A little bit of background info on Cinemax's series, Strike Back. In 2010 the UK's Sky1 channel debuted a six part mini-series entitled Chris Ryan's Strike Back which was based on the author's novel of the same name. It did quite well and a second series commenced, this time in partnership with Cinemax in the United States. In the UK, this second series was called Strike Back: Project Dawn but in the States it was shown on Cinemax as simply Strike Back (which is how we'll refer to it for the purposes of this review). You don't really need to see the original British series to understand this second one (which is good because it's currently unavailable on home video in any format domestically) as apparently only one character from that first series returns and even then it's only for one episode. This is brought up only for informational purposes - it really won't affect your enjoyment of this ridiculously entertaining ten episode series, which has been renewed - expect another ten part story entitled Strike Back: Vengeance to debut on Cinemax in August of 2012.
Getting back on topic, the series contained in this set has five story arcs which are spread out over two episodes each. The basic premise of the show revolves around a former British commando named Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) and a former US Delta Force operative named Damian Scott (Sullivan Stapleton), two agents of Britain's Section 20 - an elite division of the MI6 (or, secret service if you prefer). Their task is to stop a Pakistani terrorist named Latif who has kidnapped an agent named John Porter (Richard Armitage). This mission first sends them to India and the rest of their collective adventures take them to other locations around the world. Here's a quick breakdown of the ten episodes that make up the show (some mild spoilers ahead):
Episode One: Latif kidnaps John Porter and holds him hostage in India because he is one of only a few people in the world who can identify him. Latif plans to put into motion 'Project Dawn' and under the supervision of Colonel Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing), Section 20 aims to stop it by sending in Michael Stonebridge and Damian Scott who arrive in India only to be followed by terrorists looking for someone named Mahmood and then things get complicated.
Episode Two: Our agents find the mysterious Mahmood who turns out to have firsthand knowledge of a cache of deadly weapons of mass destruction that have ties to the beginning of the Iraq War. The terrorists ramp up their actions with a kidnapping and the Indian army take action against them with Stonebridge and Scott caught in the middle. The real identities of Latif and Mahmood are revealed as are some strange conspiracies involving the higher ups at Section 20.
Episode Three: The second storyline takes place in South Africa where an IRA terrorist named Daniel Connelly (Liam Cunningham) has robbed an armored truck and gotten his hands on some sensitive weapons information that originated with a man named Kenneth Bratton (Alistair Petrie) who has ties to Scott's previous experience in the Iraq War. The two agents are called in to save Bratton and get the information back before Connelly can do anything with it.
Episode Four: Scott manages to infiltrate Connelly's group while Bratton calls in some favors to ensure that his family doesn't get attacked by the terrorists. Details emerge about Bratton's ties to the WMDs found in Iraq while Connelly kidnaps some key players with Scott and Stonebridge left racing against time to save the hostages.
Episode Five: An arms dealer who was once a member of the British military named Gerald Crawford (Iain Glen) is captured by Section 20 agents who are interested in him because he has ties to Latif. Upon interrogation Crawford tells them that he was to swap the weapons in exchange for the freedom of his daughter, Doctor Claire Somersby (Laura Haddock), who was kidnapped from her hospital in Darfur by a group called the Janjaweeds. Section 20 decides to send in some agents to free her in exchange for everything that Crawford knows about Latif.
Episode Six: Scott winds up in the hospital with Maggie (Rachel Shelley), a reporter he once had an affair with where they are promptly arrested. Stonebridge, on the other hand, is reacting poorly to the death of a character from earlier in the series. With Crawford's help he gets back in the game and all signs point to a British spy working for Latif who will need to be taken care of. Crawford knows his identity, but with terrorists seemingly around every corner will he survive long enough to tell Section 20?
Episode Seven: As Grant wants to know more about Scott's background, she sets up a psychologist named Marianna (Natalia Avelon) to feign interest in him in a ploy to get more information on his past. From here, we shift to Kosovo where some European politicians are kidnapped by terrorists lead by Hassani (Mel Raido) who is going to hold them hostage and will release them only when his cousin is freed from prison. Grant allows the release of his cousin in order to get closer to MI6 agent John Allen (Adrian Rawlins), who is one of the hostages but the release of the prisoner does not go as planned and Scott and Stonebridge are called in.
Episode Eight: When Scott and Stone learn the truth about Agent Allen, they quickly run out of time as Hassani decides to sell the female hostages into slavery and use the male hostages for organ harvesting. Scott makes his way to the hostages while Stonebridge goes his own way as Latif and Assani meet up to exchange information.
Episode Nine: We learn a bit about Stonebridge's home life when he finds out that his wife Kerry (Alexandra Moen) is pregnant and that she wants him to quit Section 20. This doesn't last long as he and Scott are quickly sent back to Eastern Europe to investigate the disappearance of eight people who may be linked to Latif. They arrive and investigate a series of tunnels where this was to take place where, after they discover some labs, they are attacked. It seems Latif has plans to use chemical weapons against a very high profile target and so the race to capture him before he can do just that is on...
With Latif captured, Grant interrogates him while Scott and Stonebridge chase down two terrorists in Budapest, one of whom can detonate the weapons that were manufactured. Latif's men attack the base and he escapes with Grant now his hostage. Scott heads after Grant while Stonebridge has to try and stop the weapons from going off at the conference that Latif was targeting as the intertwining pasts of the various key players all start to unravel.
