Strike Back is meant to be a crude show, in which the “good” guys of a secret, British unit called Section 20 do whatever it takes to stop terrorists, from infiltration to torture to the sacrifice of innocent lives. It’s intended to be a cold-blooded show, in which women and children are graphically, callously murdered; even the numerous sex scenes are quick and violent. That it succeeds in neither is actually for the best: The “crudeness” is belied by eye-catching camerawork that brings to mind the films of Paul Greengrass and Guy Ritchie, and one’s blood is likely to be warmed by the teamwork of our Die Hard-sculpted hero, ex-Delta Force soldier Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton), and his highly professional, Bond-like partner, Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester). While there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen before, the quality makes the action stand out, as one of the characters might say in their man-speak, “like a dildo in Disneyland.”
If AMC is trying to make television that looks like the movies, then Cinemax is giving them a run for their money; any of the cliffhanging two-part episodes of Strike Back could make a decent action film on its own merits. That there’s also an overarching conspiracy plot is just icing on the cake, as it allows the show (which at least appears to be shot on location) to do the standard globetrotting of the spy-thriller genre, while still managing to settle in to each environment (New Delhi, Cape Town) for at least an hour or two.
The villains are also nicely varied. A mild-mannered hostage-taker and his brutal gunmen appear in the first two episodes and a deadly IRA bomber and his wild, sex-crazed associate show up for the next two. There’s even enough time to develop the secondary players: The head of Section 20, Col. Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing), gets emotionally involved in one of the cases, and her subordinate, Capt. Kate Marshall (Eva Birthistle), has begun an affair with Stonebridge that can only, in a show like this, self-destruct. Maj. Oliver Sinclair (Rhashan Stone), who does some sort of computer hacking, and Sgt. Julia Richmond (Michelle Lukes), who Scott’s hit on, aren’t given much to do in these first episodes, but given the way in which Strike Back kills central characters to announce its seriousness, it’s a good that this B-team is standing by to get into the game.
If there’s a downside to Strike Back, it’s that not enough time is given over to the fractious “buddy-cop” relationship between the two main characters, Scott and Stonebridge, whereas quite a bit of time is spent with the villains—which would be fine if their actions weren’t intentionally obfuscated for the sake of suspense. Too often the audience is left trying to keep up with the twists of the plot, to the point that some scenes—like the hijacking of a tank, or the burning of surveillance photos—are all style and no substance. Then again, there’s a moderately high level of realism on the show (okay, a sequence in which one character “catches” a falling bomb before it explodes is a bit over the top), and if this is the trade off necessary to keep the testosteronal quips in check, then job well done. Strike Back isn’t brilliant television, but it’s plenty entertaining, and by fitting the action of 24 with the grit of The Unit (and the nudity of Cinemax), it fills a .22 caliber hole in American television.