Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Blackest Ops: Strike Back

As far as Section 20 is concerned, the only good terrorist is a terrorist getting renditioned to within an inch of their lives. Well, God bless them for that. As a result, disgraced former U.S. Delta Force soldier Damien Scott finds he fits in rather well in the double-secret British counter-terrorism unit in Strike Back (promo here), which has its series debut on Cinemax this Friday.

Like 24 in its Surnow heyday, viewers should not get too attached to reoccurring characters, including John Porter (a lead protagonist from Strike Back’s pre-Cinemax first season on British Sky TV). Captured while investigating a large scale operation code-named Project Dawn, Porter has been captured by terrorists loyal to the Islamist mastermind, “Latif.” Aside from Porter, only his former American counterpart from the early days of Iraq can identify the mysterious Latif. That of course would be Scott, whom Section 20’s Sgt. Stonebridge finds drinking, whoring, and pit-fighting his way through a Southeast Asia redlight district.

Naturally, there is major friction between the Yank and the Brit, but they are all business when the bullets start flying. If the first four installments are representative of the entire season, Strike Back’s wider overarching storyline will be advanced by a succession of two episode mini-arcs. On the micro-level, the show is a breath of fresh air, featuring terrorists who are not simply misguided, but horrifically evil. For instance, Scott spends the balance of episode two protecting an innocent young girl from Islamic terrorists (who are explicitly identified as such), only taking occasional breaks to bed the beautiful women of the hotel taken hostage by the terrorist thugs. Seriously, that’s an apt description.

However, on the macro level, Strike Back’s shadowy meta-conspiracy threatens to be a real buzz kill. Supposedly, Scott was unceremoniously mustered out of service because he caught wind of a plan to plant the WMD stockpiles that would “justify” Operation Iraqi Freedom. Those infamous weapons are now at loose ends, doggedly pursued by Latif for his nefarious purposes. This sort of potential demonization of the American military and intelligence services is exactly what we do not need any more of on television.

It would be a shame if Strike Back’s macro themes continue in this direction, because they could spoil some genuinely rip-rousing television entertainment. As Scott, Sullivan Stapleton is an undeniably likable and engaging hard-nosed bad-attitude protagonist. Though the relatively by-the-book Stonebridge is probably not as fun to play, Philip Winchester displays plenty of square jawed action cred. There are also plenty of James Bond worthy women, like the gorgeous Karen David (sort of geek-famous for Scorpion King 2) as the barmaid Scott protects when the terrorists break up their hook-up. Likewise, the villains are truly villainous, such as the workaholic Liam Cunningham, chewing the scenery with relish as IRA enforcer turned mercenary Daniel Connolly.

At least in episodes one through four, the Indian and South African settings are quite cinematic, while the stunt work and effects are all first class. Scott and Stonebridge deliver quite a bit of vicarious satisfaction, administering on the spot justice to Islamist fanatics and their craven accomplices that should be well worth returning for throughout the show’s run. Yet, if it loses sight of who the real bad guys are, sliding into the sort of moral equivalency frequently peddled by Hollywood, it will alienate its core viewership, while those sharing such a hostile view of American and British military and intelligence personnel will be put off by the Jack Bauer tactics gleefully indulged in throughout each episode.

Strike Back could be flat-out awesome, so let’s hope it minimizes the clich├ęd conspiracy themes and plays to its strengths. This week, the totally entertaining first episode is definitely recommended when it debuts this Friday (8/12) on Cinemax.