Anyone looking for an action-heavy television show aimed at mature audiences (read: lots of swearing and nudity) could do much worse than the Cinemax series Strike Back, the complete first season of which is now available on Blu-ray. Often compared to 24, Strike Back focuses on a special division of the British Secret Intelligence Service known as Section 20. Though mostly British, Section 20 has recruited a very cocky American ex-Delta Force operative named Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton). He and U.K. Royal Marine Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) are the primary field agents as Section 20 engages in an international hunt for a terrorist named Latif (Jimi Mistry).
Though these 10 episodes introduced U.S. audiences to the series in 2011, Strike Back actually began the year before—albeit with a different cast and characters—on the U.K.’s Sky1 channel. Billed as Strike Back: Cinemax Season One, this Blu-ray set is technically the second season (and was known in the U.K. as Strike Back: Project Dawn). The series became a co-production by the U.K.’s BSkyB and HBO (who owns Cinemax). While perhaps slightly confusing, this is worth pointing out for newcomers to Strike Back, who may wonder why a season predating the “first” already exists. Just know that, aside from a brief cameo in the first episode by Richard Armitage as John Porter, Cinemax Season One consists of entirely new characters and new situations.
The way Strike Back is structured, the 10 episode season breaks down into five two-parters—all united by the overarching story of the search for Latif. Colonel Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing) leads Section 20, one of two strong female characters in leadership roles. The other is Captain Kate Marshall (Eva Birthistle), a tough woman who leads the field operatives. The season gets off to an exciting start as Scott and Stonebridge take on a team of terrorists (with ties to Latif) who are holding the patrons of a Malaysian hotel hostage. A number of relatively engaging twists and turns occurs over the next few episodes before the season really hits its stride with episodes five and six, which focuses on a pair of civilian doctors providing aid in Darfur. The father of one of the doctors, Claire Somersby (Laura Haddock), happens to be an arms dealer with ties to Latif. Haddock turns in an effective performance that helps add a more personal feel to these episodes.
By no means is Strike Back a great show. The season takes a while to really kick in after a few episodes that seem to be loud and busy just for the sake of providing a pure action fix. The main characters take a while to warm up to, with Scott and Stonebridge eventually emerging as likeable heroes. But at first it seems all Stapleton has to work with to distinguish Scott is the catchphrase “Fuck me” and the fact that he gets naked a lot. As Stonebridge, Winchester gets saddled with the more straitlaced of the two but he eventually seems to find the character before the season ends.
There’s also the problem of Latif, the season’s central villain, being a largely unseen, unfelt threat. It isn’t really made clear enough why Latif is such an important target, so it’s hard to fully rally behind the heroes as they search for him. But the production values are high and there’s just enough sophistication to the plotting that the series’ strengths outweigh its flaws. While some of the scenarios are a bit preposterous, Strike Back’s reach never exceeds its grasp. It’s not interested in emotional or intellectual depth. The goal is to entertain rather than provoke thought and in that regard the series is successful.
Strike Back: Cinemax Season One looks every bit as good as most big budget theatrical releases with this 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer. The visual presentation is consistently excellent throughout the 10 episodes, showcasing some stunning scenery in South Africa and Hungary. This is a stylishly shot, shadowy series and sharpness and detail remain strong under any lighting condition. It’s hard to fault anything in the presentation, especially when comparing the Blu-ray with the included standard DVDs. Colors are vibrant and black levels are deep and solid.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is also the equal of many big screen productions. The action scenes are what will surely be of the greatest interest to most fans. They absolutely deliver the goods, with plenty of clarity amidst the cacophony of bullets and bombs. The LFE channel gets a good workout, with floor-rumbling bass. Dialogue is never a concern during even the most sonically-cluttered scenes, always remaining intelligible.
Don’t look to this release for a ton of supplemental features. What’s here is entirely audio-based, with five commentaries (for episodes two, four, six, eight, and 10—appropriate since these are the episodes that conclude each mini-story). The commentary participants, different for each episode, include a number of actors as well as executive producer Daniel Perciva. The tracks, while not being devoid of interest, are a little dull. However, serious fans should be glad to hear them. And, as I mentioned, all 10 episodes are included on standard DVDs and a digital copy download code is also part of the package.
Overall, I rate Strike Back as a solidly entertaining show. It moves along briskly, with enough fights, chases, shoot-outs, and sex to keep things interesting. I’m actually very interested to see how things develop with the new season (which begins on Cinemax August 17). Hopefully the action scenes continue to deliver but within a more tightly constructed story arc.