Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester star in "Strike Back." (Liam Daniel / Cinemax )
Those jonesing for "24" may find some comfort in Cinemax's new foray into original content, a hostage-taking, bullets-flying, explosion-rattled special ops drama called "Strike Back." The continuation of a British show based on a novel by the same name, "Strike Back" revolves around the classified missions of Section 20, one of those elite bands of superheroes who can hack into any security system, outshoot any paramilitary mercenary, out-talk any rogue cell member and take down a phalanx of machine gun-toting terrorists while only armed with the hotel bath towel that had previously been wrapped around their waist.
Like "24," "Strike Back" is post-9/11 television, with the Brits standing for American problem solvers, and a Rick Steves-does-Black Ops travel itinerary — it's Tuesday, so it must be New Delhi. The body count is high, the action relentless and all the Section 20 members shout "copy that" into their ear phones so often a viewer will be excused from wondering when Chloe is going to parachute in and offer a much needed tutorial on how to track a paneled van through really bad traffic.
But it's more methadone than madness; where "24" was the archetypal tale of the lone gunslinger operating within the grim realities of newly revamped military protocol (i.e., torture), "Strike Back" is, at its heart, a buddy movie, a simmering life-or-death bromance between its two male leads: the upright and gorgeously clenched Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester), who is British, and the morally cavalier Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton), who is American.
Evoking a tradition begun by Elizabeth Bennet and her Mr. Darcy, the two meet in a situation of mutual distaste — Stonebridge is sent to drag Scott from the brothels of Kuala Lumpur (Cinemax is owned by HBO, so there must be a brothel scene) because Scott is the only man living who can identify the Pakistani terrorist known as Latif.
Latif has kidnapped John Porter (Richard Armitage) — who was the star of the first season of "Strike Back," which appeared on Sky TV in the U.K. — and Section 20, now headed by Col. Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing) wants him back. Stonebridge, nostrils flaring with distaste, has his doubts but while extricating Scott, fisticuffs with local thugs ensue, and love, in the form of tough-guy admiration, takes root.
The creators — the first four episodes are written by "The X-Files'" Frank Spotnitz — have mild political ambitions. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are mentioned early and often, as are the mythic weapons of mass destruction playing MacGuffin for the series' über narrative. Meanwhile, the second episode involves the takeover of a hotel that echoes (and references) the 2008 tragedy in Mumbai, explores the tensions between India and Pakistan and the dangers of launching missions on foreign soil.
Still "Strike Back" is unapologetically genre, international politics as window dressing for a sensational, albeit shallow, shoot 'em up with modern Butch and Sundance eye candy. Treachery and sex complicate things, evil lurks and last-minute goodness blooms, but no one seems terribly disturbed, much less haunted, by the ruthlessness of international politics or the daily violence that surrounds them. Scott and Stonebridge each have their alpha male odd-couple moments, but they are mostly too busy checking weapons to do any soul searching.
As directed by Dan Percival (one and two) and Bill Eagles (three and four), "Strike Back" unfolds quickly and confidently with brilliantly choreographed fight sequences and the exotic locales. But nothing trumps the friendship of the two male leads. Clear of eye and strong of jaw, Winchester is Prince Charming handsome and Stapleton manages to make Scott appear sloppy and dissolute despite the rock-hard abs, the impressive (and oft naked) glutes.
They each deliver their requisite smart aleck one-liners with the same muscular ease with which they handle automatic weaponry and women's bodies, the cinematic love children of James Bond and Rambo. Stirred, perhaps, but never shaken.