By Curt Wagner
10:05 PM CDT, August 16, 2012
"Strike Back" is the smartest action thriller on TV.
As was the case in the series' first season on Cinemax (it began on British TV), British counter-terror unit Section 20 faces down a world of evil-doers, wasting more baddies in one episode than Jack Bauer did in an entire season of "24." But "Strike Back" is much more than well-choreographed firefights and blood-chilling terrorist atrocities. Where it truly excels is in showing the emotional costs paid by the super soldiers doing their jobs and by the witnesses and/or victims of all the mayhem.
As the new season begins (9 p.m. Friday, Cinemax; 4 stars out of 4), Sullivan Stapleton's horny American soldier Damian Scott is now a full-fledged member of Section 20, battling international hoodlums without the help of his buddy Michael Stonebridge, the by-the-book British sergeant played by Philip Winchester. At least initially; when Scott and British diplomat Rachel Dalton (newcomer Rhona Mitra, excellent) are taken hostage by terrorists, Stonebridge comes to the rescue.
And what a rescue it is. (Watch the exclusive scene below.) The series wastes no time diving into the action, swiftly moving from one conflict to the next and pumping up this viewer's adrenaline like nothing else does on TV.
The season sets up a bit of a role reversal for Stonebridge and Scott as the former deals with an unexpected tragedy and the latter works to help him through his roiling emotions. Winchester and Stapleton are superb in roles that could have been simple stereotypes. Both actors practically live in the skin of their characters, giving such subtle and naturalistic portrayals that sometimes a simple nod can speak volumes about what's on their characters' minds.
They handle the quippy banter and, yes, the macho bromantic moments, with aplomb.
When Scott asks why Stonebridge left his safe new job training recruits, not to mention his wife, to risk his life launching the rescue, the sergeant says, "I [bleeping] hate it when you do this."
"What's that?" Scott replies.
"Talk like a grown-up," Stonebridge cracks.
Like FX's "Justified," "Strike Back" deserves multiple viewings if only to soak up the glorious South African locations that substitute as global hot spots. But the writers also pack each episode with details about the geopolitics of the regions visited; Friday's two-part premiere depicts the lawlessness of Mogadishu and children forced to be soldiers, for example.
The action sequences, too, are so riveting they sometimes obscure the multi-layered characters played with such nuance by the international cast of regulars and guest stars. In the hands of Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister in "Game of Thrones"), Shane Taylor, Said Taghmaoui and Anthony Oseyemi, this season's antagonists are much more than mustache-twirling fiends. They're complicated people who believe, like Scott and Stonebridge, in the righteousness of their mission.
I can't review "Strike Back" without bringing up another asset Stapleton brings to the show. The Australian actor gets his kit off almost once per episode. (There must be a mandate requiring nudity in pay cable series.) But the sex scenes here rarely feel gratuitous, and speak what I mentioned earlier—how soldiers cope with the pressure of their jobs. Stonebridge keeps things locked up tight (or used to, anyway), while Scott acts out through commitment-free sex with pretty much any woman he encounters.
Butts, bullets and brains. It's time to "Strike Back."
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