Sad to say, I think the new reality of the Internet Age has rather taken the teeth out of the conspiracy thriller. With so much flagrant evidence of corruption and injustice on display in the world on a daily basis, and so much of it ignored or quickly forgotten, how powerful can fiction about concealed corruption and injustice be? Yet the genre holds a place in my heart, so I tried Salamander (2012), a twelve-part Belgian miniseries with a classic conspiracy core. Deploying a dizzying mix of Dutch, French, and German, the series deploys—and rather overextends—a promising central idea, with professional if unspectacular results.
It begins with a heist: a team of shady criminals, led by badass Joachim Klaus (Koen De Bouw), tunnels into the safe deposit vault of a bank in Brussels and empties the personal boxes of sixty-six powerful individuals. The banker, Raymond Jonkhere (Mike Verdrengh), doesn’t report it to police, however. Why? Because the stolen materials belong to members of a secret Belgian elite: politicians, businessmen, officials, and others who comprise an organization of upper-class criminals known as Salamander. The clash between Salamander and their unknown enemy stays off the radar, at first, but once the extortion demands start flying, the country quickly falls into disarray. Stepping into this clandestine war is intrepid police inspector Paul Gerardi (Filip Peeters), who quietly gets wind of things, starts an investigation, and lands himself squarely in the crosshairs of both organizations.
Salamander consists of a number of promising elements. It’s generally well performed, attractively produced, and more or less tells an engaging story, tying the motives for this secret war into Belgium’s history. In terms of tone and subject matter, it loosely resembles shows like 24 and MI-5: twisty, involved, dark, and intense. It seems to have all the earmarks of a successful conspiracy thriller, but unfortunately something’s missing. A spark, a message, maybe a character or two to hang your hat on? As a fly in the ointment for the bad guys, Gerardi is a passable hero: shaggy, bearded, dripping with integrity. I’m not sure why the ladies fall all over him, or why he’s so central to events; he seems one step removed from the true conflict, thrust into things by chance and misfortune. Peeters does his level best with the material, but he’s still kind of hard to get behind. The rest of the cast is…professionally serious? Meanwhile, the plot is bogged down by expository dialogue and at least one whopper of an unlikely contrivance. In the end, I watched it through with clinical interest and was moderately entertained, but also wondered if perhaps the subtitles and high production values were masking what might otherwise have been a rather empty background watch. It will push a few buttons for the already interested, but general viewers will probably bounce off it.