The Daily Telegraph
German-israeli team-up strikes gold with taut drama
It’s 50 years since the darkest stain of all was left on the Olympic brand. More shaming than Hitler’s games in Berlin or the Cold War tit-for-tat boycotts of Moscow and Los Angeles, the murder by Palestinian terrorists of 11 Israelis at Munich in 1972 is the Olympic disaster that has been told and retold in books and films.
On 5 September the anniversary was marked with a memorial event in Israel. The six-part thriller Munich Games (Sky Atlantic) imagines a different sort of commemoration: a football friendly between German and Israeli teams in the Olympic stadium. Such an obvious target for terrorism naturally has Mossad’s eyeballs all over it as Israeli side Halutzi Tel Aviv prepare to fly in. Mossad boffin Oren Simon (Yousef Sweid), owlishly surfing the dark web’s chat rooms, soon identifies a credible threat, prompting his boss to propose embedding him with Munich’s counter-terrorism unit.
Talking of embedding, his supervising colleague is Maria Köhler (Seyneb Saleh), German-born but of Lebanese stock. She takes her new orders over the phone while in a naked state of blissed-out horizontality with her tousled Palestinian boyfriend, Monir (Roger Azar). He also happens be her informer spying on anti-zionist refugees.
After two episodes there are plenty more ingredients in a nicely thickening soup – terrorism, drugs, blackmail, adultery, inter-agency rivalry, the Holocaust – with an extremely light dusting of football. The 1972 Olympics, oddly, are hardly mentioned, but for the brooding presence of the stadium with its futuristic bat-wing canopy.
Munich Games is not just about a German-israeli collaboration. It’s the product of one too. The show’s Israeli creator is Michal Aviram, a writer on
Fauda. His co-writer is Martin Behnke, who was born in the old German Democratic Republic. At a guess, it was Behnke who came up with the line that sums up the disparities between Germans who stick to rules and Israelis who cut corners. “This is Stasi s--t,” says Maria when Oren wants to do a little light privacy invasion.
Munich Games is a gripper. Multilingual co-productions can have a saggy aura of nowhereness about them. Not so here. One bum note is a cartoon Slavic baddie extorting money from the owner of the Israeli team. Also, when Maria goes undercover among protestors, her comms would probably involve discrete wireless earphones rather than an ibrick held to her lughole. Still, this is taut, pacy and, at six episodes, commendably terse.
The origin story is a key component of the Hollywood economy. If you liked this once, goes the bean-counting rationale, you’ll like it twice. It must explain why we have been saddled with another American Gigolo (Paramount+).
To recap, if you weren’t there in 1980, the movie was from the pen of Paul Schrader, who had scripted Taxi Driver. He directed his story of a male prostitute who finds himself fitted up for murder until his lover sacrifices her marriage to provide him with an alibi. The role of Julian Kay introduced the snake hips, bruised cheekbones and pebble-dark pupils of Richard Gere to a grateful, goggle-eyed public.
The writing and directing for this 10-part series is by David Hollander, who has inserted cellphones to bring it up to the present day but otherwise kept faith with a naff softcore aesthetic which is still very much essence of 1980: the pool, the flesh, the sleaze, the steam, the wheels, the pop.
In this reimagined version, Julian (Jon Bernthal) discovers he was framed for murder after 15 years in the clink. The minute he’s out he makes contact with figures from his past, including old flame Michelle (Gretchen Mol). He’s soon caught up not only in his own cold case but a murder involving someone who, by the look of the boy who’s playing him, may well be his son.
Meanwhile – and this is the origin story bit – flashbacks reveal that Julian fetched up in the sex-work sector when his mother, having pimped him out as a boy to a neighbour to pay the rent, eventually sold him to a French madame. We see her training him up in the erotic arts as if making him practise his scales.
It’s as subtle as a brick wrapped in cement dunked in concrete. Also it’s horribly slow, even the sections that don’t unfold in actual slow motion. Bernthal, best known for The Walking Dead, is a dead ringer for Gere: he’s got the whisper and the strut, the mahogany buns and abs of teak. But all the best bits involve Rosie O’donnell as a wisecracking detective called Sunday. She has seemingly barged in from another show altogether which, unlike this, might be great fun.
Munich Games ★★★★
American Gigolo ★★