STUDIO: HBO (BUY IT FROM CHUD.COM)
RUNNING TIME: 600 minutes
- Blu-ray & DVD
- Digital Copy
THE TEAM: Philip Winchester. Sullivan Stapleton. Amanda Mealing. Eva Birthistle. Liam Cunningham. (stars). Based on the book by Chris Ryan.
THE PITCH: Jack Bauer is a pussy.
Action shows can wear you out. It seems as if the overriding paradigm regarding the genre is that the more action and bombast delivered the better. Which is as far from the truth as possible. Even the best action shows still face an uphill battle when competing with the production value of the big screen. As a result channels like the major networks and places like the USA Network and their ilk are overrun with truly risible fare, the rare Burn Notice and 24 successes being the exception. Those shows feature interesting characters and intense and legit twists and character turns to keep the audience diverted from the fact they’re watching what is at best the equivalent of a B action movie [best MB thread ever]. As sister network HBO got deeper and deeper into high quality dramatic programming Cinemax had been resting on the sidelines while competitors like Starz and Showtime grew. No longer. As part of their ‘Max’ programming effort comes Strike Back, a carryover from UK television. Violent. Loaded with sex and profanity. Polished. Basically everything most action programming is forbidden from.
Based on former SAS badass Chris Ryan’s book, the show focuses on a fictional brand of the British military known as Section 20. They’re a unit that does the covert operations the regular public isn’t supposed to know about. They’re in, they’re out, and bodies are left behind as they accomplish their mission. Though there is a previous series that begins the storyline Cinemax has come on board with ‘Project Dawn’, a ten episode arc that hands the baton from earlier lead Richard Armitage [soon to be dwarfing up The Hobbit]. Centered around the chase for a dangerous terrorist known as Latif, the show centers on two contrasting soldiers from opposite sides of the pond as they break rules and heads in an effort to save the world. The British one is Michael Stonebridge [Philip Winchester, steely eyed and wired perfectly tight] and the American one is Damian Scott [Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton, playing it loose and cool and “McClane”]. The former is a rules follower who has deeply vengeful reasons for stopping the terrorist and the latter is a disgraced loose cannon plucked from “retirement” because he has a relationship with the terrorist’s brand of evil. It’s as formula as formula gets but both leads go above and beyond in selling their dramatic scenes and wholly owning the action beats. In a nice change of pace, these guys feel real. Like they can actually do a lot of the dangerous work they’re doing. It goes a long way and when a show is allowed to tear people up and show loads of naked flesh it’s really hard to take too much umbrage.
As a storyline there’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen in countless television shows and movies but the show wisely doesn’t try to be cute about the pop culture that came before. The stars joke but it’s never about the pop culture parallels they inevitably conjure up by sheer fact they’re in an anti-terrorist story. They take their work seriously and though there are plentiful leaps of logic to be taken as these soldiers dodge incredible amounts of danger [they aren’t invincible, just really quick to heal and resilient]. The tone definitely clings to the expected grit and gristle of the genre and the show could very easily have been a slog had the two leads been less effective. Watching the show in large chunks certainly dampens a little of the fun as the routines play out in repeat. Scott’s banging a new dame in every episode [scrumptious to watch, numbing to the logic], Stonebridge isn’t all that convincing as a conflicted husband, and Amanda Mealing’s Col. Grant has way too many moments of stepping outside to have feelings and be somewhat mysterious. There are plenty of little annoyances here and there, but it’s nothing viewers haven’t had to contend with from the likes of Sleeper Cell or The Unit or even the excellent recent Homeland.
There are a few different needs when watching episodic television. Different food groups. Not every show needs to hit every point on the compass as it entertains. Strike Back does one thing and it does it well. It’s a muscular show that manages to have a convincing energy of its own and two very solid leading men. And they’re new faces, which is huge. Both actors aren’t overexposed and it’s nice to have a chance of pace. Winchester in particular really comes off as a great and physically convincing hero. Stapleton gets a lot of the juicy lines and has plenty of sizzle but he’s saddled with a very overused American hero mold to play from.
The supporting cast varies but veteran character actors come in here and excel, whether it be Game of Thrones‘ Liam Cunningham as a ruthless Irish terrorist or well… Game of Thrones‘ Iain Glen as a dangerous man forced to work with the good guys to save his daughter. Production values are high and there are a few nice variations from the formula that keep it interesting.
It’s the kind of show that doesn’t tax the brain but doesn’t insult it either. Were it on regular television it’d be a blip on the radar but Cinemax has been paying attention to its peers. It’s deft to pop a few well shot sex scenes into the mix to keep folks on their toes. Or an exploding guy.
A guy exploding makes up for quite a few close calls and third act rush jobs.
This is a solid and somewhat consistent ten episodes. If Cinemax doesn’t tread water and actually takes some chances in future seasons it could actually become one of those shows worth following fervently. As it stands it’s a notch above so much direct-to-video and television drama out there it’s just a hair above what constitutes a guilty pleasure.
In short, Strike Back‘s a winner.
ITS PLACE IN THE PANTHEON:
It’s tight and hungry and worth the effort. The kind of show you can enjoy and if you miss five minutes you’re not going to fall out of the story.
SPECIAL FEATURES, or “SPECIAL” FEATURES?
Commentaries are always great and there’s some nice banter here. These folks are all underdogs and they seem committed to the project in a way that rises above the paycheck of it all. It’s pretty infectious.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars