There’s really no better way to spend an evening than cracking open a cold beer and watching a few episodes of Strike Back (on a big screen with surround sound, naturally!)
Plot: Section 20, a formerly disbanded covert British special operations unit, is reinstated after a dangerous terrorist escapes military custody. To bring him to justice, the elite Section 20 operatives must undertake missions in some of the most dangerous places on Earth in a constant race against the clock. Always outgunned, and starting as complete strangers, the team must rely on each other and their training if they have any hope of capturing their target and saving the day.
Review: After the end of Season Four (Season Five for UK viewers), it had looked like it was curtains for Cinemax’s globe-trotting action series Strike Back, with mainstay heroes Scott and Stonebridge leaving Section 20 behind and literally riding off into the sunset. It was, to some extent, the end of an era, as Strike Back was really the only show of its kind, a long-form serialized action/thriller extravaganza that was far better than the straight-to-video action movies it was ostensibly emulating. Granted, it may not have been a game-changing or critically acclaimed series like you would find on HBO or Amazon Prime (I’m looking at you Jack Ryan), but Strike Back provided Cinemax with some legitimate street cred, and in my opinion was the best action series on cable TV. It left a significant void after it was gone.
But some things are too good to let die, and now Strike Back has returned, with a new cast and principle writer, but some of the same show-runners. Does the new series try to reach the heights of the other new premium action/dramas? Does it have well-known actors and a near-bottomless budget? Does it reinvent the wheel? In short, no it doesn’t, but Season Five makes up for those shortcomings with creative set-pieces, solidly executed action, entertaining banter amongst the four special operatives, and very strong female characters who easily hold their own with the men. Oh, and also rampant nudity from time to time, because this IS Cinemax after all.
Prior experience with Strike Back isn’t necessary to enjoy Season Five, since all the players are new. In fact, if you haven’t watched the first four seasons, I’d almost say start with Five and Six, and then go back and watch the previous ones (each season is essentially self-contained). Across the 40 episodes of the first four seasons (not counting the TRUE first standalone season, dubbed Origins), the bar was continually raised for great action, exotic locations, and the occasional well-scripted ruminations on the cost of taking lives for a living. While the supporting cast frequently rotated out, Section 20 operatives Damien Scott and Michael Stonebridge became characters that you actually cared about, and there was a wonderful sense of closure and catharsis when they decided to leave the game and live their lives. Season Five doesn’t quite live up to those lofty standards, but it still manages to stand on its own quite well, and to be honest it does seem a little unfair to compare it to what came before.
The set-up for Season Five is as follows: A British Special Forces mission to capture & deliver Middle Eastern terrorist Omair Idrisi goes horribly wrong, leading to the death of Sgt. Thomas “Mac” McAllister’s entire team, and Idrisi escaping into the wind. After striking his superior officer over the failed op and bad intel (like one does), Mac finds himself facing court-martial, until he gets an offer that’s hard to refuse; join the reactivated Section 20 and resume the search for Idrisi, or face his punishment and leave the military in disgrace. And once he accepts the offer, we are off to the races, with other team members Sgt. Samuel Wyatt (American soldier on loan), Cpl. Gracie Novin (Aussie ass kicker), and Capt. Natalie Reynolds (team leader and perfectionist) being introduced organically, and quickly, during the first episode. They are supported, in the command center and occasionally in the field, by stern Colonel Adeena Donovan (the HBIC) and nice-guy Cpl. Will Jensen (comms and gear).
From there, it’s standard Strike Back fare, with the overarching terror plot providing the narrative backbone, while smaller encounters that provide the action and forward progress take place over two-episode increments, for a grand total of ten episodes. By breaking down the missions into these smaller, bite-sized chunks, Strike Back never seems to lag or meander, as it basically feels like five two-hour movies strung together with excellent plotting and persistent fallout from decisions made and opportunities taken (or missed). It also means that the show is built for binge-watching, as each two-episode story arc has a definite beginning and end, and there are plenty of callbacks and small bouts of exposition to remind everyone who the players are and what is happening (and why). True to form, the team finds themselves deployed to various locations across the globe, finding both allies and double-crosses, racing against time and the odds to stop the bad guys from doing bad things. It’s a formula that works quite well, with the studio obviously realizing it wasn’t broken so they had nothing to fix.
Performances are pretty solid across the board, with Wyatt and Novin being the standout characters, but that’s more due to how they are written as opposed to a critique on the other actors. Having four leads instead of two means less screen-time for each character overall, but the actors do their best and inhabit their roles well. No, none of these new Section 20 operatives have quite the depth that I was hoping for, but maybe that will develop more in Season Six? Outside of that, the Strike Backformula is in full effect with our two male leads, as Mac and Wyatt have the same sort of alpha warrior bromance that Scott and Stonebridge had, trading barbs and insults with casual flair, while at the same time always having each other’s backs. Novin and Reynolds don’t quite get the same level of banter, which is a missed opportunity, as these ladies can easily hold their own. It’s especially a shame since actress Alin Sumarwata (who plays Novin) has pretty decent delivery and timing, which is sadly underutilized.
One of the areas where Strike Back has generally excelled is with the villains, frequently subverting expectations and providing more dimension to their baddies beyond the fact that “they’re evil”. Season Five continues that trend, pulling a bait-and-switch with the big bad early on, while also providing various other antagonists for our heroes to go up against. In fact, the structure is akin to a video game, with various mini-bosses that must be taken down before our heroes can have their final showdown with the main baddie. While there isn’t Game of Thrones levels of gray to these characters, I appreciated the effort to make them (most of them) more than evil caricatures. After all, what’s the point of having compelling heroes if they don’t have equally compelling villains to face off against? A series standout is Katherine Kelly as Omair Idrisi’s British wife Jane Lowry, who hails from the same town as Mac and is equally as fanatical and capable as her terrorist husband.
But enough about the people and the concepts…what about the action? Well, that’s the whole point of this show, and Season Five doesn’t skimp on the bullets and bombs in the slightest. Mileage varies across the episodes, but for the most part the set-pieces are creative and the action well-staged. Kudos to director MJ Bassett and his location scouts, as they found some rather fun and visually appealing settings to stage firefights in. Gunplay is typically top-notch, with various weapons being utilized, from assault rifles to silenced pistols, and even an RPG thrown in for good measure. Seriously, if you like gunplay, this is the series for you.
One of the season highlights is a tense shootout with Russian soldiers in a laboratory located in the ruins of Chernobyl, which takes place in Episode Six. The close quarters fighting adds a great sense of claustrophobia, with the added danger of bullets flying in a chemical weapons lab where nerve agents are being manufactured. A runner-up sequence, taking place in Episode Two, finds the team in Libya, rescuing an arms dealer from a downed helicopter in the middle of hostile territory. While shorter and on a much smaller scale, it is highly evocative of the tense street-to-street fighting from Black Hawk Down, and had me wishing it had lasted much longer.
While the firefights are generally engaging and suitably frantic, some of the hand-to-hand combat is a little rough and slow in the first couple of episodes. Episode Three features some MMA-style fighting that is fun enough, but isn’t as fierce as it could have been thanks to some of the editing choices. There are, however, a few brawls that truly stand out in this season.
The first one that really ups the ante is in Episode Five, which has Novin facing off against a hallway full of goons (wearing an evening dress no less!) in a scene that is very reminiscent of the hallway brawl in Oldboy. The cinematography and fight choreography are superb, and Sumarwata goes all in with a very physical performance. It’s rather short, but wonderfully brutal, and is easily one of the best Strike Back fights ever. Another fisticuffs standout happens in Episode Six, with Capt. Reynolds taking on a brute of an assassin in her hotel room. The size difference between the two combatants is on full display, as Reynolds tries her best for holds and takedowns, but he mostly shrugs her off and tosses her around like a rag doll. Again, it’s a rather short scene, but wonderfully brutal. I really enjoy watching badass women kick the tar out of people, and Strike Back caters to that addiction quite handily.
Sadly, this season sometimes opts to forgo gritty realism for the more “stylish” shots, such as slow motion or blurred moments, or quick edits to hide tough choreography, which really only detracts from the spectacle instead of adding to it. It’s frustrating, but I get it, as the show doesn’t have an unlimited budget. Knowing that, cheat shots and quick edits like that are an annoyance I’m willing to overlook since it doesn’t happen too often. Especially since I’ve seen much worse editing choices in big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Another frustration of note, but again not a showstopper, is that the Section 20 operatives are all crack shots (as they should be) until a plot contrivance forces them to miss their targets. This happens several times, and it just kind of rubs me the wrong way. I would prefer the writers come up with some other method of keeping a necessary player alive than having our expert marksmen heroes suddenly unable to hit the broad side of a barn. Those nitpicks notwithstanding, the show generally gets the tactics and the action right, as they have some solid consultants helping keep things grounded. This includes Mr. Chris Ryan, a former SAS soldier who wrote the book that Strike Back is based on.
My only other point of contention is that the series starts to take a dive as it nears the finale. Even with a rather surprising and unexpected pair of cameos (always welcome, but sadly not used to their full potential) in the last two episodes, it feels like the writers struggled to bring everything to a concise and satisfying conclusion, leaving the last few episodes feeling rushed and somewhat sloppy. In most series, it’s usually the beginning and end episodes that pull the weight, leaving the middle to lag and stumble. This season of Strike Back bucks that trend, with the best episodes being smack in the middle.
There are no real issues to be found on the technical side, as the production is uniformly consistent and competently executed. It’s a well-shot show, with some wonderful “on location” moments instead of the usual constraints of a small set in some studio lot. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and I only occasionally struggled to decipher a thick accent, but that’s more to my untrained ear rather than because of a weak audio track. Sound effects are serviceable, though I always want more oomph to the firearms in movies and shows. They never quite capture the true CRACK! of a discharged weapon like I want them to. The soundtrack is serviceable without being noteworthy. I do like the new intro credits sequence, which plays the familiar song “Short Change Hero” over revamped visuals featuring the new team and villains. I always crack a smile when the theme song starts playing, as I know I’m in for a good time.
At the end of the day, I really wanted to give this fifth season of Strike Back a fair shake, so I tried to minimize comparisons to the previous seasons. Given today’s TV landscape, it’s a wonder that shows like Strike Back even still exist, as everyone (from the studios to most fans) seem to want the next BIG thing, instead of being content with a consistent tried-and-true formula. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s really no better way to spend an evening than cracking open a cold beer and watching a few episodes of Strike Back (on a big screen with surround sound, naturally!). And since I’m a little old school, I refuse to stream these kinds of shows, instead opting for purchasing each season as they are released. Bring on Season Six!