Skin Trade (2014): Dolph Lundgren and Tony Jaa

A message Action Film

Thai action films have been ruling the martial arts film market for some time now. Movies like  the 2008 martial arts action feature Chocolate with JeeJa Yanin as an autistic martial arts prodigy are almost eternally popular. ( Yanin was being groomed to  be a female version of Tony Jaa.) JeeJa’s film followed the Ong Bak and other, more recent, Thai action films’ formula where stunts are real, painful and make each fight sequence something special.  Jaa is, in the world of Thai film enthusiasts, an icon.

Dolph Lundgren, who has made a bit of a comeback since Expendables 1,2,3, ad nauseam, provided a story, and a screenplay, which was doctored by several writers, including the wildly talented John Hyams (Z Nation, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning). The storyline was prompted by a real skin trade incident that the actor witnessed while working on another film.

Lundgren’s message film, delivered via the action film genre, has a pretty impressive cast. Peter Weller, Tony Jaa, Michael Jai White, Dolph (of course) and the ultimate (type-cast) baddie in the guise of Ron Perlman. Apparently the film took some time to come together enough for production to start and apart from the dynamite fight scenes, it shows. Unfortunately despite the Asian setting and the inclusion of the legendary Tony Jaa,  the film cannot match “ordinary” Thai action movies.

Sadly, compared to Ong Bak or even the somewhat disappointing follow up to Chocolate, 2009’s Raging Phoenix , the fight scenes are not too overly impressive. That said, his presence alone elevates any action choreography set up by maestro coordinator and choreographer Dian Hristov,  who has nearly a hundred features to his credit. While the fights are not as spectacular as the ones featured in, for example, Chocolate, they are pretty convincing.

A Message Action Film
Tony Jaa mid-air shotgunning…

When Lundgren fights Jaa and later White fights the Ong Bak star as well, the efforts of the men and their stunt doubles feel almost real and painful. Certainly one assumes there were a few injuries incurred, but it is the actor’s who sell the altercations. Each performer makes the action that bit more convincing by slowing down as the fight goes on.

Dolph, despite looked darned good for 57, the same age as this reviewer, is old enough now that these types of films must be harder for him to pull off physically. Lundgren may look 30 years younger in the muscle department, but this type of exertion at over-50 is harder than it was at over-20.

The story is a multi-national set up, where Serbian baddie Perlman has a family business that entails stealing girls, or buying them (Life is very cheap in the skin trade world where Vietnamese, Thailand, and other impoverished Asian countries will sell their children to the sex trade.) from poor families.

These drugged up, and uncooperative, recruits are used in a Cambodian club or shipped out all over the world. One container ship lands in America with a shipment of long dead girls. Police Officer Nick Cassidy (Lundgren) goes after the leader of the skin trade Viktor (Perlman) and loses his family as a result.

Peter Weller does a more than competent cameo as a narcotics detective, Michael Jai White is the turncoat who tries to have Cassidy killed and Tony Jaa is the “local” cop in Cambodia whose girlfriend is an inside informant at the club.

The storyline is almost boringly formulaic, a by-the-numbers drill where Dolph’s character loses his wife and daughter (the latter “loss” is set up to enable a sequel presumably) and the bad guys buy out law enforcement and government officials.  After Lundgren is badly injured by Viktor’s Serbian mobsters, he goes out to kill the mafia leader.

Director Ekachai Uekrongtham (Beautiful Boxer, Pleasure Factory) does a good enough job with the story handed him. This film went almost straight to VoD and a few years back would have been relegated to the ‘B” picture slot at the local participating drive-in.

Skin Trade is a solid 3.5 star film. Nothing too exciting, but it is never boring and the film earns a half-star for 57 year-old Lundgren’s ability to still look and act like a cinematic action-man.It is streaming on US Netflix at the moment. Check it out, if for no other reason than to enjoy Peter Weller’s cameo or the ability of Tony Jaa to amaze outside of the Ong Bak verse.

Redemption aka Hummingbird (2013): A Crazy Patch Times Two

Film poster for Hummingbird, aka Redemption
Jason Statham may be trapped in “Expendables Hell,” but the man is more than “action hero” fodder for Sylvester Stallone to use as a magnet for younger female viewers, the English star can act, anyone who doubts it should see him in the 2013 film Redemption. Also known as Hummingbird, the movie’s tagline could have been “A Crazy Patch Times Two.” The 47 year-old former model and “street merchant” can act and he carries this film along with his Polish costar Agata Bazek who is a perfect fit for his character in the movie.

Written and directed by Stephen Knight (Locke, Peaky Blinders) Redemption tells the story of Joseph Smith, aka Joey Jones, a former special forces soldier on the run from a court martial for a revenge killing in Afghanistan. At the start of the film, Joey lives in a cardboard box with northern lass Isabel (Victoria Bewick) on the street. Two thugs come through their alley and when they get to Joey, he fights them.

He and Isabel get separated and he ends up in an expensive penthouse flat belonging to an actor named Damon. Making himself at home, along with taking a new bank card and some clean clothes, Joey goes on a spree, drinking nonstop. When the evening ends, he is at the Sister’s of Redemption soup kitchen where he gives Cristina (Bazek), a nun who has fed him many times, £500 that he took from Damon’s account.

Statham, as Joey, is brilliant as the man who drinks to “weaken the machine,” that he becomes when he is “sober and healthy.” The ex soldier hurts and kills people with skill and little effort. He finds out from Cristina that Isabel was found beaten and dead in the river and he tries to track down the killer.

