Take the playful demeanor of 'Burn Notice,' add the brash sexiness of Starz's 'Spartacus,' and mix it all together with the tense fast-paced counter-terrorist action of '24,' and you have a good idea what 'Strike Back' is like. Produced in Britain, 'Strike Back' airs on the Sky Network, but is rebroadcast here in the states on Cinemax. Having never seen the show before, and knowing that the only programming on Cinemax, beside movies, was hilariously insipid, dimly-lit softcore sitcoms with names like 'Forbidden Science' and 'Co-Ed Confidential,' I had little expectation that 'Strike Back' would really be worth bothering with. After the first episode I was hooked.
The first season (keep in mind that this set really is the second season of the show, but the actual British-produced first season for some reason hasn't been broadcast on Cinemax) follows the travels of a secret branch of the British military called Section 20. Like a traveling CTU, Section 20 sets up shop in a dozen different countries as the season progresses, each time trying to locate different targets, terrorists, or intelligence that will help them prevent an impending terrorist plot called Project Dawn.
Inside Section 20 is Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester), a straight-shooting soldier who always has his eyes on the mission. He has a wife back home, but their relationship is becoming strained since Michael spends most his time in the field getting shot at. Stonebridge takes his orders from Col. Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing). She's a tough, no-nonsense leader who will stop at nothing to see a mission through, even if that means working under the radar of the government of the country where she's set up her roaming command post.
In the first episode Stonebridge is sent to bring in Sgt. Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) who happens to be ex-American military. He received a dishonorable discharge because he questioned the whereabouts of WMDs in Iraq. He was subsequently targeted by those above him and framed in order to get him out of the military. An elaborate and ingenious conspiracy has been painted about what really happened to the mysterious WMDs in Iraq, but that's one of the many reasons to watch this show.
Over the season's ten episodes Stonebridge and Scott breathlessly track down terrorists. In the process, much like 'Burn Notice,' the two of them end up helping other people and hostages they come in contact with. The show crisscrosses the globe, going to more places than your typical 'James Bond' film. Along the way the two of them meet up with some rather nasty characters, most of which are played by wonderfully villainous guest stars like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje ('Lost'), Liam Cunningham ('Outcasts'), Iain Glen ('Game of Thrones'), and Jimi Mistry ('Blood Diamond').
I was impressed with 'Strike Back' from start to finish. Its adrenaline-pumping pace never lets up, and it has the same kind of draw that '24' had in its prime; keeping you sucked into every episode. The action scenes are visceral and feel real enough. Like 'Spartacus,' it's bloody, and sexy, but that doesn't stop it from being tautly wound, filled with realistic emotional drama.
Winchester and Stapleton have some real chemistry together on screen, whether they're leading a two-man wrecking crew into a terrorist hideout, or conversing about Scott's latest sexual conquest, the two of them and their relationship really drive the show.
If you were like me and thought that a show on Cinemax couldn't be anything more than bare breasts and butts, then think again. You'll get your fill of sexy scenes, but the rest of the show around those scenes is really well done. One of the best action-oriented television shows since '24.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This HBO release comes with four 50GB Blu-ray Discs which are arranged in a cardboard foldout much like other HBO releases like 'Boardwalk Empire.' The fold-out contains an individual hub for each of the discs and an episode index inside the front cover. Once folded up it slides neatly into an outer cardboard sleeve. Included in this set are two double-sided (flipper) DVDs that also contain Digital Copies of the entire season. They're packaged in small folder with simple disc sleeves cut out of the cardboard. The small folder slides in right next to the fold-out inside the outer sleeve.
Discs one and four have two episodes each, while discs two and three each of three episodes. There is a total of 10 episodes in the season, each of them just under 50 minutes long. The back of the packaging indicates that this is a Region A only release.
'Strike Back's 1080p presentation looks rather spectacular, especially as far as TV shows are considered. It may be too heightened in contrast for some, but that seems to be the look they were going for (particularly when contrast is boosted in places like remote African desert villages).
Clarity is top-notch and even though it was filmed digitally, the show does appear to retain a rather cinematic feel. It's cinematic feel actually reminded me somewhat of HBO's recent release of 'Game of Thrones' on Blu-ray. 'Strike Back' takes on more of an modern action palette (heightened colors and so forth) but the detail is just as striking. Facial features easily stand out. Stubble, age lines, lip creases, and individual beads of sweat are all visible. Shadows accentuate the picture here. There are quite a few darker and nighttime scenes, but blacks are so well rendered that nothing is lost when the lights are turned down. All those facial details spoken of above, are still evident in low-light situations with the well-delineated shadows offering great accents for them.
Colors are overly saturated, because of that skintones do take on a rather unnaturally tan look. Whites can burn a bit hot at times, especially during explosions (of which there are many). However, this is the look of the modern action movie, and 'Strike Back' is an action TV show. I didn't notice any banding, aliasing, or terrible artifacting of any kind. Crushing is kept at bay, and what we're left with is a great looking TV show on Blu-ray. Another winner from HBO.
'Strike Back' has been afforded a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that reminds me of the gun-battling, explosion-happy mix on '24: Season 7.' This is a no-holds-barred action-centric mix that captures every gunshot with preciseness. Bullets whiz by traveling from the front to rear speakers in seemingly seamless transitions. Explosions rock the room with boisterous LFE that never seems to let up. Either there is an explosion on screen or the heart-pounding score needs it for low-end accompaniment.
Panning effects are always silky-smooth, whether that means bands of African warlords speeding across the desert in a killer convoy, or helicopters swooping in over-head – from rear to front, and then back again – to extract Scott and Stonebridge from a firefight. Dialogue is always clear and has been prioritized well seeing that there is indeed a lot of other stuff going on at the same time people are talking. I was very impressed at the way 'Strike Back' handled itself in the audio department. It's a great sounding TV show and it does a great job playing to its strengths.
I wasn't expecting much from an action show on Cinemax, but you don't want to miss this British-produced program. It's fun, inventive, and tense. There were a number of times I found myself wondering how they'd get out of this predicament. It never felt like you could pin down the show's fast-movie plot and call it out for being predictable. Also, they aren't afraid to kill off main and well-known characters, so anyone on the show really is fair game for getting blown up or have their brains shot out. It makes for an exciting show to watch. With HBO giving it top-notch treatment in the audio and video departments, this one comes recommended for sure.