Anglophile critic David Chute takes on yet another new Brit/American co-production, Cinemax's Strike Back.
So fast-paced it makes 24 look sluggish, and with a brighter, livelier tone that embraces both multi-cultural inclusiveness and macho backslapping, the Sky/Cinemax, UK/US co-production Strike Back is first rate pulp TV, with enough unexpected heart and authenticity to guarentee that its thrills are never cheap. A counter-terrorism action series, it probably isn’t grim or one-sided enough to be adopted by ideologues of any stripe, and it isn’t in the superhero business. Loud and fast and brightly colored, with sudden up-against-the-wall sex scenes that keep the volume turned up to eleven between the fire fights, it is also the kind of show about the military that focuses on the day-to-day stresses of trying to stay alive on the ground, leaving the overriding political issues to the suits at headquarters. (In addition to echoes of 24 and M-15 it has a commitment to staying grounded in day-to-day believability that recalls David Mamet’s underappreciated The Unit.)
Strike Force is the second cross-pond collaboration this season on premium cable that thrives by kicking an established British series into edgier late night territory. The BBC/Starz collaboration Torchwood: Miracle Day is the Americanized fourth season of a show whose pedigree as a spin-off of Doctor Who goes back almost fifty years. Strike Back is a bit younger than that: its only previous season, on Sky 1, starred Richard Armitage (ex-MI-5, now Peter Jackson’s Thorin Oakenshield) and Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead) as black operatives. They work for Section 20, a clandestine British unit of terrorist hunters, and as one-time antagonists they work each other.
Based on a novel by the pseudononymous Chris Ryan, an ex-SAS commando whose stock in trade is the authenticity of his details, and filmed in South Africa, which stands in effectively for both South Asia and the Middle East, Strike Back has surprisingly dense textures for a show that always seems to be dashing of somewhere with a gun in its hand.
The emotionally dark and intense first season had elements of noir suspense inherent in the bruised watchfulness of protagonist John Porter (Armitage), an SAS officer who is a undercover operative of reckless courage, with an element of paranoia suspense generated by suspicions of a colleague. (No spoilers here, in case fans of the current series decide to seek out its worthy predecessor.)
This juiced-up second series feels younger, less conflicted, more kung-fu acrobatic. Its first new episode focuses less on the brooders and skulkers who gather information than on “the boys,” the lads, the go-go-go special forces jocks who are dropped in afterward to act on it, with night-vision goggles and extreme prejudice. The situation in the pilot is an impressively researched and staged hotel invasion in New Delhi that seems to be a deliberate imitation by the perpetrators of the 2008 takeover of the Taj hotel in Mumbai – but to what end? A veteran Section 20 operative sacrifices himself to send the coded message that brings the team to the hotel disguised as tourists, only a few minutes before the terrorists swarm in. With Section 20 inside, and some Indian cops and at least one friendly Pakistani agent milling around outside, a two-handed Die Hard in a hotel situation seems to be developing.
The most promising aspect of the new Strike Back is the nature of the conflict that is being set up between the alert and dedicated Stonebridge of Philip Winchester (Crusoe), an American playing a Brit, and the Damien Scott of Sullivan Stapleton (Animal Kingdom), an Aussie playing a Yank. Both are Baywatch handsome, but they are also plausible, as soldiers and individuals. Stonebridge is a convincing lifer who believes that planning and coordination save lives, Sullivan a wild-eyed risk taker and compulsive womanizer with a glint of real madness, a loose cannon who could actually be dangerous.
Scott and Stonebridge were already well on their way to forging a bond under fire at the end of episode one, but the distinction between them goes beyond the standard off-the-shelf personality quirks of most buddy movies. It hinges on fundamental issues of hope vs. cynicism, discipline vs. self-indulgence. We honestly do not harbor much doubt how the conflict will be resolved, but it should be fun getting there.