Sky had success with their three-part action-drama Strike Back in early-2010; based on the best-selling novel by former-SAS soldier Chris Ryan and starring Richard Armitage (Spooks, Robin Hood) as British hero John Porter. The long-awaited sequel has transformed into a very different beast; both because Sky now has a co-production partner in US cable network Cinemax (a subsidiary of HBO), and the limited availability of its leading man because of his commitment to The Hobbit.
The former isn't going to worry many viewers, as Strike Back now has an improved budget, more resources, and a 10-episode order, but the latter unfortunately means Armitage's chiseled hero is killed off within 15-minutes. Knowing the popularity of Armitage and his role in making Strike Back a hit last year (by attracting a female demographic to a very macho series), it's a major change that feels akin to writing Kiefer Sutherland out of 24's second season. Oddly, it's nowhere near as shocking as that theoretical death scene, perhaps because the show's trailers had already prepared audiences for the likelihood of Porter's demise (Armitage barely featured in any promotional material).
Can Strike Back pick itself up and soldier on, making you quickly forget its original protagonist? Based on this fast-paced and entertaining premiere, I think that's very possible, perhaps even a certainty. For starters, they've replaced Armitage with two equally attractive actors: Philip Winchester (Camelot) as by-the-book Sgt Michael Stonebridge, the poster boy of fictional British intelligence agency Section 20; and Sullivan Stapleton (December Boys) as maverick former-Delta Force operative Damien Scott, a brash, continually horny American. This gives the show a hackneyed "buddy" element to play with, but it works surprisingly well. Stonebridge even finds Scott bare-knuckle fighting in Kuala Lumpur, years after his dishonourable discharge, but that's exactly the cliché you expect from a show like Strike Back. It was either that or a Buddhist temple in the Himalayas.
It may share DNA with the likes of the venerable Spooks and innovative 24, but in many ways Strike Back's heart is twinned with posturing Steven Seagal movies. The combative title's the dead giveaway. This show plays in a world where the complexities of global terrorism can be reduced to that of a Time Crisis coin-op arcade. The violent takeover of a luxury hotel, by terrorists who start ruthlessly assassinating hostages, even plays like Level 1 of a video-game. So far it makes 24 look like a John le Carré novel.
But I don't particularly care Strike Back has a reductive swagger about it. Not every action thriller needs lofty ambitions; sometimes you just want the fun of a "clean-cut British hunk" and a "tattooed American bad boy" jetting around the world trying to catch the terrorist mastermind responsible for killing their mutual friend, who's also plotting something codenamed Project Dawn. The action's tight and efficient, there's a smattering of nudity to titillate both sexes, plausible violence (loved a naked Scott's disarming of a baddie using a towel), plus some fun twists and turns—including a last-minute reveal I should have seen coming, but somehow didn't. There's intelligent playfulness to Frank Spotnitz's (The X Files) script, as well—such as the moment Jimi Mistry's character makes his entrance and the scene allows you to assume he must be the big villain, when in fact he's an ally who just happens to be of Indian ethnicity (thus making the audience complicit in racial profiling).
Overall, I'm not convinced Strike Back: Project Dawn will offer enough depth to warrant episodic reviews, but it seems likely it'll provide a few months of entertainment. There's nothing original about its style, aesthetic, premise, story or characters—but as the TV equivalent of a Friday night straight-to-video action movie rental, Strike Back's a capable and effective offering.
written by Frank Spotnitz / directed by Daniel Percival / 21 August 2011 / Sky1