I’d imported the DVD of the 2010 UK series Strike Back a while ago, right after the Cinemax sequel/remake version was first announced, but didn’t get around to actually watching it until recently, prompted by all the inescapable advertising for the US cable series. On the one hand, I’m really glad I watched the original version first, because it’s excellent—way better than I’d expected it to be, honestly. On the other hand, I have a slight regret that it will completely spoil the American version for me (which I had been excited for), because I know there’s no way that it will live up to this one.
MI-5’s Richard Armitage as disgraced former SAS man John Porter. I’ve always had a soft spot for SAS action flicks like The Final Option. There’s something a bit romantic about Britain’s special forces like the Special Air Service that plays well on film and television—and even better when combined with spying, as is the case in Strike Back. On top of the intriguing, action-packed premise, Strike Back offers compelling characters (something of a rarity in the modern military action genre) played by first-rate actors like Richard Armitage (who I liked fine on Spooks, but liked much more here!), Andrew Lincoln (who I didn’t even realize was British when I saw him on The Walking Dead), Colin Salmon, Toby Stephens, Ewan Bremner, Shelley Conn, Jodhi May and more. It’s also got a very appealing and modern style. From its purposely washed-out color scheme (perfect for the many desert settings) to its creative use of subtitles and chyrons, the show quickly defines itself with a unique look and impressive production values.
Strike Back is divided on DVD and Blu-ray into three feature-length episodes (“Iraq,” “Zimbabwe” and “Afghanistan”), but they were originally broadcast in two parts each, making it a six-part series on television. Each feature stands on its own, but they also form an ongoing storyline with a rich payoff in the third one for events set into motion in the first. I recommend watching them all, and in order.
The State Within), introduces us to SAS soldier John Porter (Richard Armitage) during a 2003 mission in Basra. Leading his team to rescue a British hostage from an Al Qaeda in Iraq safehouse, Porter elects not to shoot a 13-year-old kid with a bomb. In an inquiry following the operation, the military deems Porter therefore responsible for the subsequent deaths of three men under his command, including his best friend. He’s dishonorably discharged and spends the next seven years living in shame, estranged from his wife and daughter and basically living on the charity of his former comrade-in-arms, Hugh Collinson (Andrew Lincoln).
Collinson is now a bigwig in MI6, leading the elite and ultra-secret Section 20. Section 20 seems roughly analogous to Jeffery Deaver’s version of the Double O Section in Carte Blanche: it has access to the resources of both the SIS and the SAS, but doesn't seem to be an official part of either. Collinson does, however, seem to answer to higher-ups inside MI6, including Colin Salmon, M’s former aide who must still be hanging around the building from the Pierce Brosnan days of Bond. Collinson has seen to it that Porter’s been steadily employed as a lowly security guard in the SIS parking garage, and he even reluctantly agrees to take him on as a Section 20 agent when it appears that the same young man Porter spared as a boy, As-Ad, is now responsible for the kidnapping of a female British journalist who also happens to be the daughter of a former high-ranking minister.
Green Zone. Like Green Zone (review here), Strike Back presents a rare glimpse in popular culture at the actual battlefields of the War on Terror. (Well, close enough, anyway. The impressive South African shooting locations certainly made a convincing Basra to me, though I must admit I’ve never been there.) Just as Europe was the backdrop to the Cold War, I suspect most Western spies today are concentrated in the Middle East, yet spy movies and TV for the most part have yet to catch up with that new paradigm. Hollywood seems convinced to keep the spying in Europe (maybe because it's cheaper to approximate?), so this focus alone makes Strike Back fairly unique among the landscape of today’s spy TV shows.
The second combined episode, “Zimbabwe,” is probably the weakest of the three—but still well worth watching. It opens explosively with an assassination attempt on real-world dictator Robert Mugabe. The assassin fails and is captured, which presents a problem for the British because he’s ex-SAS. Mugabe will put him on a show trial and claim that he’s MI6, and that Britain tried to kill him. Porter’s mission is to get him out of prison, and if that fails… to make sure by any means necessary that he never goes on trial. Porter and Layla have suspicions of their own. Why go to all this effort… unless there’s some truth to the Zimbabwean claims? Could the assassin have really been working for MI6 after all? Not even Collinson seems to know for sure.
24: Redemption territory, but Strike Back’s approach is altogether less maudlin than 24’s. In fact, in keeping with the series’ generally realistic tone, it’s pretty gritty and horrible. The horror is driven home when Porter comes upon a mass grave full of children.
Meanwhile, back in London, Collinson and the Operations team try to figure out what the hell is going on with the almost-assassin. Was it an MI6 mission? Or is there a rogue agent in their midst working with the Mugabe government or even pursuing a private agenda? The answers actually takes Collinson back into the field in the final act and face-to-face with Porter. Layla has come to share Porter’s suspicions about their boss, but they’re still all fighting on the same side, even if they don’t trust each other. That thread won’t come to a hilt until the third and final episode…
“Afghanistan” feels different from the other two, right from the opening moments when a Propellerheads song accompanies fast-moving, POV helicopter shots of the desert. (I haven’t heard the Propellerheads on a soundtrack in about a decade, but hearing them here stokes my nostalgia for late 90s spy and action movies. Their music was among the very best of the John Barry-inspired wave of soundtrack trip-hop.) This can probably be attributed to a different director from the others. Spooks (MI-5) director Edward Hall takes the reins for this part, and instantly makes his presence felt, despite maintaining the distinctive overall style of the series.
