Despite its gun-toting, machismo-filled, resurrect-the-age-of-mindless-80s-action-films premise, the delivery of 'Strike Back' is a surprisingly smart, meticulously crafted bit of adventure television that seems, in many ways, to be the likely successor to Starz' highly-underrated and tragically short-lived 'Spartacus' series.
This collaboration between British Sky Broadcasting and Cinemax certainly fits that bill, if, for nothing else, its ability to rise above the surface-level perception of the casual viewer to deliver something far more enticing than simple blow-'em-up action and dude-bro antics with a hearty slice of T&A on the side. Don't get me wrong, 'Strike Back,' by and large, has one or more of those elements on display in any given (or every) episode, but where that might be enough for any other series to simply coast by on – what red-blooded American male weaned on the showcase of masculinity-as-ultimate-standard-for-heroic-virtue that was the films of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme and Willis (when will it be Jeff Speakman's time, I ask you?) wouldn't tune-in based on some sort of atavistic response to any of its advertisements? – the continuing adventures of Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) and Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) aims to also bring a bit of international social significance and a genuine sense of consequence to the proceedings, which help make the series far more than some run-of-the-mill shoot 'em up.
That's not to say the series reserves its action or attempts to stockpile explosive sequences, by saving clamorous shootouts for the finale, or exchanging them for lengthy bits of exposition and plot building. Instead, 'Strike Back' manages to build nearly every single episode around the clatter of gunfire and the explosive roar of an errant hand grenade, car bomb or hastily improvised incendiary device.
To be clearer: what the series gets is that action is its bread and butter; and by building story elements around a near-continuous string of incursions and skirmishes, the series manages to do the one thing that all television shows strive to do, but very few do well: maintain an overall sense of constant narrative progression within the framework of a larger arc, comprised of episodes containing a clear beginning, middle and end. It's a difficult task – especially as more and more series begin to rely on serialization to tell larger, seemingly more complex storylines at the expense of that also deliver a complete story within their designated runtime (I'm looking at you, 'The Walking Dead') – but during the course of its first two seasons (three if you count the Andrew Lincoln/Richard Armitage version) this series has consistently managed to do just that.
And in order to pull it off, 'Strike Back' relies on two main principles: 1) the narrative does not have a break pedal; it can only move forward at an increasingly accelerated pace, and 2) the cast must be filled with supporting actors who can sell virtue, villainy, or incompetence without the story becoming riddled with contrivance. In that regard, the series is as smart as 'Game of Thrones'; it knows how corny and hokey much of its plot and dialogue could come off if not handled properly. And so, like 'GoT,' it combats this potential problem by filling the screen with actors who can convincingly portray and deliver those aspects of the narrative. It's no wonder, then, that both series have shared several phenomenal character actors like Iain Glen, Liam Cunningham and the great Charles Dance – with the latter serving as the big bad of 'Strike Back' season 2.
Although it weaves through a series of violently escalating encounters to get there, the main plot of season 2 has to do with Dance's Conrad Knox, a wealthy businessman with plans to use a nuclear device to bring about a new age of South African prosperity. Yes, it is the age-old villain-threatens-Armageddon-to-enact-social-change idea, but 'Strike Back' doesn't rely solely on that one plot device to frame the entire season.
Thankfully, several other storylines develop while the larger Knox-centric plot gradually builds to a crescendo during the season finale. Among other things the writers make an early acknowledgement of the ramifications that came from the conclusion of season 1 – which saw the head of Section 20, Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing) perish in that storyline's final conflict. This aspect is addressed by the welcome addition of Rhona Mitra ('Doomsday'), as the new head of Section 20, and the inclusion of certain character plots that require the core team of Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) and Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) to be rebuilt after Stonebridge leaves field work behind to train recruits and raise a family.
But the stoic, by-the-book Stonebridge finds himself tested early on, as tragedy strikes in his personal life after he's forced to take drastic measures with a young soldier suffering violently from PTSD. The ensuing fallout compels the young soldier's brother (Curtis Hanson, played by Shane Taylor of 'Band of Brothers' fame) to enact revenge on Stonebridge, setting the character-driven subplots around a potent mix of personal vendettas and duty. This threatens to shake the bond between Scott and Stonebridge as much, if not more, than the mysterious woman from Scott's past who offers him a way back into the United States, provided he put her needs ahead Section 20's.
