In the UK: Wednesdays, 9pm, Sky 1/Sky 1 HD
It's easy to forget that while Armando Iannucci and co urge the BBC to set up its own subscription-only version of HBO in the UK, one company is already in the fledgling steps of doing just that: BSkyB. Sky have one mission in life and that's to sell subscriptions and Sky boxes - in particular HD Sky boxes and HD subscriptions (an extra £10 a month). After years of assuming that buying lots of US TV was the way to attract subscribers - to diminishing returns - the last few years has seen a change of strategy: a concerted effort to create home-grown, quality drama, usually based on Terry Pratchett books, in an attempt to get the viewing public to hand over the cash.
Chris Ryan's Strike Back is the latest part of this strategy. Starring everyone's favourite Dick Head, Richard Armitage - the actor on everyone's speed dial when they need to cast an SAS soldier - Strike Back sees Armitage's down-and-out MI6 security guard (and former SAS soldier) go back to Iraq to recover a kidnapped reporter, who might be in the hands of the Iraqis he fought in his last mission. His MI6 handler: the army intelligence officer who accompanied him back then (Andrew Lincoln).
And you know what? Despite being on Sky 1, it's actually very good.
High-octane drama explodes onto Sky1 HD this May with an action-packed series based on the multi-million best-selling book by former SAS man Chris Ryan.
Starring Richard Armitage and Andrew Lincoln, Strike Back is a compelling story of betrayal, glory, redemption and revenge played out through the interlinking lives of two former soldiers: military hero Hugh Collinson (Lincoln) and discharged veteran John Porter (Armitage).
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Porter leads a Special Forces unit on a daring hostage rescue mission into the heart of Basra, culminating in a disastrous turn of events for him and Collinson. Porter bears the burden of guilt, with the repercussions haunting him for years, until an opportunity presents itself to return to Iraq and redeem himself. After several years apart, Porter and Collinson's lives are about to collide once again
In three stand-alone narratives based in Iraq, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Pakistan, dramatised over six episodes, the stories interweave the dramatic politics of war, with the personal demons of two very driven men: Collinson and Porter.
Filmed on location in the epic landscapes of South Africa on 35mm film for a stunning HD image, Strike Back is set to wow audiences with its cinematic proportions. From scenes of intense combat to the confines of a brutal Harare jail and the desert landscapes of Iraq to the lush greenery of the Zimbabwean outback, HD promotes every dramatic detail with crystal clear accuracy.
With an impressive international cast including Toby Stephens, Ewen Bremner, Jodhi May, Dhafer L'Abidine, Orla Brady, Shelley Conn and Colin Salmon, Strike Back is a series not to be missed this spring.
Is it any good?
Well, yes, it is. This is, obviously, of a particular genre: the "manly men doing manly soldier things" genre that is the novel-writing speciality of the likes of former SAS soldiers Chris Ryan and Andy McNab, although they're by no means the only ones.
Of this genre's particular trappings, Strike Back has one or two of the requisite clichés needed to make you snigger: damsels in distress; honourable manly men going through hell but showing how hard and indestructible they are then killing everyone; women throwing themselves at the honourable manly men, even when presented with the worst pick-up lines ever; Iraqis always driving pickup trucks and clapped out Mercedes; shadowy secret branches of government with lots of high-tech equipment; and obvious cannon fodder wandering into obvious cannon-equipped territory.
But in the surprising hands of writer Jed Mercurio (Bodies, Cardiac Arrest) and director Daniel Percival (The State Within), Strike Back rises above those clichés to become a tense drama with excellent production values and decent acting.
Although there's the occasional wobble, the strength of the piece, which feels like old-school drama in the way it's shot, is that it's a lot smarter than it seems. Foreigners mostly speak in Arabic, read Arabic script, have mobile phones that are set to use Arabic and watch Iraqi TV programmes. Just when you think you know the cliché and what's going to happen next, the story surprises you, before returning to cliché: yes, Armitage can pull with crap - indeed creepy - pick-up lines, but there's a reason for that and it's not what he thinks it is. It even manages to be hard-edged without being distasteful.
A lot of this authenticity is down to Ryan, who injects the story with an unexpected degree of verisimilitude. But Percival's direction ensures that you really do feel like you're in Iraq most of the time. The fire fights and fist fights feel real enough (albeit with a little dramatic licence) and the pace thunders along from scene to scene.
Things at home aren't quite so well paced: Armitage's family has little to offer dramatically that you won't have seen in a dozen or so "married to the job" stories, and Andrew Lincoln's character has nothing much to do beyond slip and slime from scene to scene. Army intelligence officer Jodhi May (The BBC's version of The Other Boleyn Girl) sulks her way through most of the two episodes, although at least has a handgun in most of them, but Colin Salmon is actually good enough to make you ignore the fact he's just there to shout at subordinate Lincoln.
The rest of the series
Since these are just the first two episodes of the series, it won't surprise you to learn that there are two more two-part stories to come and that Dickie Armitage doesn't return to being a security guard at the end of the second episode. There's an ongoing story arc for Armitage and Lincoln that will take no one by surprise either, but could prove interesting nevertheless.
With the rest of the series' filming done in South Africa and the stories set around the world, it should prove to be a visual treat as well. Definitely one to record*.
* I would say Series Link, but as seems to be the way these days, the Sky box won't let me.
- September 12, 2011: What did you watch last week (w/e September 7)?
Time for "What did you watch last week?", my chance to tell you what I watched last week and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case we've missed them. My recommendations for maximum viewing...
- April 16, 2012: The strange nature of international casting: Strike Back: Project Dawn
The international casting of Strike Back: Project Dawn
- July 2, 2012: Review: Line of Duty (BBC2) 1x1
A review of BBC2's Line of Duty, starring Lennie James and Gina McKee
- November 19, 2012: Review: Falcón (Sky Atlantic) 1x1
A review of the first episode of Sky Atlantic's Falcón
- September 29, 2016: Review: Berlin Station 1x1-1x2 (US: Epix)
A review of the first two episodes of Epix's Berlin Station