Still mourning the demise of 24, action fan David Chute finds his bliss on Cinemax.
At some point I will have to devote some major word count to the work of frequent Strike Back director Daniel Percival. In my youth I was a dedicated action aficionado, with enthusiasms that have moved from Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah to George Miller and John Woo. We can’t put Percival in the all-time category quite yet, in part because he doesn’t use battle sequences for displays of virtuosity. The firefights aren’t abstract exercises, for him. His action sequences are scenes of drama. They are horrendous ordeals that are happening to people who seem normal to him. He’ll give us a tight close up of a fighter’s face, just as he’s firing, as if the most important thing to understand at that moment is why this guy is taking that particular shot.
Of course it helps that capable performers such as Philip Winchester and Animal Kingdom‘s Sullivan Stapleton, as his somewhat more agitated comrade-in-arms, are up to the task of shooting and acting at the same time. The alertness of their reactions to the action swirling around them pulls us into the chaos.
Upon reflection, words like “pulp” and “exploitation” don’t really apply to a show Strike Back. Certainly there are turns of plot that are pure heroic fantasy, like the beautifully staged sliding catch with which Winchester’s Michael Stonebridge saves New Delhi from a WMD at the end of Episode 2. But at heart this is a serious show about the deadly serious need (in the modern world and against a de-centralized modern enemy) for hair-trigger Special Forces samurai like the guys who took out Bin Laden.
The program’s seriousness is signaled initially by its determination to get the details right, everything from the color of the braid on an Indian police captain’s turban to the sledgehammer impact of a .50 caliber sniper round. The human textures are even more impressive, in part because Strike Back’s format of two part, two hour narratives allows each story the density of a feature film.
A crime scene in an Indian hotel isn’t just stuffed with extras, it’s populated with briefly glimpsed but vivid supporting characters, well-played by real Indian and Anglo-Indian actors, good ones like The Mystic Masseur’s Jimi Mistry, whose Hindi and Urdu dialog is expressive even when it isn’t subtitled. These full-blooded human terrorists are more chilling than the conventional TV and movie cartoon Jihadists; not monsters but human beings who would cheerfully slit your throat.
The Bin Laden mission was one of the very few undertaken by the SAS, Delta Force or the Navy Seals that you and I will ever get to hear about. By taking us along on several of these black ops expeditions, Strike Back has the behind-the-curtain appeal of a fact-based espionage adventure, the sense of finally seeing what the world really looks like when the idealistic varnish has scraped off — combined with the most blistering action sequences currently available on a screen of any size.