Dealing with the so-called "delicate situation" at flashpoints around the globe is the bread and butter of military espionage thrillers — and Chris Ryan's Strike Back does it artfully as it teases the adrenalin from a drip to a heart-gripping flow.
Based on the novel of the same name by Ryan, a former Special Air Service (SAS) soldier himself, the six-part Strike Back series revolves around the exploits of two army mates, John Porter (Richard Armitage), a former SAS Sergeant, and Hugh Collinson (Andrew Lincoln), a Section 20 officer in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).
After a botched operation in pre-invasion Iraq in which two soldiers perish due to his refusal to pull the trigger on a schoolboy, Porter comes home wounded, reeking of shame and post-traumatic stress, while Collinson's intelligence career soars. Porter is reduced to patrols as security guard in the parking garage of Collinson's building. As he goes to his car, Collinson averts his gaze, hoping Porter won't spot him.
"Porter is an SAS soldier who makes a decision not to kill a suicide bomber during a hostage situation," Armitage told a GMTV interviewer in 2010, when the South African-shot series first aired on Sky1 in the UK. "That decision has a catastrophic effect on his life. He loses his job, his wife and his children."
The manner in which Strike Back builds suspense brings to mind the boiling-frog theory, which states that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out — but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be boiled to death.
The opening moments of this six-part series explode with heavy hostage-extraction action on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But it all happens before we have grown to know, and care for, the characters. This flourish of Die Hard gunplay and theatrics, while entertaining, quickly fades forward to present day, and a tepid brew of family drama, a disgraced homecoming and despair as the wounded Porter tries to rebuild his life.
The story pot heats up nicely by midpoint of the hour as the enterprising Porter, who's whipped his wounded body back into shape and sharpened his mind, finagles a deal with a desperate Collinson to let him try to rescue a journalist hostage in Basra.
Porter begs Collinson for a shot at redemption: "Just get me to the safe house. I can infiltrate the group. Maybe even get to Scarface."
Replies Collinson: "John, you can't seriously expect me to entertain this half-baked notion ..."
But embrace it he must.
Soon Porter's back in uniform, armed to the teeth — a spy-tracking device drilled into his molar — as he hops a C130 jet to Iraq. By hour's end, we're boiling. The big dramatic question lingers: is Porter out for revenge, atonement or to regain his honour and estranged family?
There's something alluring here, too, for espionage-loving gents who hanker for brainy intimidating women who can spout techno-talk like the geeks on The Big Bang Theory.
When strawberry-tressed Jodhi May — as Layla Thompson, a cerebral lieutenant in military intelligence — is asked in mission control why she can't use the IP address of the terrorists to pinpoint their hostage, she rattles off: "The webcast was routed by dozens of servers, and unfortunately, because we only have one upload, we can't analyse the backscatter."
For a nerd, that's pure ear-honey.
One of British TV's smartest moves has always been that its writers and networks — unlike their American counterparts — only give a series the number of hours or episodes it takes to best tell the tale.
With Strike Back, viewers need only invest six hours to savour a full first season, as opposed to the puffery and padding of subplots and cannon-fodder characters so often endured when US network bean-counters insist on a season order of 13 or 22 episodes.
Its first two episodes deal with the Basra kidnapping of Katie Dartmouth (Orla Brady), a brassy British journalist reminiscent of CNN's Christiane Amanpour, and the daughter of a former foreign secretary. From here, this series moves for two episodes to Zimbabwe, with an assassination plot, and then to Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the hunt for a computer hacker blamed for killing American troops.
But does Armitage like his complicated John Porter character?
"He's a great man. I wanted to make him somebody I could really aspire to be, and give him qualities that I would want, if I were a better person. So I put him up on a pinnacle. But he's also flawed. He's very aware of his own limitations. He's disconnected from his emotions when he's in battle. But then he tries to come back home and become a civilian — and he can't fit himself back together. So that was fascinating for me."
- Strike Back premieres on January 11, and will be broadcast on Wednesdays and Thursdays on OSN First HD, OSN First and OSN First +2
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