Strike Back turns out to be a lot of fun, sort of a televised throwback to the Cannon Films output of the eighties where there were evil terrorists all over the place and the good guys had to use whatever means necessary to stop them. This isn't the type of show to bother with diplomacy, and while it may take inspiration from real world events like the whole WMD/Iraq War controversy, it's not a show all that concerned with reality either. This is a series that puts entertainment first, a series that isn't afraid to get violent, to throw in some gratuitous sex because gratuitous sex is fun, or to go over the top when the moment calls for it. The series moves by at a fast pace, it's always exciting and frequently tense, it offers up enough drama so that we get the necessary amount of character development out of it and it is even occasionally clever. In short, it's fun. A lot of fun.
As Stonebridge and Scott respectively, American born Philip Winchester and Australian born Sullivan Stapleton do a pretty good job. Their relationship is typical buddy cop material, like something you'd see in a Lethal Weapon movie where they get along for the most part but definitely tend to irritate one another. There's an oil and water thing going on here sometimes, with Stonebridge seeming to be the more level headed, noble and heroic of the pair and Scott the hot headed one with a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. The two leading men fill the roles well, they're charismatic, believably tough, and they do well in the copious action scenes that show up in each of the ten episodes. The series puts more emphasis on 'catching the bad guys' than on allowing their 'friendship' to develop naturally but at the same time by doing so they more or less give the audience what it wants - excitement. Supporting efforts from the sexy Amanda Mealing as the woman in charge and Alexandra Moen as the concerned wife are good, as are the efforts of Natalia Avelon who provides some welcome eye candy if not a whole lot more. The acting from all involved is enthusiastic and enjoyable, no one stands out in any sort of negative way here.
The series does a great job of maximizing the South African real estate that was used (often times to double as other countries - though some shooting took place in Europe) and the show has a fairly exotic look to it that works in its favor. As our heroes are globetrotting from one mess to the next the crew ensure that the cameras pick up on as much of the local flavor as possible, so we're never taken out of the show even if you know that not everything is shot on location. While certain aspects of the show start to fall apart if you apply to much thought and logic to it, there's no need to overanalyze the series. What we have here is a wildly entertaining series that isn't afraid to offer up healthy doses of sex and violence in an effort to put entertainment and cheap thrills at the forefront - it's good escapist material, the type of show you can have a lot of fun with and won't have to think about too much to enjoy.
The first season of Strike Back arrives on Blu-ray from HBO in AVC encoded 1080p high definition widescreen in 1.78.1 just as it was shown on Cinemax when originally broadcast. There's not much to complain about here at all, the episodes all look great in high definition. Some very mild aliasing can be spotted here and there but otherwise the image is strong, nicely detailed and quite colorful. Explosions look great and don't break up into compression artifacts while black levels stay solid throughout without smearing or destroying shadow detail. Skin tones, of which a lot are on display, look lifelike and there's plenty of texture to ogle and detail to appreciate both in the foreground and the background of pretty much every shot.
The primary audio option on this set is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH, French, Spanish, German, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish and foreign language dubbed tracks are provided in German language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, French language DTS 5.1 Surround Sound and Spanish language DTS 2.0 Stereo. That English DTS-HD track though? It's a doozy. The show features plenty of shoot outs and explosions and so we get a lot of rear channel and surround activity throughout the series. The low end offers up some nice rumble to anchor gunshots and explosions without burying the performers while the dialogue stays clean, clear and always discernible. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion anywhere in the mix and the score has some nice resonance to it and is spread out nicely to add some dramatic flair here and there. Some of the quieter moments offer up some nice subtle background details here and there but where the mix is at its best is during the more intense moments of the series - this is good stuff.
As far as the extras for this release are concerned, we get a selection of commentary tracks from audio commentaries:
-Episode Two features input from stars Philip Winchester, Sullivan Stapleton, and executive producer Daniel Perciva
-Episode Four features input from stars Philip Winchester and Liam Cunnigham
-Episode Six features input from stars Philip Winchester and Amanda Mealing
-Episode Eight features input from Sullivan Stapleton, and executive producer Daniel Perciva
-Episode Two features input from stars Philip Winchester, Sullivan Stapleton, Amanda Mealing and executive producer Daniel Perciva
If you dig the series, these commentary tracks are worth listening to. They're fairly candid but not to the point where they get jokey or off track, they stay informative. Topics covered throughout the five tracks include locations, stunts, cast and crew involvement, themes and ideas that run through the series, political inspiration, and more. They won't convince that the series is something that it isn't, but they at least offer up some interesting stories about the making of the show and various bits of trivia.
As this is a combo pack release, a set of DVDs is also included as is a set of digital copies.
Strike Back isn't reinventing action, drama or suspense and it does tend to play to the exploitative traits that Cinemax is known for (it isn't called Skinemax for nothing, you know) but for those who don't need to take everything completely seriously, this show can be a lot of fun. It's fast paced, exciting, tense, violent and sexy and while it might put action and excitement over deep storytelling, it does what it does very well. The Blu-ray set from HBO could have used some more love in the extra features department but is otherwise a very strong release and comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.