Tuesday, February 11, 2014

'Strike Back: Project Dawn' (2011)

Starring Phillip Winchester, Sullivan Stapleton and Amanda Mealing
Developed by Andy Harries, Elaine Pyke and Frank Spotnitz
Rated TV-MA - Violence, strong language, sex, nudity

British counter-terrorist agent John Porter (Richard Armitage) is captured by a Pakistani terrorist named Latif (Jimi Mistry), a man Porter's outfit, Section 20, has been hunting for some time. An attempt to rescue Porter fails, leaving Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) without much in the way of answers or leads. Unfortunately for him, one turns up in the form of disgraced American special-ops soldier Damien Scott, who worked with Porter in the past and may be the only man alive who's ever seen Latif in person.

Scott reluctantly joins Section 20, under the command of Colonel Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing). Grant and Scott often don't see eye to eye, but she recognizes his value to the team, especially after learning that the mission that led to his dishonorable discharge from the US military may have been a setup, and that Latif and a possible traitor within Section 20 may be involved.

As Scott and Stonebridge learn to work together as a team, Section 20 races around the globe to find and stop Latif before he's able to enact his grand plan: to unleash a stash of stolen WMDs that went missing a decade earlier, and plunge the world into war.

There's something to be said for these sorts of macho, muscular action pieces. The bread and butter of stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone. "Strike Back" feels a lot like a television serial version of "The Expendables," at least in terms of its tone and action, if not in its premise.

Imagine mixing "24" with "The Expendables," and that's probably an apt description of this season of "Strike Back." It has hostage situations, races against the clock to stop bombs, chases, fights, and many, many shootouts.

While the stories are generally well conceived and constructed, it's really the action that shines in "Strike Back." The series is remarkably well produced for television. The direction of the action sequences is quite good - the shootouts in particular are thrilling, and the series apparently employed former SAS operators to train the actors in these respects, and it shows. Despite the sheer amount of gunfire, this is not a series in which the main characters hold down the trigger and spray bullets until their enemies are dead. The show manages to strike a sense of, how to put it... believable unreality. It seems genuine, yet still somehow macho and slightly cartoonish.

On the writing side of things, the show falters somewhat. The characters aren't particularly deep. In fact, "Strike Back" mines a lot of buddy-cop cliches for Scott and Stonebridge - Scott is the raucous American who likes to do things his own way; he's damaged, and a womanizer (nearly every episode features Scott getting it on with a new random conquest, sometimes mere moments after the two characters have met). Stonebridge, on the other hand, is the by-the-book professional. He struggles with his duty to his country versus his wife's desires for him to find a safer job.

The rest of the cast are all kind of there. Section 20 has some support folks, but they're barely worth mentioning. Colonel Grant is an intriguing presence, a commanding woman with a secret that, when finally revealed, allows the character to finally have some meat. There's always a sense that there's more to Grant, it's just unfortunate that we have to wait until the end of the season to figure it out. This is likely because Amanda Mealing plays the character to great effect.

In terms of acting, it's all much the same. Sullivan Stapleton is Australian, and his American accent is less than stellar, but it works well enough. His performance is sold more on his cockiness than his accent. Scott's womanizing borders on comical, but Stapleton has what it takes to sell it, even if you'll find yourself shaking your head and chuckling at some of his cheesy lines. Beyond that, there's not a lot of depth to his character, so there's not a lot of depth in his performance - whether he's capable of more, I'm not sure since I haven't seen him in anything else. Scott has his tortured past, and we learn about why he's disgraced, but it often feels very perfunctory. It all basically works.

Philip Winchester can also be described as decent in his role as Stonebridge. He gets more drama to work with than Stapleton, with a subplot spanning the entire season involving an affair and his marital problems. These moments help to humanize Stonebridge, and Winchester performs them well enough, but these are also the moments when it feels like "Strike Back" is getting distracted, so it's all kind of a wash.

With a few good twists, solid plotting and characterization, and lots of rollicking action, "Strike Back" proves an entertaining television serial. It may not go down as the greatest action spectacle on TV, and it pretty firmly lives in the shadow of the ultra-popular "24," but that's okay. It seems to know exactly what it is, and feels comfortable showing it off.

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