No, you're not experiencing déjà vu. I did just review a show called Strike Back a few days ago. But this one is... different. Sort of. Read on.
The less you know going into it about the history behind Cinemax’s Strike Back, the better off you’ll be. Which means that American viewers, for whom it’s primarily designed, will be much better off—and presumably more receptive—than British viewers (or readers of this blog). As regular readers will surely be aware, Chris Ryan’s Strike Back (note the possessive credit, which would mean nothing to American audiences) was a successful 2010 UK cable series starring Richard Armitage as SAS operative turned SIS operative John Porter. (Read my full review here.) Evidently US cable network Cinemax liked the format, because they bought it. But rather than simply remaking it, as happens so often in Hollywood, they struck a complex deal with UK cabler British Sky Broadcasting to co-produce the expanded second season and make it so that it would work as a follow-up to the first season for British audiences and an all-new series for American audiences coming fresh to the property without having seen last year’s installment. (It’s a sort of similar thing to what AIP did with Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, for those looking for weird spy precedents.) Further complicating matters was the fact that none of the show’s original stars were available for an immediate second season as, somewhat ironically, they’d all gone Hollywood. (Armitage is starring in The Hobbit for New Line, Andrew Lincoln stars on AMC’s The Walking Dead, Shelley Conn stars on ABC’s forthcoming dinosaur show Terra Firma, and Toby Stephens was at the time of filming already starring in another US remake of a British show, Prime Suspect, from which he’s since been fired.) The somewhat sloppy result certainly favors the American audiences, who will indeed require no background knowledge of what’s gone before to get into the new version of the show—and will probably enjoy it all the more for that.
For those who have seen the first season, the new installment can’t help but come off as a disappointment, as it completely abandons the excellent set-up from the end of the first series (which should have led to a thrilling showdown between Armitage and Stephens, among other things). Furthermore, John Porter, who made quite a compelling lead in the UK series, is unceremoniously killed off in the first half-hour to make way for new leads Stonebridge and Scott, the former a Brit played by American Philip Winchester (Camelot) and the latter an American played by Australian Sullivan Stapleton (Animal Kingdom). There are those who believe that Porter’s death will prove to have been faked, and while I’d welcome that turn of events, I just can’t see it as he was shot in the head with the same amount of graphic blood and brain spatter with which the new show meticulously augments every kill. Adding insult to injury, prior to being shot he was captured and forced to read off a card, “To the Imperialist powers of the West, I, John Porter, confess to the crime of being a British spy…” While it’s hinted that Porter may have had good reasons for reading the card, the whole scenario is something of an insulting betrayal of the character British audiences warmed to in the first season. We’ll see where they go with this, but off the top of my head I could think of a dozen more satisfying ways they could have integrated the Porter character into the new story on the scant days of shooting for which Armitage was available on his Hobbit sabbatical. (Not the least of which just having him walk out of an office at MI6 headquarters on his way off on an unrelated mission while Stonebridge walks in, indicating that the two men are colleagues operating simultaneously.)
Okay, okay, so the British fans are screwed; how does it work out for the Americans coming to it with fresh eyes? Not altogether badly, actually. It’s a wholly different show not only in terms of talent in front of and behind the cameras, but also in terms of tone. Where the UK version prided itself on some degree of realism, the American version (as I’ll call it, because that’s clearly what it is, ostensible co-production or not) happily embraces the sort of over-the-top action and violence associated with Jason Statham movies. And the new leads, while a far cry from Armitage, prove themselves thoroughly watchable.
The set-up is still the same, at least. The new Strike Back still follows operatives of Britain’s ultra-secret Section 20, a division of SIS that handles highly dangerous assignments, utilizing Special Forces soldiers as well as its own agents, most of whom are drawn from their ranks anyway. There’s a whole different crew at MI6 headquarters. I really would have liked to see Colin Salmon or Jodhi May pop up to just give the illusion of continuity, but they’re absent and unaccounted for. Instead we have a long-haired blond woman, Captain Kate Marshall (Eva Birthistle), and a short-haired brunette, Colonel Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing), running the show. They send a team on an attempt to rescue the captured John Porter, only to watch the team walk into a trap. We’ve seen this scenario before in the “Iraq” episode of the original series, but then this is a quasi-remake as well as a continuation so I suppose the repetition is forgivable. Reminding us that it’s a new show (as if we needed any reminders), we launch from this teaser into an all-new title sequence with a new theme song. (Pity they didn’t use the Propellerheads song that opened the final episode of the UK show!)
