(Screencaps courtesy of Violet Anchovy)
Knowing of my well-documented fondness for Sendhil Ramamurthy, best known as lovely Mohinder on Heroes, the peerless Morgan Dodge recently gifted me with Season One of Ultimate Force, a 2002-2006 ITV series focusing on Red Troop, a division of the Special Air Service (SAS), the secretive and elite special forces unit of the British Army. From the painfully generic title (honestly, Ultimate Force? Doesn’t that sound like a mid-nineties straight-to-DVD Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle?) and the jacket photo of Ramamurthy et al posing stoically with assault rifles and flak jackets, my expectations were low.
You know what? It’s not bad. It was co-created by Chris May, a retired SAS member, and there’s no reason to doubt the authenticity of the portrayal of elite military operations. Much of the entertainment value comes from the genuine pleasure of watching people who are damn good at their job, even if their job is, y’know, shooting people in the mouth. It’s not a great show -- it’s not terribly thoughtful or ground-breaking, and it undoubtedly glamorizes violence -- but, speaking as someone who grew up finding far too much entertainment value in The A-Team, I give it a jaunty thumbs-up. If you’re looking for old-school action television with a decent sense of humor, you could do worse. It’s got some cute moments, an abundance of unfathomable British slang, and a slew of guest appearances from the cast of Hornblower (which also aired on ITV). What more could you want?
Here’s a rundown of who’s who in Red Troop:
Henno (Ross Kemp): The gruff leader of Red Troop, Henno is a ringer for Michael Chiklis.
Jamie (Jamie Draven): An ace sharpshooter with a troubled past. While not exactly a simmering cauldron of vibrant charisma and energy, Jamie is a pleasant enough bloke. Plus, he takes off his clothes a lot.
Alex (Sendhil Ramamurthy): Red Troop’s resident problem child, Alex is… well, let’s just say he’s difficult. He sure is pretty, though.
Pete (Tony Curran): Pete has a lovely Scottish accent, a devoted wife, and two adorable children. Show of hands, everyone who suspects Pete will be downed in a hail of gunfire by the end of the season.
Ricky (Danny Sapani): A gourmet chef who’s fluent in Swedish and has a fart joke for every occasion. Ricky’s got layers, man.
Jem (Elliot Cowan): Sadly, Jem does not have pink hair, nor is he especially Truly Outrageous™.
Dotsy (Jamie Bamber): Red Troop’s mild-mannered commanding officer. “Dotsy Doheny” may be the most fabulous name ever. Bamber has made his name playing handsome young officers who should by rights be likeable and competent, yet turn out to be complete wankers (Archie on Hornblower, Apollo on Battlestar Galactica). Here, Bamber mixes things up a bit: Dotsy is initially written off as a wanker by his men, but he turns out to be likeable and competent. (The rest of Red Troop refer to Dotsy as a “rupert”, an adorable colloquialism for “officer”. For its flaws, Ultimate Force provides a crackerjack crash course in Brit slang).
Caroline (Alex Reid): The coolly competent intelligence officer, Caroline has a fair swath of Red Troop (Henno, Dotsy, Alex, Jamie) panting after her, poor girl.
Box 500 (Tobias Menzies): Red Troop’s computer and tech expert, on loan from MI-5. “Box 500” is the most awesome character name this side of “Dotsy Doheny.”
Episode One: The Killing House: The opening scene features Alex lying on his back bound in duct tape, which immediately sets a standard of excellence the rest of the episode will fail to attain. This is a hostage simulation, which is part of Alex’s and Jamie’s initiation into Red Troop. Alex and Jamie are “rescued” by the rest of Red Troop, which includes Alex’s older brother, Sam. Don’t get too attached to Sam.
After spending far too long dwelling on Jamie’s home problems (an abusive stepfather, a sick mother, a mentally-challenged brother), the episode kicks into high gear when Red Troop receives their first assignment: a routine bank heist has turned into a hostage situation. As the hostage-takers are represented by a Mark Linn-Baker lookalike and Rudge from The History Boys, I’m betting Red Troop will prevail.
While figuring out what to do about the situation, our heroes hole up in a nearby building, where Ricky cooks them all a fantastic steak dinner, complete with fine wine, candelabras, and fart jokes. For the first (but far from the last) time, Alex is an ass to Jamie. The subtle underpinnings of the Alex-Jamie dynamic might be better understood by someone with a comprehensive knowledge of the intricacies of the British class system (Alex, we discover, has an aristocratic background, while Jamie is determinedly working class), though it’s equally possible we’re just meant to assume Alex is a prick and leave it at that. I’m good either way.
The hostage situation escalates to a big, manly, violent assault on the bank. In the melee, Jamie does himself proud by taking down two of the robbers, but Sam gets shot and killed, which kind of dampens everybody’s buzz.
