The Zone

Author: Mike Gray & Ian Masters
Genre: Political Thriller
Storyline: 4
Dialogue: 4
Characterization: 4
Writer’s Potential: 4

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]




An ex-CIA agent, a Panamanian ambassador, and a Russian attempt to negotiate with Chechen terrorists threatening to blow up the Panama Canal.


Panamanian beauty LOURDES BLADES watches over MAX HOOVER, who tosses and turns in bed. He has a nightmare of witnessing a mass killing in Afghanistan, then wakes with a start. Max meets with a man who gives him papers for a new identity. He then meets with Panama security chief ARTURO MACGREGOR, who explains the precarious drug infrastructure in the area: the Chechen Mafia, Colombian drug cartels, and Afghani drug manufacturers are all in bed together. Radio chatter suggests a combined group intends to take over a ship running through the Canal for unknown but probably drug-related reasons. True to the chatter, three men — SIXTO, a Columbian giant, and JIBRAIL, the Chechen brains of the operation, board a Russian carrier vessel. They seal the crew below decks, grabbing SASHA, a Russian computer expert, and RUSLAN, a Chechen mechanic. They force them to help. OLGA, Sasha’s girlfriend and the Captain’s daughter, hides out in a storage locker. She uses her cell phone to get the word out about the hostile takeover, while Sixto and Jibrail has their men position the ship inside on of the canal’s locks. Meanwhile, they spray diesel fuel all over the ship’s cargo — fertilizer — and place a detonator in the center, creating a huge bomb.

PRONNIKOV, a Russian intelligence agent, sends VIKTOR ROGOV, a Russian dealmaker in Venezuela, to deal with the situation in Panama. Max is picked up by a U.S. Attorney and bodyguards, who want to force extradition to interrogate Max and retrieve intelligence documents he has hidden. Max argues that these documents are the only thing keeping him alive, so he won’t play ball. Meanwhile, Panama President ROBERTO ALEMAN receives a call from Jibrail, who explains the situation about the bomb and also mentions they’ve laced it with radioactive material. He demands the release of Chechen and Colombian prisoners, along with 200 million Euros. Once the demands have been met, they will remove the detonator, free the crew, and leave the ship; if they are not, they will blow up the locks, crippling the world-trade infrastructure and throwing the world economy into panic.

Immediately, National Security Council Advisor HARLEY SMALL and his deputy, CARDONE, are put on the case to resolve this situation. Through satellite feeds, they have a meeting with Aleman in Panama City, Pronnikov in Moscow, and Chinese ambassador WU. Cardone tries to convince Aleman to turn all the defense over to the U.S., but Aleman refuses. He wants to send ambassadors from the most affected countries — Panama, Russia, and the U.S. — to investigate the threat and make sure it’s real. Cardone doesn’t want that, especially when Aleman tosses out the name Max Hoover as the U.S. representative. Small and Cardone flip out about it, but Aleman is adamant. So Max is taken from U.S. Attorney custody and sent to meet Viktor and the Panamanian tourism ambassador, RAIMUNDO FLORES, an actor, musician, and graduate of Harvard Law. They’re briefed on the situation, then sent to the hijacked ship, where they immediately find the threat is, indeed, real — they have a sophisticated and enormous dirty bomb.

The hijackers then send the three men below deck at gunpoint, which Pronnikov sees via a satellite feed. He calls Olga’s daughter, asks if she has access to a weapon, then tells her to find Viktor and give the weapon to him. She says she doesn’t know where her father’s gun is, but she can text-message Sasha. Max and Viktor report back to Small and Pronnikov about the reality of the threat. Cordone surreptitiously enlists the help of Taloncorp, a Blackwater-style company of hired mercenaries. Olga sends a text to Sasha, who texts Viktor, who texts back not to attempt a rescue, that they’re dealing with pros and Russia will be blamed if they don’t release the prisoners. Pronnikov is still reluctant, while Colombia releases their prisoners immediately. Sixto sees his son — one of the prisoners — released and is pleased. Seeing this, the Russians relent and release all the Chechen prisoners. The money is transferred. Sixto ties all the non-hijackers to the detonator so they’ll sit tight until all his men have cleared the ship. Sixto and Jibrail prep to leave. Just as they get on their cigarette boats, a Taloncorp chopper swoops down and fires at them.

Enraged, Jibrail takes out the chopper with a shoulder rocket, and they return to the boat. Sixto wants to blame Max, Viktor, and Raimundo, but they receive a logical explanation: they were leaving — why would anyone on the booby-trapped ship interfere with that? Meanwhile, Aleman wants to know who’s responsible, while Small denies any knowledge. Sasha watches the three outsiders discuss possibilities. Their best option is to somehow flood the holds, because this will make the fertilizer/diesel combo fizzle out, rendering the bomb ineffective. They consider using the fire sprinklers, but Sasha mentions this will set off an alarm, alerting the hijackers. He texts Olga to find the ship plans so they can figure out how to disable the alarm. Sixto and Jibrail realize their only option to get to their remaining team is to take the cargo ship out of the Canal and go after them. Olga texts Pronnikov for the plans, and he sends them.

Meanwhile, Small gets their approval to launch a strike on the ship while it’s in open water. They scramble two F-18s, but Jibrail gets one with his RPG, then they sidle up to a cruise ship loaded with innocent civilians as protection. Sixto radios the cruise ship captain the situation, forces them to comply or face certain death. He gives them a bearing to follow. Raimundo pleads for Sixto to let him call Aleman and discuss this personally; Sixto agrees, but Raimundo is put on hold while Aleman talks with U.S. President GROVE. Max and Viktor discuss how great it would be to listen in on that conversation, and they realize they have a way to do it — a group of elite communications experts who monitor just this sort of thing. As an act of good faith for Sixto and Jibrail, they patch the call through over the radio. They overhear Grove acting like a bloodthirsty war-monger, while Aleman urges U.S. forces to stay out of Panamanian air-space. Grove reluctantly agrees. Max tells Raimundo to allow them safe passage to international waters. Sixto allows this, and Raimundo makes the request to Aleman.

Realizing Aleman is complying with their orders, Sixto sends PACO, one of his men, to find Sasha (who has run off to help Olga). Viktor warns Max that his people might be planning something serious. Sasha gets into a fistfight with Paco and throws him overboard. One of Max’s old CIA contacts calls to say he smells a rat among U.S. officials, but Max is resigned to the fact that these politicians will win no matter what. The ship approaches a bridge, where Russian forces have set up to rappel down when it passes over. Also, CNN has set up cameras, waiting to capture an attack on video. Sasha and Olga, hiding in the shadows, are nearly killed by the Russian soldiers. With Olga safely in their hands, Sasha returns to the bridge, where he creates a diversion by telling Sixto and Jibrail about Paco jumping overboard. Olga leads the Russians to Max, Viktor, and Raimundo, who give them weapons and set them loose to track the hijackers. Cardone has Taloncorp send a bomb-filled barge to force the hijacked ship to capsize.

Raimundo tries to use a cutting torch to free the ship’s sealed-up crew, while Olga and Sasha use the diagrams to disable the fire alarm. The Taloncorp ship explodes, not coming close to capsizing the ship, just rocking it enough for Sasha to accidentally set off the fire alarm, rather than disabling it, which alerts Sixto to their location. A gunfight ensues, which distracts Sixto long enough for the cruise ship to get away. Enraged, Sixto aims the ship back at the Canal locks. He forces Max, Viktor, and Raimundo in front of a camera; Sasha has hacked the satellite to take over every TV channel in the world. With the world watching, Max announces that he discovered a political scheme to steal from a fund to build schools in Afghanistan. The White House tried to have him killed, but he survived and has the documents to prove it. He also says that Aleman — an honest man — made a deal with the terrorists, which was undermined by crooked “corporate terrorists” from the U.S. who stand to profit from the economic chaos. Raimundo and Viktor add their agreements to Max’s sentiments They release a statement that Max is both unstable and under duress. Aleman reaffirms his honest intentions. Sixto, feeling some cooperation from Aleman, decides to spare the lives of the hostages and continue toward Cuba — but a submarine appears in their path.

Sixto decides to release all of his men he and Jibrail prepare to detonate the bomb. They are near enough to land that hijackers can swim ashore safely. The ship reverses course, heading back toward the locks. Sasha finally releases the real crew, who swing into action to keep them from getting back to the locks. Max shoots Sixto, who crawls back to the bridge. Max follows, freeing the wheel and attempting a full reverse as Sixto dies. Jibrail goes after the detonator, but Viktor initiates hand-to-hand and kills the man. Viktor also learns they faked the radioactive signature. They soak the bomb. With the “dirty” threat neutralized, Cardone gives the order to strike the boat. Max, Viktor, and Raimundo head for lifeboats and get off just in time to avoid the explosion, which hurls them toward land. Max’s old CIA contact discovers Cardone was the one who planned to profit if this terrorist attack succeeded. He’s arrested. Max washes ashore and immediately calls Lourdes, who is safe in Costa Rica. Max’s position at the CIA is reinstated.


The writers do a pretty good job of twisting a straight line into a labyrinth. When the basics of the plot are broken down, it’s a very straightforward political thriller that brings little new to the table besides up-to-the-minute references to political issues plaguing the world. To combat the stiffness of the plot, the writers overstuff it with characters who do little more than yammer exposition, explaining and reexplaining plot developments, to create the illusion of complexity where none exists.

The problem is, the characters we’re supposed to care about — mainly Max, but to a lesser extent Viktor, Raimundo, Sasha, and Olga — are given roughly as much narrative importance as the talking-head ambassadors and military officials. They all lack the depth to be truly compelling, but worse than that, they spend most of their time not doing anything. They spend more time discussing what they should do than actually doing it, and the plot swirls around them, trying to throw in twists to make things more interesting, but it’s not that interesting to see F-18s scrambled, then cut to our heroes sitting in a bunker, discussing what they could maybe do if they had access to this, that, and the other. Without leads who either drive or react assertively to the story, it’s literally just two hours of yammering, with some shootouts and explosions at the end.

It’s a thriller that doesn’t thrill, pulling bits and pieces of contemporary world affairs to cobble together a plot that doesn’t come close to the oddness of actual contemporary world affairs. What’s happening in the real world is vastly more interesting and creepy, so why pay to see a dramatization that pales in comparison to the real thing? Besides that, with its attempts to tackle myriad hot-button issues (piracy, terrorism, global relations, corporatization of government, etc., etc.), the whole thing may end up having a dated feel by the time it hits theatres. It already is dated, with the terrorists’ big scheme to cause chaos in world financial markets — they’re too late.

I’m not sure if they know who the audience is. The machinations of the plot make it feel like a goofy, overblown early-’90s action movie (it’s almost a hybrid of the two Under Siege movies, only without central characters actively trying to stop the terrorists), but the endless talking and political sermonizing will leave action fans unsatisfied. However, the politics are too simple-minded and uninteresting to lure in the politically savvy audience it appears to be aiming at.

Posted by D. B. Bates on October 21, 2008 12:47 PM