Judge David Johnson strikes first, then backs away, fast.
Hidden deep within the ridiculous excesses of precisely what you would expect from something that aired on Cinemax, there were glimpses of some smart thrills to be had with Strike Back. Time to take another swing at it.
Facts of the Case
When the world is about to blow, there is one counter-terror black ops squad that has the tools, talent and general disregard for property damage and loss of life to ensure that the bad guys are prevented from acting upon their nefarious desires. It's Section 20, a covert British unit that hits fast and hard where danger presents itself. For this season, super-stud soldiers Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) and Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) are deployed to the heart of Africa, where some nuclear triggers have gone missing and may or not be in the hands of madmen.
Under the watchful—and skeptical—eye of new Section 20 director Rachel Dalton (Rhona Mitra, Doomsday), Scott and Stonebridge take on all manner of goons, expend huge amounts of ammo, and, yes, drop the occasional pants to save a continent.
Let's cut to the chase: Season Two of Strike Back is the smartest, coolest, most exciting season of hourlong action TV I have ever seen. I was genuinely surprised by this realization. The previous season had its moments, but was overwhelmed by the gratuitous nudity and haphazard storytelling. The showrunners took this thing in a new direction and the result is blow'em-up bliss.
Let's compare the two seasons:
Season One: This guy was the biggest reason I checked out of the first go-round. He's the typical Alpha male ugly American, profane and prone to excessive violence. He's also unbelievably horny, essentially acting as the cipher to ensure Cinemax met its quota for pay cable soft core. The spontaneous, lingering sex scenes proved to be way, way too much and dragged the character and the show down into self-parody.
Season Two: He's still foul-mouthed and trigger-happy and will flee his trousers at a moment's notice, but this version of Damien Scott is a far more likable and less-porny creation. The biggest change: outside of a one or two exceptions, his carnal dalliances fit within the story as a whole. Additionally, the writers cough up a few more tidbits of his back story, "fleshing" him out as a character (so to speak).
Season One: Episodes were chunked together in two-parters, featuring stand-alone villains and plots. It was a little better than "monster-of-the-week" one-offs, but a) failed to generate sustained tension and b) introduced the inevitable action show flaw of "Golly, there are a huge amount of world-threatening crises happening at a given time."
Season Two: This is the biggest change to the show, and the most welcome. Now, you've got one season-long arc, and the momentum and suspense is better for it. From the moment the triggers go missing to the final, awesome conclusion (which features an inspired twist on the tired "ticking countdown" contrivance), the episodes crackle.
Season One: An assortment of rogues and cannon fodder that have long been forgotten.
Season Two: As the investigation unfolds, the writers feed more and more levels into the plot, and feature a handful of memorable Big Bads at the top, not the least of which is the unique heavy played by Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones). The result: the foes are far more complex and their motivations go well beyond the standard-issue crazed megalomaniac.
Season One: The action was well-staged and the body count high. A good amount of explosions, too. As slick as the eye candy was, the ineffective characterization and storytelling failed to elevate the mayhem to something more than sporadic pyrotechnics bookending another booty call.
Season Two: Newly armed with a cohesive plot with legit stakes, the writers can develop sequences with weight. Stonebridge and Scott are placed into a variety of pickles, with varied set-ups: defending a prison from an angry mob, infiltrating an enemy base, engaging in a high-speed car chase, breaching and clearing numerous hives of scum, hijacking a nuke-carrying truck. The production values are feature-level and virtually all done in practical fashion. High marks.
The Blu-ray delivers, starting with a gorgeous, vibrant 1.78:1/1080p transfer. These guys do a lot of globe-trotting and the location shooting (mainly in Africa) especially looks beautiful in HD. Strike Back is a loud show and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio pounds suitably, rendering the legion of war effects and the aggressive score with pop. Extras falter, however; only commentary on select episodes and nothing else.
The first season of Strike Back showed promise, but eventually succumbed to its id. The follow-up? Damn great.
Not guilty. This just might be enough to make me have "Cinemax" appear on my cable bill.
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