Cambridge Spies) Toby Stephens. Even though I’m used to seeing Stephens as a quintessential Oxbridge snob, I had no trouble accepting him as a quintessential Ivy League snob instead. In fact, his American accent is pretty darn good as UK TV goes—even if the rumors are it wasn’t good enough for US TV. (He was dropped from the American version of Prime Suspect—supposedly because of his accent.) Anyway, it’s the snob part that’s important here, not the accent, and Toby Stephens has the reprehensible, reptilian snob role down to an art form. Here he harnesses those powers to play obnoxious CIA liaison Frank Arlington, who marches into MI6 headquarters like he owns it and takes charge of Section 20’s latest operation, because it directly affects US interests in Afghanistan.
Like Queen & Country and its primary inspiration, the Seventies TV classic The Sandbaggers, this episode of Strike Back perfectly balances the Field and Desk storylines. The tough decisions and political maneuvering made by Collinson in London directly affects Porter in the field (well, desert), and Porter’s actions on the ground likewise affect those decisions back at HQ. While the undercover Porter is captured by (along with Baxter) and subsequently escapes from American forces, Collinson and Arlington play the clubland buddy-buddy game, having drinks at Collinson’s posh club as they move their imaginary, opposing chess pieces. All pretense of civility fades pretty quickly, however, when the boorish Arlington declares, “The Anglo-American love-in? It’s over. And there’s a go-it-alone strategy on the table in the White House. So, if I were you, I’d think twice before having principals.” From then on, it’s a game of constant one-upmanship between them. At each meeting, the upper hand changes based on Porter’s actions in the field. This is gripping stuff—every bit equal to the action and explosions going on in the desert. The situation also serves to actually get the audience rooting for Collinson. Because we know him to be a coward, we’re usually against him, but you can’t help root for him when the alternative (Stephens) is so entertainingly unpleasant.
“Sharqistan,” finishes Porter. Evidently Baxter unlocks a rarely-displayed sense of humor in him. Indeed, the unlikely pair develop quite a repartee, and their banter might possibly have been seen as a model for the new Cinemax version of Strike Back, which stars a duo. “We’re having a bromance!” the mad Baxter declares after Porter saves his life for a second time—and Bremner manages to successfully pull off such a line! He’s very, very good—and so is Armitage. Of course Armitage has been good in every episode, but his talent really shines in the company of Bremner. Baxter turns out to be quite an interesting character. He’s definitely kind of crazy, and politically motivated. He’s got a guilty conscience about deaths his weapons have caused in the past, and that makes him easily manipulated by the British, the CIA, the Taliban and especially Sharq. He’s really an innocent caught up in the very dangerous games of nations—and any seasoned spy viewer will know that situation can’t lead him anywhere good.
Unfortunately, “Afghanistan” as a two-part story and Strike Back as a series (at least in its original incarnation) end on a cliffhanger—and not a lame cliffhanger-just-for-the-sake-of-having-a-cliffhanger sort of cliffhanger as Spooks has on occasion been guilty of, but a genuine, legitimate, story-driven cliffhanger that sets up a potentially awesome second season based around the desire to see a confrontation between Porter and Frank Arlington. Sadly—even infuriatingly—however, that will never come as Strike Back went in a very different direction instead with its second season. Its original stars all got amazing Hollywood jobs on huge projects like The Hobbit, The Walking Dead and Steven Spielberg’s Terra Nova just as B Sky B made a deal with Cinemax to co-produce the second series with American audiences squarely in mind. John Porter would make a brief appearance in an empty gesture to placate fans of the first series, but ultimately the next version of Strike Back would go a radically different direction and those fans would never see the payoff hinted at in the finale of the first series. That’s not a reason not to watch, however. Strike Back in its original form is fantastically entertaining and likely to please fans of the Sandbaggers school as well as action junkies.
The Region 2 DVD (no sign of a US release yet) offers three featurettes. “Spotlight On Location: Shooting South Africa” is an interesting look at exactly what you’d expect—South Africa’s suitability to play Zimbabwe, Iraq and other topical trouble spots as well as itself. It’s got comments from all the key members of the cast and crew, but at a mere three minutes and change, it’s ultimately all too brief for its subject matter. “Guns ‘N’ Ammo: Arming Strike Back” is a more substantial piece at ten minutes, focused on the show’s weaponry and commitment to accuracy and technical details in portraying the SAS. Unfortunately, the key technical advisor, Chris Ryan—who also authored the book the show is based on, earning him that possessive in the UK title—cannot appear on screen (presumably for reasons of secrecy). But the set armorer stands in nicely, augmented by remarks from the actors and producers. There’s a fairly thorough segment on filming with helicopters, a topic that surprisingly I’d never seen examined in much detail before. The real meat of the special features is reserved for the 15-minute “On Strike: Making Chris Ryan’s Strike Back,” an EPK-style featurette that’s mainly promotional, but still manages to explore every facet of the production in at least some detail, including interviews with all the key personnel. Unfortunately, it’s focused entirely on the first episode, “Iraq,” so we don’t get any behind-the-scenes perspective on the other two. Nonetheless, all three special features are welcome inclusions—though I would have preferred something more in-depth like audio commentaries. If you've got the means to play a Region 2 DVD, Chris Ryan's Strike Back comes highly recommended.