Philip Winchester, Rhona Mitra, Sullivan Stapleton (from left)
Just last week, I wrote about the new Blu-ray release of the first season of Banshee, but it was Strike Back that earlier established an original action series beachhead on Cinemax. The latter, which follows the exploits of a covert British terrorism unit called Section 20, isn’t quite as fascinatingly quirky as Banshee, but it’s tightly written, directed and edited enough to please any fan of the genre.
When I say “written,” I do so in a limited sense, because virtually every episode is divided into three parts: prepping for a potentially deadly confrontation, trying to survive the deadly confrontation and taking stock after the deadly confrontation. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for character development, but then, action movie fans generally don’t tune in to watch the adversaries talk about their feelings.
As in season one, the main focus is on two special agents. The first, Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester), left the unit at the end of last season to repair his damaged marriage, so he is training recruits at a military base as the season opens. Unfortunately, that seemingly innocuous routine results in an accident that, in turn, leads to an incident that shatters Stonebridge’s life.
Meanwhile, former CIA hit man Sgt. Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) has been dispatched on what is supposed to be a standard security mission that takes a terrifying turn when this season’s MacGuffin – a box of four nuclear triggers – falls into the wrong hands. When he hears that Scott is in deadly peril, Stonebridge drops everything and rushes to help save him, with their joint mission eventually coming under the command of Section 20’s new boss, Maj. Rachel Dalton (Rhona Mitra, not one of my favorite actresses, but your mileage may vary).
As the unit embarks on a frantic pursuit of those triggers, they fall into the hands of Karl Matlock (Vincent Regan), a decorated war hero turned soldier of fortune looking for a major score to finance his retirement from combat. Matlock sells the triggers to English billionaire Conrad Knox (Charles Dance), whose public image as a South African philanthropist is the perfect cover for a far more sinister scheme.
The banter-filled bromance between Scott and Stockbridge is a bonus for any viewers who may not be carnage-centric, but the acting is surprisingly good across the board. Due to the aforementioned upheaval in his own storyline, Winchester’s Stonebridge spends much of the season in a state of modified shock, but Stapleton continues to impress with all the wisecracker-y of a young Bruce Willis.
It’s the villains this season who are most compelling, though. Dance has been playing dapper heavies for a couple of decades now, and he does so again very effectively here. Regan, however, walks away with the season as the reluctant bad-guy Matlock, who has cracked under years of service left so unrewarded by the people in command. Special mention also goes to series regular Liam Garrigan as Sgt. Liam Baxter, the kind of loyal colleague any special agent with his life on the line wants as his point of contact back at command central.
Technically, this set is up to the usual lofty HBO Home Entertainment standard, but apart from audio tracks and subtitles in multiple languages, extras as somewhat sparse: just four commentary tracks, and be advised in advance they can get kind of confusing, since Stapleton, who plays the American Scott, is actually Australian, while Winchester, who plays the British Stockbridge, is American.
I have to confess up front that I am a latecomer to what I’ll call Nouvelle Cinemax, the programming facelift intended to elevate HBO’s kid sibling channel that some derisively have dubbed Skinemax in years past due to the softcore erotica that filled its late-night lineup.
As part of its image rehab, Cinemax has joined the growing horde of channels investing in original scriped series, and I heard good reports about both Strike Back, an ongoing action drama, and Hunted, a BBC-Cinemax co-production from former X-Files writer-producer Frank Spotnitz that reportedly is being streamlined and retooled for a second season.
I still wasn’t prepared, however, to be so pleasantly surprised by Banshee, the relentlessly entertaining and occasionally completely deranged action thriller created by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, with Emmy and Academy Award winner Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood) among its executive producers. Why do I call it deranged, you ask? Well, its featured characters include a transgender computer hacker named Job, a ruthless crime lord who is a shunned former member of an Amish community and a homicidal Ukrainian gangster named Mr. Rabbit. And that’s just for starters.
Set primarily in Pennsylvania Dutch country, the head-spinning story opens with the parole of the central character (New Zealand actor Antony Starr) after serving a 15-year prison sentence for stealing a cache of diamonds from the aforementioned Rabbit (Ben Cross). Reconnecting with Job (Hoon Lee), his former accomplice, the ex-con learns that his former heist partner and lover (Ivana Milicevik) was last seen in Banshee, but when he arrives in that sleepy (and fictional) Pennsylvania town, he discovers that the beauty he once knew as Ana has reinvented herself as Carrie, now married to Gordon Hopewell (Rus Blackwell), the district attorney in Banshee.
Although her ex got arrested and sent to prison because he sacrificed himself to save her, Carrie is dismayed when he tries to re-enter her life, threatening the serenity of her family, which includes two children. Stricken by her rejection, our protagonist retreats to a local bar run by former boxer Sugar Bates (Frankie Faison) to lick his wounds and reconsider his options. In a freaky twist of fate, another patron at the bar is Lucas Hood, a newcomer on his way to meet the mayor of Banshee and become installed as the new sheriff. Unfortunately, when he tries to stop two thugs from robbing Sugar, Lucas is killed, along with both intruders, giving the recently paroled stranger a crazy idea: Why not steal Lucas’s identity and take on the sheriff gig himself?
That masquerade kicks the story into high gear, as the new Lucas struggles to pass in this assumed guise while working with a diverse team of deputies who can’t help noticing that his approach to law enforcement is unconventional, to put it mildly. Carrie, meanwhile, grows ever more paranoid that Lucas’ reckless gambit will somehow draw Rabbit’s attention to Banshee, which would be very, very bad for both of them.
Superficially, Banshee follows many of the standard conventions of the action genre, including some hard R-rated violence. Every episode includes at least one instance of extended mayhem, and I found parts of episode eight, where the violence is directed at Carrie, almost impossible to watch (there’s also a featurette in which Milicevic talks about the grueling workday she spent getting knocked around for hours in front of the camera).
But Banshee breaks away boldly from action clichés in the show’s character writing and performances. Starr and Milicevik may look at first glance like your standard-issue Action Stud and Babe, but both actors also clearly reveal Lucas’ and Carrie’s pain, vulnerability and, on occasion, stark terror. Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen is sensationally good as Kai Procter, the shunned Amish gangster whose soft-spoken exterior masks his psychotic true nature. In a much smaller role, Matthew Rauch is both scary and hilarious as Procter’s sidekick Burton, who appears to have the killer instinct of Smithers on The Simpsons, yet is capable of inflicting horrific pain behind closed doors.
The Blu-ray set comes loaded with special features, including the usual deleted scenes and commentaries from the cast and creative team, but the most helpful feature (also included on the standard DVD set) is “Town of Secrets,” a collection of very short “prequel” clips that set up many of the relationships and motivations of the events in the main episodes. You can fuilly enjoy Banshee without watching these short clips afterwards, but if you do make time for them, you’ll find yourself going, “Ohhhhh.” Also, be sure to stick with each episode through its end credits, because there’s a brief scene tagged at the very end of each.
Cinemax already has renewed Banshee for a second season, scheduled to air in early 2014, but this handsome set will bring you up to speed on the fascinating, unconventional series. Just be advised, it’s not for the squeamish.