Not long after the Cinemax version of Strike Back debuted, I wrote that it was “far better than it needs to be.” Essentially a long-form version of the sort of direct-to-video buddy action movie where the casting director’s first priority is to find a Jason Statham type, all it really required was a lot of explosions and periodic interludes for nudity. It had both of those, but the action was exceptionally well-staged (especially given the low budget), the sex scenes only sometimes felt gratuitous — or, at least, they didn’t always feel gratuitous — and the chemistry between stars Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton was as strong as the writing for their characters, Michael Stonebridge and Damien Scott, who got to be quippy hero types who were also grappling with serious PTSD issues and moral quandaries from the work they did as members of a British special forces unit. It could be cheesey, but it understood exactly what it was as well as any show on television at the time, and worked exceptionally well within its own limitations.
The Winchester/Stapleton incarnation of the show (there was a previous season, starring Richard Armitage, made only for the UK, which Cinemax later aired as Strike Back: Origins) came to a very satisfying end a couple of years ago. At the time, Cinemax was trying to transition away from cheap international co-productions to make its own mix of pulp and prestige, with shows like The Knick, Banshee, and Quarry. Now, though, the originals are all gone, and it’s back to the Strike Back model — starting with a revived Strike Back itself that features a new cast in the same formula.
The fictional Section 20 has been resurrected, with the usual assortment of badass castoffs. This time, there are four leads instead of two: Thomas “Mac” McAllister (Warren Brown from Luther), a soldier with a personal grudge against the new season’s main target; Samuel Wyatt (Daniel MacPherson, like Stapleton, an Australian playing American), a US operative reluctantly shanghaied into 20; Gracie Novin (Alin Sumarwata), an Australian weapons specialist; and Natalie Reynolds (Roxanne McKee), ostensibly the highest-ranking field operative, though the show mostly treats the four of them as equals answering to Nina Sosanya’s Colonel Donovan.
Based on the six episodes Cinemax sent out for review in advance of Friday night’s premiere, it’s in many ways the Strike Back fans knew and loved the first time out. Director MJ Bassett is back to help coordinate all the mayhem — particularly impressive is a hallway oner in the fifth episode where Novin battles a wave of Belarusan thugs while wearing an evening gown — and there’s banter aplenty as 20 goes after a Middle Eastern terrorist (Don Hany) and his Western wife (Katherine Kelly), who it turns out grew up in the same English town as Mac. The format’s the same as it’s been going back to the Richard Armitage days: one big serialized story told across the whole season, but broken up into two-episode chunks with mini-missions of their own, so we can see the team a couple of hours in, say, Budapest while looking into a white supremacist militia whose interests have surprisingly aligned with that of the terrorists, before moving on to the next locale and the next set of villains.
(This is a formula more current dramas should look at, considering how many serialized shows tend to drag well before their seasons end. Break it up into chunks like this, and the audience never has to get too tired of the main story.)
At the same time, the whole thing feels a bit thinner and more formulaic than the previous incarnation. You can definitely see the ways that head writer Jack Lothian has played mix-and-match in distributing Scott and Stonebridge character traits to their male successors: here, it’s the British guy who’s more of a hothead, for instance. The decision to do a mixed-gender foursome rather than focus on two new dudes is mostly a smart one — the peak of the old show was when Rhona Mitra’s Rachel Dalton was co-lead with Scott and Stonebridge — but it means that all four of them get shorter shrift than any combination of two would. Novin’s the character who most clearly pops in the early going, but none of them feel particularly fleshed-out, and where the guys are at least given a competitive dynamic when they’re paired off (albeit one evoking their predecessors, who also liked to wager and keep score in the middle of firefights), the women are lagging, either teamed with each other or either guy.
Stonebridge and Scott (whose adventures are available On Demand if you’re a Cinemax subscriber, or on Amazon Prime for three of their four seasons) were never written with the complexity of a Walter White, but they felt real enough to ground a lot of the ridiculous things they did. New Strike Back doesn’t have that depth yet, even as it makes a good faith effort to render the villains (both the main terrorists and the bosses that Section 20 has to beat along the way) into more than just cartoons. As a result, it so far feels only as good as it needs to be, which is a step down from what the prior incarnation showed it could do.