[This is a review of Strike Back season 4, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Strike Back is the kind of show that blends effortless cool with unrelenting action. And it does so without being too conscious of the former. Since debuting on Cinemax in its retooled Stonebridge-Scott iteration (hence why this is season 4 in the U.S. and not season 5, like it is elsewhere) the series has prided itself on delivering impeccable action set pieces that push the story through each hour at a breakneck pace. Case in point: within the first few minutes of the season premiere, Section 20 finds itself raiding a gangster’s hideout in search of a British diplomat’s abducted daughter, only to have the situation go from stealth mission to shootout to a tense motorcycle and jet ski chase. And there’re a few fiery explosions included as well, just to punctuate things appropriately.
Strike Back may be a lot of fun to look at – especially as things get blown up real good – but it’s not just relentless action. The show is smart – smart about it’s action, smart about its story, and smart about its characters. The three are forever intertwined. Things that happen on the field of battle resonate later, when Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) is inevitably downing a beer back at HQ and Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) is… I don’t know, doing some extra cardio because he just didn’t get enough of a workout chasing bad guys and dodging bullets all day. The point is: like most shows that seek to get eyeballs on them by emphasizing bullets, punches, and explosions, they tend to be thought of as having dumbed down the story for the benefit of the action. In the case of Strike Back, however, thinking of the show as action without thought is selling the program short.
What really sets the series apart, however, is the way in which the action is delivered to progress the overall story. The aforementioned stealth-to-chase sequence isn’t presented as you might suspect: as some James Bond-esque cold open. Instead, it is a response from Section 20, which, in turns creates the framework of the narrative. As has been the case in past seasons, the story unfolds in two-episode arcs. When one arc is wrapped up, another emerges from the circumstances that brought the previous thread to its conclusion.
In the case of the season premiere, Chloe (Eliza Bennett), the kidnapped daughter of Robert Foster (Tim McInnerny), a British diplomat and close personal friend of Section 20 head Philip Locke (Robson Green), is actually just motivation to ensure Robert sets off a bomb in his own embassy, killing a group of visiting North Korean delegates and potentially starting World War III. Add to the mix Max Beesley, as Ray McQueen, a British expatriate criminal living in Thailand with his pregnant wife and unborn child, and you have the making of a thrilling season-long storyline.
But Strike Back isn’t interested in telling a single story for 10 episodes. Instead the series burns through its plotlines at an alarming rate, without making it seem as though the audience is somehow missing out on anything. The episode smartly sets up Ray’s circumstances in economical fashion. After cutting off Chloe’s finger and sending it to her father, Ray’s given a bomb by a corrupt member of the Thai police force, and through a series of conversations – one with said corrupt policeman and another with a shadowy figure named Lee (Arthur Lee) – the importance of Ray’s role in the story becomes crystal clear. On the other side of things, Locke must deal with a panicked Robert and his demanding wife Mei, played by Michelle Yeoh, who, by virtue of being Michelle Yeoh is bound to have more going on than just being a diplomat’s second wife.
There are plenty of new characters to become acquainted with, but the episode doesn’t skimp on the interpersonal interactions between members of the main cast. There’s a nice bit between Michelle Lukes’ Sgt. Julia Richmond and Scott, before she is sent into the proverbial lion’s den and all hell predictably breaks loose. The series knows that Stonebridge and Scott have been through so many near-death experiences, they have developed a kind of shorthand that doesn’t require more than a few brief lines and a few looks to get a lot of information across. The disclosure of Richmond’s relationship with Scott isn’t just a way to bring Stonebridge in on his friend and partner’s personal life, it helps the audience become even more invested in the main characters than they already would have been.
Richmond and Scott’s relationship is also a nice change of pace for the series, which, under normal circumstances would be required to find a suitable and suitably short-lived love interest for the ex-Delta Force lothario. Now, however, and not coincidentally at the start of the final season, there’s an emotional connection at stake that goes beyond the Stonebridge-Scott ass-kicking dynamic.
But even as the episode runs through the hour with its foot firmly on the gas pedal, it doesn’t forget how important and how palpable the chemistry between its two leads actually is. By the time events require Section 20 to be literally racing against a ticking clock, the charm of the two soldiers’ interplay is turned up a notch, allowing them to enter a gang-infested section of town, to travel 100 yards in 10 minutes, before it’s game over.
It’s a familiar life-and-death scenario inevitably raised to globally catastrophic stakes, but both men remain as game as ever. And while the knowledge that this will be the final mission makes greeting the start of the season a bittersweet affair, the series nevertheless proves to still be at the top of its game.
Strike Back continues next Friday @10pm on Cinemax.