Aug 25, 2011

DVD Review: Chris Ryan's Strike Back (UK Version) (2010)

DVD Review: Chris Ryan's Strike Back (UK Version) (2010)

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.

The original series of Strike Back (officially known as "Chris Ryan's Strike Back"), produced in the UK for British Sky Broadcasting (yes, B Sky B, that cable network that was in the news so much at the beginning of the summer because of Rupert Murdoch’s failed buyout attempt), stars 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.

“Iraq,” directed by Daniel Percival (Dirty War, 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.

When he’s suddenly re-commissioned (at the insistence of Salmon’s character, James Middleton, since he figures they need to grasp at any lead—no matter how slim—given the pressure SIS is facing from the government), Porter undergoes some quick refresher training. Soon enough he finds himself back in Iraq—but sidelined at the base while a crack SAS squad, Alpha Team, helicopters off to the compound where MI6 believes the hostage is being held. Section 20’s Layla Thompson (Jodhi May), who appears to be the official liaison between MI6 and SAS, accompanies them on the chopper, but doesn’t go in when they raid the compound. Good thing, too, because it’s a trap and they’re quickly wiped out, which leaves Porter as Britain’s last hope. Before he can even be officially tasked, however, he’s already commandeered a Range Rover and gone off on his own rogue mission into Basra convinced he knows where to find the terrorists.

In Basra, Porter is out of uniform and totally undercover, like Matt Damon’s character in 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 backdrop may be different, but John Porter still behaves like we want our classic movie spies to behave. Out of uniform, he’s still armed, and he’s got some nifty spy gadgets on him, like a cool set of lock picks. He even actually manages to smuggle a knife in his rectum when he knows he’s going to be captured, which is as impressive a feat as it is painful to contemplate. (Truth be told, I’ve sometimes wondered why we don’t see TV and movie spies pulling that sort of trick more often.) He also kills a lot of people, and doesn’t shy away from Jack Bauer-like methods of on-the-go interrogation. Strike Back is nothing if not fast-paced, and the action is quite good.

When we’re not following the action in the field, we’re following the action in the Ops Room back at MI6 (SIS), delivering that classic Sandbaggers Field vs. Desk dichotomy. The two are even frequently linked, as is the case later in the episode when Collinson, from London, is giving direct orders to an SAS team in a helicopter in Iraq. Regular readers will know that I’m a sucker for that Field/Desk formula, but Strike Back adds an interesting new element into the mix. By the end of the first episode, Porter has learned that Collinson is most likely a fraud—the one who’s really responsible for the deaths that Porter has taken the rap for for the past seven years. This extra wrinkle adds a crackling new layer to the standard relationship between field agents and their bosses back in London. It’s not that Porter suspects Collinson of treason (as we’ve sometimes seen before), but that he suspects him of a very personal betrayal. At the same time, though, the two men have a shared desire to do whatever it takes to protect Britain’s interests, meaning that their goals align… even if they’re personally—secretly—at odds. This unique dynamic fuels the next two installments.

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.

Porter goes undercover in the prison where the assassin, Felix Masuku (Shaun Parkes), is being held. (Well, I say “goes undercover,” but what that entails, of course, is getting himself arrested.) As one might expect of a Zimbabwean prison run by the military, it’s not one of these country club establishments. It is, in fact, a very unpleasant place, and soon enough Porter’s involved in illegal bare-knuckle fights that the prison guards bet on. Meanwhile, Layla is posing as a South African policewoman trying attempting to “extradite” Porter. Nothing goes according to plan and her cover is blown, but Porter still manages to escape with Masuku and the two of them find themselves on the run together across Africa.

At this point, the writers throw every sort of African obstacle they can think of at them: soldiers, desert, warlords, native trackers, a Butch and Sundance plunge into a muddy river… even a cobra! A side trip to save a bunch of kids in an orphanage run by nuns risks veering into 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.

To say that it’s not maudlin, however, is of course not to say that Porter and Masuku abandon the orphans and the nuns and leave them to their fate. They dig in and use all of their Special Forces training to defend the school against a warlord’s men and Mugabe’s men. Porter once again demonstrates a knack for killing, which earns him a slap from one of the African nuns despite the fact that he just saved her. “I’ve seen a lot of killing,” she tells him. “Most men seem to take pleasure in it. But you… You’re like a machine. I don’t know which I find more frightening.”

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…

The third two-parter is by far the best, and the main reason I rate the entire series so highly. But I would certainly not advise skipping the others. Part of what makes “Afghanistan” so good is the way it concludes some of the ongoing story arcs.

“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.

