Jon Bernthal is a magnetic presence in new series American Gigolo

Jon Bernthal stars in a fresh take on an 80s classic in American Gigolostreaming on Neon – following in Richard Gere’s footsteps 42 years later. As much a character study as it is a crime thriller, the modern update is flashier and more forward in its approach to sex work, writes Katie Parker.

Of late we’re used to seeing masculinity in crisis—though usually one or two particular types of crisis. From modern classics like Breaking Bad and Mad Men to recent hits like The Boys and The Bear, resentful, entitled, so-called “toxic” masculinity is everywhere.

American Gigolo, the reboot of Paul Schrader’s 1980 film of the same name, focuses on a different kind of torment—one centred around intimacy and loneliness, in a man who, ostensibly, is living the incel dream.

Capturing the dawn of 80s materialism after the hedonism of the 1970s, Schrader’s American Gigolo painted a fraught, fractured picture of masculinity—one which in 2022 remains as complex and canny as ever. Following Richard Gere’s Julian Kaye, a high-end sex worker with a slew of wealthy older female clients, on the outset he appeared to have it all: a hot bod, a closet full of Giorgio Armani suits and a Mercedes convertible that he liked to drive top down along the Pacific Coast Highway, the wind blowing through his lustrous full head of hair. That he got it all by banging hot dames? Surely every man’s dream.

Yet while Julian got laid and got paid, so too was his plight imbued with a strange sense of melancholy. Though titillating in some respects (it is, to the best of my knowledge, the one and only movie in which you can see Richard Gere full frontally nude), his story was one of a lonely man, being paid by lonely women, to simulate a connection and intimacy they neither would or could expect to experience in the reality of their own lives.

Far from being puritanical about sex work, Schrader’s film suggested something quite different about the relationship between Julian and his clients—and out of a shared sense of exploitation and subjugation, a strangely empathetic bond emerged, one which complicated traditional ideals of rugged male heterosexuality.

From executive producer and showrunner Nikki Toscano (The Offer), 2022’s American Gigolo seeks to delve once again into the depths of this character—and, as the film did before it, emerges with an enigmatic and unexpectedly original take on a topic that all too often becomes defined by cliché. 42 years after the film, this new American Gigolo updates and revises the original story—but nevertheless keeps the bare bones, and Gere’s character Julian Kaye, intact, turning the new show into a nearly direct sequel to Schrader’s movie.

Like Gere’s character, Julian, now played by The Punisher’s Jon Bernthal, has here been incarcerated for a crime he did not commit—the murder of a client, her throat slit as they slept alongside each other. It’s been 15 years since his conviction, and despite having carved out a place for himself in prison, he remains haunted by the crime.

That is, until he is unexpectedly exonerated after the deathbed confession of a dying hitman. DNA confirms it—and suddenly Julian is a free man, returning to face a sordid, splintered past on the outside world. But who set him up? And why?

Cautiously navigating the world he once inhabited with ease, Julian reunites with friends and a former lover (Boardwalk Empire’s Gretchen Mol, a stand-in for Lauren Hutton’s unhappy housewife in the film), while reckoning with a past that puts his career path in a very different light.

Like Schrader’s film, American Gigolo is as much a character study as it is a crime thriller. As we follow Julian in his new post-prison life, so too are we shown in flashback the path that led him here—one which saw him sold as an underage adolescent into Hollywood sex work by his trailer park-dwelling mother, and enveloped into a world of pool parties and prostitution pulled straight from the pages of a Bret Easton Ellis novel.

With an excellent and surprisingly eclectic supporting cast (Wayne Brady appears as a friend from Julian’s former life, while Rosie O’Donnell plays a gender-flipped version of Hector Elizondo’s role in the film) Bernthal is a magnetic presence at the centre of it all. Hardened yet vulnerable, and used to tapping into and then turning off a studied form of intimacy, his role in his clients’ lives goes further than the physical services he supplies to them—yet the artifice of it all renders him emotionally and morally ambivalent.

Following on from Gere’s strange, sad performance, Bernthal is admirably able to embody this softer version of male angst—and as the series goes on, it will be interesting to see where he takes the character.

While Schrader’s film was a prescient encapsulation of the impending Reagan era, 2022’s American Gigolo brings the story up to date and finds that the themes of the film are hardly out of place in the modern era. Fleshing out his character with a backstory of child prostitution and abuse, the show also invokes the spirit of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, as Julian’s formidable French madam Olga (Sandrine Holt), trains him to provide pleasure to his clients.

Flashier and more forward in its approach to Julian’s work than the film, 2022’s American Gigolo nevertheless maintains the ambivalent, melancholy spirit which with Schrader approached the subject matter all those years ago—and in doing so, offers an intriguing, surprisingly nuanced update that covers ground all too often glossed over in modern TV.