‘Sugar’ Review: In a Lonely Place With Colin Farrell

This much I can tell you: Colin Farrell plays a private detective in “Sugar.” He has a license. We see it being handed to him and everything.

I can also tell you that his character, John Sugar, is not an ordinary private detective, in ways that go beyond his fetishization of the film noir heroes he emulates. But I can’t really get into it because “Sugar” — which premieres Friday on Apple TV+ with two of its eight episodes — is a show with a congenital vulnerability to spoilers.

The show is the first television project of Mark Protosevich, whose short list of screenplays across more than two decades includes “I Am Legend” and Spike Lee’s remake of the South Korean revenge drama “Oldboy.” Based on “Sugar,” it is fair to guess that he shares his protagonist’s obsession with noir.

The show opens with a short black-and-white preamble, set in Tokyo, that echoes the premise of Akira Kurosawa’s great 1963 crime thriller “High and Low.” Then Sugar returns to his home base in Los Angeles and steps into the plot of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” agreeing to look for the missing granddaughter of a legendary Hollywood producer, Jonathan Siegel. The intimidating mogul is played by James Cromwell, who serves as a living link to another obvious influence, Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential.”

The genre worship goes beyond that kind of easy homage, however. Sugar is an acolyte of classic noir, watching the old films at every opportunity and discussing them in Farrell’s genre-obligatory voice-over narration. Bolder yet, scenes of Sugar in action are intercut with clips from iconic films. A threat of violence is carried out, in tandem, by Farrell and Robert Mitchum (“The Night of the Hunter”); a nighttime drive across Los Angeles by Farrell and Amy Ryan, who plays a woman caught up in Sugar’s case, is shared with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame (“In a Lonely Place”).

These frequent past-in-present moments are probably not as exciting or sensual as they were in Protosevich’s imagination, but they do the job thematically: We see that the codes of noir and the lonely heroism of the private eye have shaped what it means to be a man for Sugar, a do-gooder with an aversion to gunplay.

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