Despite having reached a decent conclusion, the episode decides to keep going for another twenty minutes or so. Unsettled by his first kills, Jamie blows off Red Troop’s standard post-mission drinking binge, goes for a meandering drive, saves a random guy from getting beaten up, reaches some kind of epiphany about how he actually really likes shooting people in the mouth, and ultimately joins his mates in their celebration.
Best line: At their post-mission celebration, Hanno offers a toast: “To Sam.” Brief moment of silence, then: “All right, that’s enough, we’re not Americans.”
Episode Two: Just a Target: Sam is laid to rest with due pomp and ceremony. After the wake, there’s a glimpse of Alex cheerfully hightailing it off with a hot babe. Everyone grieves in their own way.
A sniper fails to kill the head of a French bank. Jamie infiltrates an antiglobalist faction suspected of being behind the assassination attempt by posing as the mercenary boyfriend of Lorraine, their totally incompetent undercover operative. The antiglobalists stage a violent rally whilst costumed as zombies and furry animals; this is one of those things that maybe makes more sense if you’re British. The rest of Red Troop shows up at the rally disguised as riot police; Alex has far too much fun punching Jamie and kicking him in the face. We’re presumably supposed to conclude: a) Alex has unresolved issues about his brother’s death, and b) Alex is sort of a prick, but seriously, I was mostly thinking about how much Heroes would perk up if Mohinder would occasionally kick someone in the face. Having proven his dedication to the cause by getting roughed up by the police, Jamie gets in good with the antiglobalists.
There’s some cool spy stuff as Red Troop bugs and searches the antiglobalists’ headquarters. It’s all very Spooks (also known as MI-5. Here’s another reason to love Sendhil Ramamurthy: he had the good sense to marry Olga Sosnovska, who played the smoking-hot spy Fiona on Spooks. Ultimate Force is not Spooks, but honestly, it could be a whole lot worse).
Henno shows up at Caroline’s house in the middle of the night to ogle her breasts and kvetch about how his family doesn’t appreciate him. Caroline serves him tea and frosty sympathy and sends him on his way.
The antiglobalists take Lorraine hostage and try to force Jamie to kill the French banker. Caroline, who is the only Red Troop member close to the action, jumps to Jamie’s defense and helps him take down the villains. She gets pegged in the shoulder in the process, but takes it like a trooper, thus proving she’s one of the boys.
Best line: Caroline: “I’m following Lorraine, heading southwest. I presume I should follow?”
Henno: “No, stay and treat yourself to a Little Chef.”
Episode Three: Natural Selection: The episode opens with a shot of a long line of pasty naked backsides. Never let it be said Ultimate Force doesn’t know how to grab attention. The backsides belong to the ten final recruits for new members of the SAS. The new recruits include Mick, a friend of Jamie’s. For the final stage of their training, they’re about to embark on a grueling combat survival course, in which they must cover a hundred miles of rough terrain, equipped only with an Altoids tin containing a map, a few matches, and some pocket change (regrettably, they’re given clothes as well), all whilst being hunted down by members of the parachute regiment, who are equipped with dogs, helicopters, and night-vision goggles. Dude, being a guy must be awesome sometimes. Adding an unscheduled level of difficulty: a disgruntled former SAS reject crashes the course and starts murdering the recruits one by one.
Red Troop doesn’t have much to do during the first part of this plotline, so they all go out drinking. Jealous of the attention Caroline pays to Jamie, Alex drunkenly mocks Jamie’s Mancunian accent, and, in the span of a few seconds, goes from “somewhat snobbish and difficult” to “totally fucking creepy”. It’s impressive. Caroline mentally crosses Alex off her Potential Future Boyfriend list.
While searching for the killer on the survival course, Jamie and Jem (“once you’re a Jem girl, you’re never the same!”) gab about Caroline, who, per Jem, is all “bubbly in the gusset” for Jamie. I’m not 100% clear on “bubbly in the gusset”, but I gather it’s a good thing. Jamie, who has qualms about dating an officer, feigns disinterest and takes Alex aside to give him the all-clear to pursue Caroline. Alex replies, with his customary charm, “As if you’re in the picture, you cocky bastard.”
Without too much fuss and bother, Red Troop apprehends the killer. For the last stage of testing, the surviving recruits are interrogated by Caroline, whose technique mostly involves stripping them down and frostily mocking their penis size. Mick withstands the abuse and is officially made a member of the SAS.
Best line: Jem (placing an order at the pub for Dotsy, while the rest of Red Troop quaffs pints of lager and chows down on pork scratchings): “Crème de menthe frappe for the rupert.”
Episode Four: Breakout: Chechan rebels try to steal a special mutated strain of anthrax from a lab. The usual hostage situation ensues, and the SAS is called in to sort things out. There’s not much to note about this plotline, though I’d just like to point out that the lab is managed by Hornblower's Mr. Bracegirdle. In other news, you’ll be shocked to hear that Alex is still being relentlessly unpleasant to Jamie.
