The moment Tom Hardy lumbers onto the screen in “Taboo,” the new dark-as-dirt FX series debuting Tuesday, you know he’s trouble.
That gut reaction, spot-on as it turns out, is based partly on history.
The British actor scored an Oscar nomination last year for tormenting Leonardo DiCaprio just as brutally as the bear in “The Revenant.” He was even more menacing as the title character in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” dispatching gas guzzlers and femmes fatale with little more than a grunt. He was equally incoherent in 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” while still managing to give Batman all he could handle.
I’m guessing Hardy would give you the chills if he was simply a stranger ordering decaf at Caribou Coffee. Some actors have an innate ability to make you check for your wallet — or your gun. Bette Davis had it. Jack Palance. Lee Van Cleef. Early Clint Eastwood. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe can still turn down the room temperature when they want.
And now, Hardy. In “Taboo,” which he co-created with his father, Edward “Chips” Hardy, and Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises”), he plays sea nomad James Delaney, who returns to England in 1814 after a 10-year absence to claim his deceased dad’s inheritance: a small island near Vancouver that could play a crucial role in the war between the British Empire and the upstart United States.
Everyone assumed he was dead. After just a couple of nights in town, most wish he was.
At the top of his enemies list is Sir Stuart Strange of the East India Company, a prototype for multinational corporations to come, and one that wants the land for its own devices. Strange is portrayed by Jonathan Pryce, an actor who excels in giving you the impression he’s the smartest guy in the room. His brains vs. Delaney’s brawn? This could be one of the best duels of the year.
A close second on the do-not-call list is Delaney’s sister Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin), whose sexual dalliances with her brother may have triggered his initial bon voyage. Delaney doesn’t exhibit love as much as primal lust. In the scenes where he sidles up to whisper not-so-sweet somethings in her ear, you can practically hear Chaplin catching her breath.
At least he doesn’t grab her by the lapels and spit dialogue in her face, his more natural mode of greeting. “I know things about the dead,” he says, nose-to-nose with the closest thing he has to a friend. (Let’s hope for his buddy’s sake he also knows a few things about breath mints.)
It isn’t until the goose bumps wear off that you realize the script could use some work. Clichéd lines like that would make you shudder for entirely different reasons if they weren’t delivered by superb actors.
As for actual violence, Delaney doesn’t really let ’er rip until the end of next week’s episode, amid the first of what most likely will be several assassination attempts. He suffers an ugly wound, but you wouldn’t know it by his facial expression. He looks just as disgusted with a knife in his belly as he did the moment we met him.
Hardy may want to mix in a romantic comedy sometime soon, if only for his own sanity. But for now, he’s got demons to work out and it’s an exorcism worth watching.
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin