While occasionally deploying anachronistic ‘80s rock songs to lighten the mood and using title cards that can probably be best described as graffiti-chic, “Rogue Heroes” is both utterly unbelievable and, well, mainly true to the facts. Based on the book by Ben Macintyre, it’s also really good: a violent, absurd tale of borderline insane men who will do anything for Britain to win the war. It also doesn’t hurt that Jack O’Connell gives one of his most gloriously unhinged performances.
READ MORE: ‘Rogue Heroes’ Trailer: A Wild Group Of Soldiers Form The SAS In New Action Series From ‘Peaky Blinders’ Creator
The plot covers roughly 1941-1943 when David Stirling (Connor Swindells), a captain in the British Army, decides that he’s tired of pushing papers while others are fighting on the frontlines. Using his family connections, he gets some generals to agree to give him a previously fictional division, the Special Air Service (SAS). Originally imagined as a piece of spycraft by Dudley Wrangel Clarke (reigning supporting character MVP Dominic West), Stirling creates a shadow organization that operates behind enemy lines, plans its own missions, and only has one real objective: destroy as many Nazi planes as possible.
From there, Stirling populates his SAS with unhinged insubordinates that perfectly round out his plan. While formulaic in its Dirty Dozen-esque structure, Knight occasionally expands the scope beyond the SAS, including a romantic subplot between Stirling and French spy Eve (Sofia Boutella). But, for the most part, we are with the SAS as they drink, shoot, and kill their way through a series of improbable missions.
O’Connell, in particular, shines as Paddy Mayne — a hard-drinking boxer who absolutely hates authority but is nevertheless recruited by Stirling as his effective #2. The psychological games that Stirling plays with Mayne — including a running tally of kills and aircraft destroyed — unleashes his competitiveness. O’Connell has always excelled at playing extremes (see “Skins,” “The North Water,” ”Money Monster,“ etc.). Here, he plays Mayne as a feral animal — at one point, literally telling a troupe of French paratroopers that they shall converse in “dog.” He pushes back against any attempts to cage his persona, even though he falls deeper into despair as he racks up more kills. It’s the type of performance that would announce a major screen presence if only O’Connell didn’t do this every year or so.
Rounding out the trio of “musketeers,” or co-founders with Stirling, is Alfie Allen as Jock Lewes, who serves as the moral compass of the group and its training officer. While he’s often relegated to playing the straight-man against Stirling and Mayne’s increasingly absurd antics, Allen gets a chance to dive into some pathos in a standout fourth episode that jumps back and forth between a pre-wartime courtship and time in the desert.
Knight has always been an immensely productive writer, overseeing no less than three current shows in addition to writing what feels like two to three movies a year. Yet that type of output has often led to some of his work feelings underbaked, overly reliant on meshing genres with bleak psychoanalysis. This was especially true of his dreadfully dark (both aesthetically and thematically) adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” or even “Spencer” — two texts that would make for a stunningly feel-bad Christmas double feature. Here, however, the oppressive sunlight of the Egyptian desert has seemingly buoyed his penchant for dreariness.
Less concerned with dissecting the moral and psychological toll of war, “Rogue Heroes” is unrestrained in its depiction of crazed men pushed to the limits of war. It moves from mission to mission with swagger, as Knight and director Tom Shankland adopt a clipped pace, covering the span of years without dwelling on the large time jumps that often happen episode-to-episode. Yet they also occasionally overwhelm with title cards and freeze frames, displaying minor-characters names and ranks. It’s an invitation to research the bit-players in a show that calls for Googling while you watch the absurdity unfold, but it also feels less essential than the other anachronistic affectations.
“Rogue Heroes” is also, perhaps, a reason to subscribe to Epix, a streaming service that often feels made-up even though it has put out an impressive amount of content in the past few years, including “Chapelwaite” and “From,” though one wonders if anyone has been watching. Unlike “Peaky Blinders” or “See,” two shows that, at least, have followings on major streaming services, one hopes that “Heroes” doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
By the end of the six episodes, the show effectively ends an ellipsis. Despite being billed as a mini-series, it only roughly gets to about two years during the early formation of the SAS, and has a rich post-1943 history that it could cover, should it choose to continue. Further, while it occasionally gets bogged down by its own insistence on myth-making, it nevertheless is absurdly entertaining from start to finish and even more proof that O’Connell is one of the best actors working today. [A-]