It all sounds like more story than 10 episodes can adequately tackle, but season 2 shows, if nothing else, just how well the series' producers, writer, and directors manage their time in an effort to build suspense and intrigue, while consistently delivering explosive action and thrills in an impressive and vast setting that somehow never seems to lose its focus. In that regard, the 'Strike Back' narrative is like its main characters: a remarkably proficient and precisely calibrated instrument that responds with reflexive action which may not always be diplomatic, but it certainly gets the jobs done.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Strike Back' comes from HBO Home Entertainment as four 50GB Blu-ray discs housed in a oversized keepcase. The keepcase itself comes in a cardboard outer sleeve with the same art that is depicted on the insert. Additionally, the set comes with a code for an Ultraviolet digital copy of the season and a DVD copy of the pilot episode for Cinemax's extremely pulpy series 'Banshee.'
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer on 'Strike Back' looks quite good and even manages to have a color palette that feels more impressive and vibrant than when the season was initially broadcast. In addition to the bright colors, the transfer focuses heavily on fine detail and texture to help make the oftentimes-chaotic action sequences feel more grounded and realistic, by refusing to hide certain elements behind crutches like filters or rapid-fire editing.
For the most part, every frame of the series looks very good, though there are some instances early on where certain quieter sequences appear to have a touch of soft focus. Thankfully, this only results in a brief loss of background detail and some mild resolution issues during a smattering of scenes containing mostly expositional dialogue. The overall effect is barely noticeable, as the image quickly tightens up when the action begins. There is also a persistent and noticeable amount of grain, which actually works to the benefit of the image, as it lends the series more of a cinematic quality that amps up the epic scope and feel.
Overall, the transfer on 'Strike Back' manages to have more pluses than minuses. In addition to the fine detail and vibrant colors, there's also a high level of contrast that produces significant depth in the image with deep, inky blacks and tempered whites that never bloom and remain consistent regardless of the filming location. All in all, very good looking set.
'Strike Back' has been given a truly impressive-sounding DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that plays as big and loud as any Hollywood blockbuster in recent memory. As the series relies just as heavily on the crackle of gunfire, the distinct roar of a deadly explosion and the thud of a well-placed punch, as it does on clear dialogue, the mix here manages to highlight both (often at the same time) to ensure an incredibly immersive listening experience that captures all elements of with dynamic sound.
For the most part, dialogue is rich and easily understood – even the segments requiring subtitles – but the most impressive aspect of the mix is how well the dialogue is integrated into larger action set pieces that run the risk of overwhelming the audio and the listener with incessant explosions and gunfire. In that regard the balance is just superb; dialogue runs through the center channel while the heavier sound effects and score are pumped through the front speakers and then judiciously spread around via the rear channels. The result is a clear, pleasant listening experience that puts the listener smack-dab in the middle of Scott and Stonebridge's battles that actually heightens what is transpiring on-screen.
'Strike Back' season 2 comes with commentaries on select episodes on discs 2, 3 and 4. For the most part, these commentaries are just Winchester and Stapleton discussing how various stunts were set up, or reminiscing about how close they came to being seriously injured while filming a particularly explosive sequence. The banter between the two men keeps most of the commentaries fairly casual, and gives the listener a decent glimpse into the process that goes into filming each episode. Naturally, the episodes that included a director are a little more focused on the technical aspects of filming, but still manage to be entertaining and informative.
'Strike Back' manages to be an effectively engaging action thriller, without sacrificing things like character moments for the sake of another explosion or gunfight. As a series, it's chock full of larger-than-life entertainment, but it's also a prime example of how an action-adventure series can also be smart about the choices it makes and the direction it chooses to take the story. As the series deftly demonstrated during season 1, it has a winning combination of appealing characters and exotic locales – all of which get blown up or shot at a one point or another. Clearly that formula worked, as the series has managed to consistently deliver a high-quality, high-octane product that likely has fans clamoring for season 3. While the supplements here could have been more inclusive, adding a behind-the-scenes featurette or something on the many, many stunts and controlled chaos of the series, there is still a better-than-average picture quality and great sound for fans to enjoy. This one comes recommended.