“Afghanistan” is the “Bad Americans” episode, an episode that any regular viewer of UK spy dramas knows is a requisite of the genre over there. (Spooks has even managed to stretch it into an entire season!) Speaking strictly for myself, this is one American who secretly relishes the Bad Americans episodes. It just adds another layer to that whole inter-agency in-fighting that makes the Desk side of the spy genre so juicy. Instead of simply MI5 vs. MI6, when you throw the CIA into the equation, the stakes are instantly raised. In Strike Back, surprisingly, the face of the CIA is a very recognizably British one: Die Another Day villain (and Kim Philby in 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.

Taliban fighters have gotten their hands on a system that can override UK missile guidance, and on several occasions (including this episode’s budget-busting opening) that’s enabled them to re-route missiles fired from UK air support to hit the American forces they were supposed to be supporting instead of their intended target. Section 20 suspect that the man behind this scheme is probably Gerald Baxter (Trainspotter Ewan Bremner in an excellent performance), a Scottish weapons designer who’s apparently gone nuts and gone native in Afghanistan, bringing his technology to the Taliban. But what was he doing there in the first place? Was he sent in on behalf of MI6 or MI5? Or even the CIA? Collinson has his reasons to suspect that Baxter was working for one of those agencies, but they’re all quick to disown him now and save themselves any embarrassment. John Porter is sent in to extract Baxter and learn the truth. To those ends, he goes undercover as an arms dealer named “Tom Wallace.” While it seems kind of unlikely that this name is a deliberate Queen & Country reference, it’s still tempting to believe, as this is a very Queen & Country-like episode! The spy references (real or imagined) keep flying when he assures a suspicious Baxter, “I’m not here to play Our Man Flint.”

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.

As Collinson spars with Arlington in clubs and offices, Porter has his hands full with Baxter in the Afghan desert. Once again, the locations (still South Africa, I think) are truly commendable, and certainly stand in for Afghanistan much better than a quarry in East Anglia or California scrubland would. I was convinced, anyway.

With the Americans and the Taliban on their tail in Afghanistan, Baxter offers to take Porter to Zahir Sharq (the ever-reliable Alexander Siddig), a warlord he believes can unite all the squabbling factions in the country. Of course, like all terrorists-cum-warlords worth their salt, Sharq is not skulking in a cave in Afghanistan. He’s living it up in luxury in Pakistan. Porter’s uneasy about crossing the border, but Baxter makes a point. “Show me the border,” he demands, pointing to a vast stretch of indistinguishable desert. In this tribal land, he observes, borders hold no meaning, a point further driven home when they arrive at Sharq’s impressive compound. Baxter comments, “This ain’t Afghanistan… and it’s sure not Pakistan. Guess that makes it…”

“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.

In classic fashion, every player is double-dealing everyone else, each with their own agenda. As Collinson tries to out-maneuver Arlington and the CIA, Layla is secretly maneuvering to undermine him at MI6 and Sharq is trying to make a deal with Arlington for Baxter and Porter! It’s a very fluid situation all around, and makes for top-flight spy viewing. And the constant bursts of action are every bit as compelling as the diplomatic skullduggery. Hall keeps a lot of balls in the air with great skill.

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.


Anonymous said...

This website is absolutely brilliant. The Propellerheads song played during the intro of Episode 5 was stuck in my mind for a long while. Did not figure out the name of the group. Couldnt find it anywhere either. Finally came across this website, and et voila.... Perfect, thanks ever so much....

Tanner said...

Thank you! I'm glad you like the site. And you're welcome for the song! I always loved the Propellerheads and think it's such a shame they only ever released one full album. But Decksanddrumsandrockandroll is well worth picking up! (And their track on the Tomorrow Never Dies soundtrack, "Backseat Driver," is also brilliant.)

TL said...

Does the UK dvd play in the US? We can only get it in BlueRay

Tanner said...

It's a PAL Region 2 disc, so you need a multi-region player to play the DVD here. The good news on that front, though, is that if you don't mind watching stuff on your computer, anyone can have a multi-region player now! Just download the free software VLC Media Player. I don't know about Macs, but it works on any PC and plays any region of DVD without having to alter your firmware. It's great!

I don't know if the Strike Back Blu-ray on Amazon is region-coded or not, but I wouldn't take the gamble at that price. You could buy the R2 DVD on Ebay AND a cheap all-region player at Best Buy (usually in the $35 range) for less than the cost of that one expensive BD!

I'm hoping, though, that there might be news of an official Region 1 US DVD release whenever the Cinemax series is announced for DVD. That one's set for a November release in the UK as Strike Back: Project Dawn, but there's been no US announcement yet...

TL said...

Strike Back: Project Dawn is already playing in the US. The last episode is this Friday - It's good, but not as good as the first.
Thanks for tips!

Brian said...

Hi, I was thinking about buying this for my father but his hearing isn't very good. Do you recall whether the UK disc had English subs? Amazon doesn't list that it does but am hoping. Thx.