreographed number set to a Lin-Manuel Miranda tune.
And as is the case with “The Walking Dead,” some formerly inconsequential individuals have transformed themselves into preening, well-dressed, loquacious, ruthless and charismatic leaders. Chief among them are those two crew chiefs: the smooth-talking, putative populist but deadly Parco Delgado (Benjamin Bratt, who looks ripped and amazing at age 58) and the even more impressively costumed and seemingly more level-headed Wilson Lin (Hoon Lee), who are battling one another in that gubernatorial election.
Turns out Alma has a past with each of them and tries to work both sides in an effort to reconnect with her son—but when she does find Christian (now played by Freddy Miyares, who has movie-star looks and charisma), she’s stunned to learn he has changed his name to Skel and has become a talented artist, but also a loyal lieutenant to none other than the dreaded Parco Delgado. A lot can happen in eight years, Alma!
With Ava DuVernay directing the first episode and Ernest Dickerson (Spike Lee’s star cinematographer, who also has directed episodes of “The Walking Dead,” “Dexter” and “The Wire”) taking over for the final three chapters, “DMZ” has a striking visual tone, from the dystopian landscapes of burnt-out Manhattan to the color-coordinated interiors that pop with bright shades of blues and oranges and reds.
As for the ambitious storylines, which include all of the above plus engrossing plot threads involving an adorable and brave orphan (Jordan Preston Carter), not to mention numerous parental threads: Alma rises to a position of prominence in such fast fashion you’ll almost wonder if you skipped an episode, and for all the big-picture stuff taking place inside and outside the DMZ, the confrontations are often intense but pretty small scale.
There’s no real discussion of what led to the second Civil War, no larger philosophical issues at play. It comes down to the usual post-apocalyptic tale about human beings who haven’t really learned anything after the world has been turned upside down and have resorted to the same old political gamesmanship and vicious turf wars in a mad grab for power and survival.
But boy, does everyone look good amidst all the graffiti and fallen skyscrapers and blood and bullets.