Cinemax’s ‘Strike Back’: A vigorous sprint across a macho minefield

August 11, 2011

What kind of intelligence expert can accurately measure the razor-fine line between a compelling, macho action-ad­ven­ture drama and a ridiculous one? Especially when the line is always moving? It’s either Jason Bourne or Jason Statham — and a lot of tripwired stupidity in between.

One part of the equation must surely be the viewer’s mood: “24,” a prime example, came along just when a certain kind of television watcher craved a Sept. 11-era kick in the pants, a cathartic and wildly implausible escape hatch from headlines.

Mood, then, might explain why I’m so taken with the first four episodes of “Strike Back,” a surprisingly stylish and addictive new counterterrorism series premiering Friday night on Cinemax. It’s a joint production from HBO-owned Cinemax and British Sky Broadcasting. It’s also a sequel of sorts to a British miniseries, but pretend I never said that. (Also, for the sake of this review, pretend you have Cinemax.)

“Strike Back” follows the intense folks who work for Section 20, a highly classified British black-ops unit. Endowed with Jack Bauer’s remarkably nimble Internet access and Donald Rumsfeld’s penchant for creative interrogation, Section 20 hotly pursues a mysterious mastermind named Latif.

After a bungled attempt in Pakistan to rescue one of its agents from Latif’s terrorists, Section 20’s stone-cold commander, Col. Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing) enlists the help of Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton), a former Delta Force operative, to help track Latif. Scott, who was kicked out of the U.S. Army’s intelligence unit during the Iraq war, is found in Kuala Lumpur, working as a kickboxer and living in a whorehouse.

Scott is paired with Sgt. Michael Stonebridge, played by hunky Philip Winchester — and yes, it does seem as though all the actors’ names could also be character names; and why bother with names at all? Here is all you need to know: The American has the dark hair, and the British guy is the strawberry blond. This is one of those shows where a fella sooner or later has to figure what to do about the ticking bomb strapped to his pectorals.

“Strike Back” is really a study in successfully crossing a minefield of testosterone cliches, barely avoiding a “MacGyver” here and a Vin Diesel there and Guy Ritchie project over there. As the action moves to Mumbai, where Latif and the terrorists hold hotel guests hostage (and then to South Africa, where a former IRA thug is attempting a heist on Latif’s behalf), something about the show just clicks: It’s serious without being hammy. It’s violence without overkill. It’s hawkish without becoming jingoistic. The writing is almost entirely expository, but the acting (really, it’s the British accents) tends to gloss over that shortcoming.

And it’s on Skinemax, which means the sex scenes are sweaty, ravenous and yet studiously soft-core.

Winchester’s Stonebridge is a conflicted good guy, with a wife at home in London who pines away for a baby and with a covert affair with a female agent at Section 20. Stapleton’s Scott is the real find here, a thoroughly unlikable loser who becomes more winning with each episode and frankly saves the show from a dour sense of duty. Though he plays an American, Stapleton is an Australian actor who seems to have been created in a laboratory experiment that grafted Ewan McGregor’s personality and smile onto Hugh Jackman’s body — with more than adequate results.

But “Strike Back” is not merely a Men’s Health cover; it’s a fully realized, invigorating workout. Fans of “24,” which bowed last year, still ask me how to fill that void. They want just enough intelligence-agency hooey to make the unbelievable seem somewhat real. Until “Strike Back,” I didn’t have a good answer. Now I do.

Strike Back

(45 minutes) premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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