So Porter’s missing and Marshall sends her other best guy, Michael Stonebridge (Winchester, who's got Sean Bean's profile), to go find an American Special Forces soldier named Damien Scott who once worked with Porter and is supposedly the only other man alive who can identify a terrorist called Latif. Stonebridge travels to Kuala Lumpur to locate Scott (Stapleton), an excursion that’s really just an excuse for some tits and some MMA-style fighting. This is, after all, Cinemax! Eventually Stonebridge gets Scott back to London (now conveniently identified with an on-screen caption as "London, United Kingdom," presumably for the benefit of us backwards American newcomers who don't know where London is) where Scott rubs his new superiors the wrong way (as Americans are wont to do in Britain according to TV) and insinuates himself into Stonebridge’s home life—much to the latter’s dismay. The groundwork is laid for a “classic” (which is to say wholly unoriginal but entirely acceptable for this sort of show) Brit-and-American buddy relationship. (Their relationship instantly recalled Saracen for me, another UK show about a pair of ex-Special Forces soldiers, one British and one American.) Stonebridge is a disciplined soldier and apparently a good family man (though this portrayal is cleverly and surprisingly upended in the second episode) and Scott is an upstart American and ladies’ man who was dishonorably discharged. Reinforcing Strike Back’s new mandate to cast aside even lip service to realism, Scott doesn’t undergo any refresher training the way Porter did before he's whisked off to Delhi on his first assignment.
He and Stonebridge are quickly dispatched on an operation at the Royal Lotus, a Delhi luxury hotel where Section 20 believe that Latif is holed up. There, Scott barely has the opportunity to hit on two women and bed one of them before they get caught up in a Die Hard-in-a-hotel scenario, which isn’t nearly as interesting as the more intelligent plots of the UK version. (In fact, dyed-in-the-wool spy fans just saw that on Undercovers last year—but luckily for Strike Back no one else was watching.)
The Cinemax version prides itself on doing things that wouldn’t happen on network shows—even 24—like graphically killing off innocent hostages, including children. Excessive gore and slight misanthropy aside, one way in which the new Strike Back does resemble the old one (probably thanks to returning director Daniel Percival) is in its action sequences, which are still top-notch. In its coolest moments, the gunplay happens much faster than we’re used to, and the swiftness of it never fails to shock and surprise. The shootouts play like whole action scenes made up of that shock gunshot from Taken!
Gone, though, is the Sandbaggers-like realistic sort of interagency rivalry that characterized the UK version (particularly in “Afghanistan”). Instead, British Intelligence works unrealistically closely with Pakistani intelligence, and happily agrees to let them take full control of shared assets, happily trusting that they’ll share all the intel gleaned from said asset! The new incarnation of Strike Back takes 24-like turns of stupefying illogic, like Section 20 accepting foreign intelligence officers at complete face value without bothering to check their credentials or even run a check with their agencies to make sure they really are who they say they are!
I can tell this is going to frustrate me. I know I’m entering into an abusive relationship, but I can’t help it. Strike Back Version 2.0 is not the show I fell in love with on DVD, but it is pretty fun spy action in the total turn-off-your-brain sort of way that one would expect of Cinemax. Ultimately, the Cinemax version of Strike Back is a pretty kick-ass action series where one of the heroes catches a bomb. That’s right, catches a bomb. Like, the kind planes drop. That’s a far cry from the reality-based action of the UK Strike Back, but I can’t really dislike a show where someone catches a bomb. Can you? If your answer is yes, then you definitely don’t need to shell out for a Cinemax subscription. But if your answer is no, you’ll probably find something to enjoy—especially if you haven’t seen the British version, which is still not available on Region 1 DVD.
I do hope, though, that the producers are doing a Bourne Legacy kind of thing, running a placeholder, and planning to do a proper follow-up to the UK Season 1 after Richard Armitadge is done with The Hobbit. Because that’s something I’d definitely pay cable rates to see! But it probably isn't the case.