Content Warning: gore, police brutality, Black character killed to motivate the protagonist
What’s it about? Police officer Brian Nightraider has just been ordered to hand in his badge and gun following the death of his partner. It isn’t long before he gets an invitation from the mysterious Marginal Service, a newly created task force that tackles supernatural immigrant citizenry known as Borderlanders.
The Marginal Service had quite an eye-catching marketing campaign. The anime-original was hush-hush about its actual plot, while its first promotional image involved its extremely ripped cast completely nude with credits covering their bits. As a reliable sucker for ambitious original projects with a bit of mystique around them, I jumped at the chance to review it. I laced up these clown shoes all by myself.
Stories about cops are an inherently fraught thing from the jump, of course. Not just in the US, either; Japan is having plenty of very current conversations about police brutality and the subject of how immigrants are treated in specific. They’re also everywhere, so I wager most of us have stories about law enforcement that we retain a fondness for, even if those affections are complicated (this is where I wave to Tiger & Bunny). But it’s worth beginning to assess the genre, and what it normalizes, critically. As arguments continue for updated immigration laws continue to rage right this moment, it’s hard not to say that there’s no relevance to a show that hinges on hunting down (supernatural! Totally!) immigrants through a secret UN judicial force.
The Marginal Service clearly owes a debt to American action movies, from Lethal Weapon to Dirty Harry. And from the looks of things, it seems to have taken the worst notes from all of them. Brian’s Black partner Danny (like Danny Glover, y’see) gets shot literally minute one and then dies offscreen; we’re meant to understand this is going to drive Brian’s desire to stay with the Marginal Service, but you could’ve fooled me given how he exchanges two lines with the man and is then completely surprised to hear he’s passed.
Brian himself has a thick stack of write-ups for police brutality, but he’s also got the highest arrest record on the force and got the department a bunch of shiny commendations. He’s pretty clearly meant to be a loose cannon, “breaks the rules but gets results” type, an image in fiction that does little more than contribute to police brutality in the real world. Even in fiction, Brian’s not exactly compelling to watch. He’s sneering and disdainful, his alleged camaraderie with his dead partner totally missing from the screen. He monologues about his daddy issues to his new even-more-brutal partner, and I desperately wish that when Daddy Cop had pulled over at a mental health clinic for a ha-ha jokes Brian had actually gotten out. Helps him, helps me in that I don’t have to watch him roam the streets with authority to do violence whenever the need strikes him.
His fellow members of the Marginal Service aren’t much to hang one’s hat on as a viewer either. They’ve all got roughly one trait apiece – and in case you were worried, be assured that the Girl One’s personality is being hot and thirsty for dick. Meanwhile, despite the infodumping monologue about how Borderlanders have rights under Japanese law and complex cultures and beliefs, once the third act action scene gets going things escalate to machine guns pretty damn quickly. Don’t worry, though. Sure, Borderlanders look indistinguishable from human beings, but they’re actually monsters passing among us. Doing crimes, probably. The fact that Brian himself is also an immigrant doesn’t balance out much given that he’s a blonde, white American – the most exoticized type of foreignness in Japan.
It could be that the show’s ultimate goal is something like Alien Nation, which at least theoretically wanted to depict the mysterious Othered group as sympathetic and the cops as in need of growth, but there’s precious little sense of that in this first episode. I’m not exactly incentivized to stick around and find out, either, because the actual action of this action series is so limp and half-hearted. Even stripping away the troubling themes, I don’t like any of these characters enough to want to see them grow, and the spectacle certainly isn’t dazzling enough to be a selling point (at least Cop Craft had the snazziest opening sequence of its season). If I’m going to watch cops, I’m going back to something that’s several decades old and was at least making an effort. Or Hot Fuzz.