- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008

Redemption” needs to do more than bridge the gap between the last season of the hit Fox show and the upcoming one.

The two-hour movie, airing at 8 p.m. Sunday, must repair the damage wrought by the show’s sloppy sixth day. No terrorist could vanquish “24‘s” Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), but last season’s creative rut left him bloodied and reeling.

So the minds behind “24” shook up the formula for “Redemption,” sending Jack to the fictional African nation of Sangala to help children being forced to serve in a rebel army.

The setting shift works wonders. Audiences still have that ticking clock and the split screen visuals to fall back on. However, the premise lets Jack reveal a more compassionate side while setting some intriguing subplots in motion.

Not bad for two hours’ (in real time) worth of work.

Just don’t expect appearances by series stalwarts like Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) or Tony (Carlos Bernard).

“Redemption” opens with Jack helping out an old special-forces buddy (Robert Carlyle) who runs a school designed to help African children.

It’s been three years since the events of last season, and Sangala is the latest stop for our itinerant hero. The work is a far cry from chasing terrorists around Los Angeles, and it keeps him a few steps ahead of a Senate subpoena to appear to answer charges of illegal torture leveled against him.

Anyone who’s watched more than a few “24” installments knows Jack doesn’t hold Geneva Convention rules near and dear to his heart.

Jack is about to start running - again - when he learns the school has been targeted by rebels seeking a new supply of child soldiers.

Now Jack must deal with United Nations stooges and a by-the-book bureaucrat (Gil Bellows of “Ally McBeal” fame) while trading gunfire with a rebel army led by “Candyman’s” Tony Todd.

Back in the U.S., the first female president (Cherry Jones of “Doubt” fame) is about to take the oath of office amid word of conflict in Sangala. The strife could be connected to a high-ranking U.S. official (Jon Voight) with dubious ties to the rebels.

The two story lines will fully merge when “24” resumes in January.

“Redemption” doesn’t deliver first-rate “24” thrills. Frankly, it’s hard to envision the program reaching that fever pitch again. However, there’s still life left in the show’s real-time format, and Mr. Sutherland remains a remarkably credible action hero.

The show’s producers back him up with polished production values, making “Redemption” feel more like a genuine television movie than a bloated episode.

Conservatives who flocked to the series for its hard-line approach to terrorism may wince at the thought of Jack groveling before a Senate panel, but they’ll chortle over how “Redemption” treats a sniveling U.N. official.

The series’ weaknesses cling to “Redemption” as readily as the time-clock device. The First Daughter-in-Law’s few minutes on screen are enough to remind viewers that “24” often treats female characters with disdain. In addition, Mr. Bellows’ character isn’t given an ounce of humanity, leeching any psychological interest from his confrontations with Jack.

“24” kicks off its seventh season Jan. 11, 2009. The show’s best days may be behind it, but “Redemption” proves it can still rally for at least two hours of white-knuckle thrills.

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