Ashley Judd Returns to TV in Spy Thriller 'Missing'
One of the things I like about Ashley Judd, star of films such as Kiss the Girls, De-Lovely and Dolphin Tale, and the lead in the new ABC action thriller series Missing, is that she's not one of those actresses who rely on their preternatural good looks as an excuse to mail it in.
Instead, the daughter of country singer Naomi Judd is a technician who labors diligently to convey every nuance that she can squeeze into her facial expressions and the modulation of her voice. She's not a queen but a worker bee like the rest of us, and maybe that's what makes her so convincing as an everywoman on the screen. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of Judd's 1993 breakthrough performance in the indie film Ruby in Paradise: "She is so good in this movie that her character stops being a performance and becomes someone you feel like you know."
Since then, Judd -- who turns 44 in April -- has made a career out of portraying ordinary people forced to transcend difficult circumstances. That's something she actually accomplished in real life, as the offspring of a dysfunctional Appalachian household (an experience she detailed in the bestselling 2011 memoir, All That Is Bitter and Sweet).
This month Judd returns to the small screen in an unfamiliar role. In Missing, she plays a super-tough elite CIA operative with exotic, lethal skills. The tricky twist is that underneath all that fearless competence, her character, Becca Winstone, is an ordinary single suburban mom -- or rather, trying her best to be one. Winstone quit her spy career after her agent husband, Paul (Sean Bean), was assassinated in a 2002 car bombing from which her young son, Michael, narrowly escaped.
A decade later, she's living an uneventful existence, working as a florist when she's not jogging or sipping lattes and watching protectively over her son. When Michael (Nick Eversman), who's now college age, decides that he wants to go to school in Rome, Winstone checks her urge to keep micromanaging his life and allows him to go on his big adventure. A few months later, he stops returning her continual phone calls and texts, and the school calls to inform her that it's been two weeks since he's shown up for class. Winstone jumps on a plane to Europe and discovers, to her horror, that he's apparently been snatched from the street by someone connected to her past life. Like it or not, she's got to dust off her old secret agent skills to try to save him.
If all that sounds an awful lot like Taken, the 2008 thriller that was a monster hit for another middle-aged star, Liam Neeson, I'm sure it's no coincidence. What makes Missing different, though, is that the hulking, gravelly voiced Neeson looks like a tough guy from central casting; his character might have been a retired agent, but moviegoers all knew that deep down, he probably was yearning to get back to crushing bad guys' windpipes and hooking them up to electrical outlets to pry information from them.
Winstone, in contrast, doesn't seem to have ruthless as her default setting; she looks a bit uncomfortable and clearly rusty, even if she was at one time an agent into such nasty stuff that her CIA personnel file is virtually blank. (As a CIA station chief who's been tasked with investigating her explains to an underling, "The thinner the file, the better the agent.") She clearly has a tough time transitioning into Jason Bourne from her previous incarnation as a doting, overprotective mom filled with trepidation about being an empty-nester. When she tracks down and interrogates her son's Italian girlfriend, she interrupts to stop her from lighting a cigarette -- "You've got your whole life ahead of you!" she admonishes.
As with most highly derivative TV series, Missing doesn't work quite as well as its source material. In comparison to the taut writing in Taken, the pilot episode of Missing is filled with holes and twists that seem implausible, even with the suspension of disbelief that viewers must bring to an espionage thriller.
It's hard to imagine, for example, that Winstone would hand her soon-to-depart son a map with the most direct route from the dorm to his classes carefully marked; anyone who's even read a newspaper article about kidnapping countermeasures knows that constantly varying one's daily routine and movements is the standard advice for avoiding trouble. It's also hard to imagine the CIA being so disinterested in the abduction of a U.S. citizen overseas, particularly one whose mother presumably left the agency with a wealth of operational knowledge in her head that a foreign government or terrorist organization would be eager to extort from her. For someone who supposedly is trained to function stealthily, Winstone herself seems to run into an awful lot of trouble. She's continually being confronted by attackers, whom she usually overcomes in brutal hand-to-hand combat. That, alas, doesn't work so well in terms of plausibility. Judd is an extremely fit yoga devotee, and she looks it. But it's easy to see that she hasn't been coached on how to do a Krav Maga-style head butt properly, or what to do when an assailant tries to body-slam her to the ground. (Watch Jeffrey Donovan, who is a real-life karate black belt and Brazilian ju-jitsu enthusiast on Burn Notice, and the contrast is glaring.)
Maybe those flaws don't matter because, at its core, Missing really isn't about the action or the suspense. What it's really about is the torment of being a helicopter parent whose child has decided to thwart your efforts to create a perfectly planned, utterly safe life for him, and instead has ventured out into the big scary world to have adventures and make mistakes on his own. It's about knowing that you have to let him go even though he's inevitably going to screw up and suffer terribly, and you're going to kick yourself for letting him do it. It's about being prepared to drop everything and come to the rescue of your almost-grown offspring, because, after all, he's your kid. That's the part of Missing that I think may resonate with middle-aged parents, and Judd, the masterful actress, pulls it off superbly.Here's the ABC trailer for Missing:
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