Caroline infiltrates the lab in the guise of a nurse. Henno is taken hostage and gets shot a bunch of times, but he’s super-manly, so he shrugs it off. Pete crawls under the building with explosives to, per Dotsy, “do a Guy Fawkes number.” Alex grouses that they’re just a bunch of licensed hit men (yes, that’s pretty much the job description), then botches the mission by shooting the scientist carrying the deadly anthrax, thus almost releasing the mutated strain and wiping out the entire English countryside. Alex, you’re very lucky you’re beautiful. Afterwards, Alex and Jamie get into a shouting match and beat each other up a bit. Good times.
Best line: Alex (explaining to Jamie, in the most delightfully petulant manner possible, why his bedside table is littered with booze bottles): “I made a hot toddy. I’ve got the flu.” The phrase “hot toddy” is inherently funny.
Episode Five: The Killing of a One-Eyed Bookie: The episode opens with Jamie in disguise as Gracey, an Irish politician who, Red Troop has learned from their deep-cover informant Cullen, is targeted for assassination. During a shootout, Jamie gets grabbed by mistake by IRA operatives, taken across the border, and tortured for information. (More Hornblower goodness: the IRA members include the awesome Sean Guilder, who played Styles).
The torture of Jamie is really pretty ghastly. Hot pokers are involved. Jamie won’t budge, so they force him to dig his own grave, then make him strip naked and lie down in it. Egad. As they’re about to shoot him, Jamie shouts out “Sniper!” -- his position on the SAS -- signaling that he’s ready to start talking. Understandably, Jamie gets kind of maudlin at this point. He tells the nicest IRA member (who turns out to be the son of a one-eyed bookie murdered by Cullen and Gracey years ago, hence the otherwise nonsensical episode title) that he’s in love with Caroline.
Meanwhile, back at Red Troop HQ, there’s a strangely homoerotic interlude involving Ricky, Alex, and a pool table: Ricky tries to get to the bottom of why Alex is such a wanker, Alex punches Ricky, Ricky throttles Alex, Alex confesses that he feels sort of bad about Jamie getting captured, Ricky and Alex hug. It’s awesome.
Pete and Jem (“glamour and glitter, fashion and fame”) visit Pete’s IRA friend, who gives them information leading to Jamie’s location. Against orders, Caroline and Henno cross the border, kidnap Cullen, whom they figure has double-crossed them, and get him to lead them to Jamie. Caroline and Henno get captured, the rest of the troop arrives, there’s the obligatory shootout, Jamie is rescued, and it all ends well, with even moody, bitter Alex starting to warm up to Jamie. Evidently, Ricky throttled some sense into him.
Best line: Pete (upon spotting Caroline approaching whilst the boys engage in some customary salty talk): “Watch out, there’s a lumpy jumper about.” If I knew my male coworkers were in the habit of referring to me as a “lumpy jumper”, I’d probably cry.
Episode Six: Something to Do With Justice: The episode opens with Henno grousing about how he doesn’t like people who eat balsamic bagels. My brain smoothed it over by assuming this was another British thing and proceeded on, undisturbed. It turns out Henno and Pete have been canned after their Irish escapade. Bitter about their treatment by the SAS, they accept a dangerous job training a makeshift Bosnian militia in weapons use and military tactics.
Meanwhile, Red Troop, joined by recent recruit Mick, is also sent to Bosnia. They’re supposed to retrieve militia leader Glasnovic, who is wanted by the Hague for war crimes. Glasnovic never sleeps in the same place twice, plus he uses a bunch of decoys to thwart assassination attempts (the obvious parallel is Saddam Hussein, but Natalie Portman in The Phantom Menace works, too). Naturally, Henno and Pete haven’t been fired at all -- their dismissal was part of an elaborate ruse to enable them to infiltrate Glasnovic’s operation. It culminates in an even messier-than-usual firefight, in which Pete gets shot and clings to life by a thread.
Back at headquarters, Alex tells Jamie he’s quitting Red Troop. For a nice change of pace, he manages to be quite reasonable and mature about it. Hooray for eleventh-hour character development! He tells Jamie he doesn’t enjoy the job, and explains, “Sam died. Mum and dad don’t have another son,” then drives off into the sunset. Shine on, Alex, you crazy, beautiful, prickish, bipolar diamond!
And all ends happily enough. Pete’s condition is left up in the air, but Henno blackmails the guy who sent them on the mission out of forty grand, which he gives to Pete’s wife, and Jamie and Caroline smooch furtively at the usual post-mission party.
The show creaked along for another three seasons after this, but my interest drove off into the sunset along with lovely Alex, so I’m calling this good. A fine, fine show.
Best line: Caroline (to Jem, after Jem bitches about not being told about Henno and Pete): “Even their wives think they’ve been kicked out, so I don’t know what you’re being premenstrual about.”