A Little Bit Gritty
Sullivan Stapleton, Philip Winchester, Amanda Mealing, Eva Birthistle, Jimi Mistry
Regular airtime: Fridays, 10pm ET
US: 12 Aug 2011
On 12 August, when Cinemax airs the first episode of the new action series Strike Back, it may look vaguely familiar to UK audiences. The first collaboration between Cinemax and Britain’s Sky1, this Strike Back is less a second season of the British show than a spin-off, and will be broadcast in the UK as Strike Back: Project Dawn.
The first season followed a pair of British intelligence agents, John Porter (Richard Armitage) and Hugh Collison (Andrew Lincoln), who work for the ultra-secret Section 20, a clandestine branch of MI-6 that specializes in high-risk, high-priority targets. They were tasked with tracking down and thwarting terrorists, and the six episodes were titled for their locations, including “Iraq” and “Afghanistan.”
The new series begins with Porter in the hands of the notorious terrorist known as Latif (Jimi Mistry), who has sworn to unleash devastating attacks against the West. In order to spoil Latif’s plan and hamstring his Jihadist organization, Section 20 must employ Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton), a dishonorably discharged former member of the U.S. Delta Force. When Sergeant Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) tracks Scott down, the two military men form an uneasy alliance and a shaky trust as they track Latiff and his associates across the globe.
Despite some obvious faults, Strike Back is a decent enough action yarn with slick production values. At the same time, though, the series is more concerned with gratuitous nudity—this is Cinemax, after all, so each episode includes a lifetime’s worth of breasts and butt cheeks—than creating a story with any substance, character, or emotional weight.
This lack is drawn out across two-episode arcs, in which the agents of Section 20 focus on specific missions, like attempting to prevent the abduction of a key military strategist in India, or stopping an Irish mercenary (Liam Cunningham) from procuring a deadly nerve toxin. Each of these segments might be thought of as a stand-alone film, or a serialized police procedural; they have internal logics and most loose ends are tied up at the end.
If Strike Back was in fact a movie, it would most likely fall into the direct-to-video market. This isn’t necessarily bad, as the DTV market spawns some of the best action cinema currently being produced. Movies like Blood and Bone and Universal Soldier: Regeneration, while not groundbreaking, are solid throwbacks to bygone days when action films featured fierce badasses engaged in gun battles and car chases, as well as lively stunts instead of massive set pieces or excessive green-screening.
Strike Back has that DTV aesthetic: a little bit gritty, a little bit dirty, lacking some refinement in areas like script and acting, and relying heavily on action to move things along. The agents of Section 20 run from one action set piece to the next. When you first meet Scott, he is having loud sex with his girlfriend. In a series of brief scenes, he’s in a rigged underground bare-knuckle boxing match, fleeing from some gangsters, and then fighting them.
Even with the tenuous causal connection, these events don’t do much to advance a narrative. Instead, they make clear that Scott (and Stonebridge, in other sequences) are ultra-men being ultra-manly. Over the course of the first four episodes, each one is given a few dominant personality traits. Scott has a problem with authority and will hit on any woman with a pulse, while Stonebridge is duty-driven, despite the fact that he’s cheating on his wife. Sometimes, they reveal hints of conscience or background, as when Scott saves a child to show that he really is a good guy at heart. You recognize these attempts for what they are, plot devices designed to elicit a more or less kneejerk audience response.
Just so, everything in the world of Strike Back is very black and white. Terrorists are terrorists mostly because they’re bad people, there’s no other underlying reason for their actions. The military men are heroic and brave because military men are heroic and brave. I almost want to say that Strike Back is a piece of pro-West propaganda, but even that might be giving the show too much credit. It offers no obviously considered commentary on today’s wars or geopolitical conditions. It’s more a videogame, where war occurs because that’s simply how things are.