Working for Mr Chow, he gets the name and goes after the murderer. Cristina helps him and the two go through “a crazy patch” together, which is how she explains her deviation from the church. The two damaged humans link up and later in the film consummate their temporary relationship. Before that, Joey saves all his money to give his former wife and their daughter and asks Cristina to take his picture because, “I won’t look like this much longer.”

The nun reveals that she has had a lifelong obsession with the ballet and wanted to be a dancer, but her father forced her into gymnastics. Her coach raped her repeatedly from the age of 10 and only stopped when she slit his throat. Rather than send her to prison, authorities sentenced the girl to join a convent.

With films like the three Expendables movies and the Transporter films along with Crank and so on, it is easy for many critics to overlook Statham’s talents and to underplay his acting capability. Redemption, or Hummingbird, rather unfairly, was pretty much panned by critics when it came out with little credit given to the actor for his work on the film.

When Joey gets upset in the movie it is only those with a heart of stone who do not empathize so much with the character that they get a lump in the throat and a sprinkling of tears and this is down to his performance. Statham’s doomed ex-special forces soldier on the run has got to be classed as one of his best performances.

Redemption, aka Hummingbird is on Netflix at the moment and well worth watching. Statham “action man” film fans may want to give it a miss as the violence is too sporadic and not “typical” of his usual output. 4.5 out of 5 stars, this is a cracking film that will prove that Jason can act.

The Expendables 2 (2012): Twice the Fun

For pure escapism and a plot that has more holes in it than a hunk of Swiss cheese, you cannot beat The Expendables 2. But damn it, it’s  entertaining and fun and who can complain about that?

Is it realistic? Hell no, no more than The Guns of Navarone or The Wild Geese was.

Are they similar? You bet.

All three films feature heroes past their prime facing outlandish, impossible odds…and winning. Sure the big bad has changed. In Navarone it was the Nazi’s and in Geese it was an African government; in each case though the bad guys were bad.

To the bone.

So are the bad guys in both The Expendables and The Expendables 2. The first film featured a villainous Eric Roberts and the second one featured Jean-Claude Van Damme as an egotistical greedy and downright nasty villain. Both men had an equally nasty cohort and a plethora of arms toting men.

Van Damme as the Vilain…

But despite the similarity in plot and the difference in directors – Sly directed the first one and Simon West directed # 2 – the film covers familiar territory and features almost all of the guys from the first film.

Conspicuous in his absence is Mickey Rourke (who says he only did the first film as a favour to Stallone anyway) and Jet Li is missing for 99% of the film – a massive disappointment as I adore Li – and Charisma Carpenter has an even smaller cameo than in the first film, but none of these things take away from the enjoyment of the actual film.

Instead we have both Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in bigger cameo roles and they both get to shoot copious amounts of ammunition and kill absolute legions of baddies. Chuck Norris shows up for the party and it just doesn’t get any better than that.

I could almost forgive Chuck for endorsing Mitt Romney (almost but not quite) and it would have been nice to see more Jet Li, but hey; we got Nan Yu to represent the Asian member of the team and a “new” member in Liam Hemsworth as the ultimate eagle-eyed sniper “Billy the kid.”

Now for the plot, did I say, plot? Do you really care? Of course you do, no matter how ropey and loose it is, plot is important. But before we go there let’s talk about the opening of the movie.

New temporary Expendable member Maggie.

Expendables 2 opens just like Expendables did, with a hostage being rescued by the guys. Everyone infiltrates a terrorist hideout that is heavily armed and looks to be pretty impregnable. Except that these are the Expendables and they can go anywhere they like.

This time the hostage is a Chinese fellow who was supposed to be protected by Trench (Schwarzenegger) who is also a hostage. Just like the first film, our heroes kill all the bad guys and release Trench and they take the Chinese chap back home. Mid-air they put Yin Yang (Li) in charge of him; he attaches the man to himself and his parachute and they leap out of the plane. Li says that he may or may not return.

Once they get home and are celebrating in their old watering hole, Billy (Hemsworth) tells boss man Barney Ross (Stallone) that at the end of the month, he is quitting and going back to his French girlfriend. Barney leaves and heads back to his plane where he finds Church (Willis) who tells him that he has not forgiven him for stealing 5 million dollars from his organization and that Barney owes him one last mission.

Barney also finds out that he has to take a woman on board for this mission, Maggie (Yu) and over his objections that is just what he does. Their mission is to retrieve a valuable object from a plane that has been shot down in hostile territory. They accomplish this but get the object stolen by Vilain (Van Damme) – villain get it – but the bad obvious joke aside, Vilain is not a joke and he kills one of the Expendables to prove a point.

With the smell of revenge thick in their nostrils the guys and Maggie go to take down Vilain.

There are enough bullets shot and cartridges expended that the lead and brass companies could retire from the weapon’s business. There is enough blood spilt to sink the Titanic and while the violence is slightly over the top (a sniper bullet can take a man’s head right off) it is not in your face; hence the rating of 15.

With everyone making fun of their own acting careers (with the possible exception of Chuck Norris because really it is hard to tell with him) the chuckles keep coming. The cast do their usual good job in their interaction with one another and the “new girl” Maggie.

For the record the “guys” are: Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Terry Crews and Randy Couture. I just thought I’d mention it, you know, in case you forgot.

Bruce and Arnie, car-pooling.

The film is a great big bundle of action-man (and action-woman) fun. The nods and the winks keep coming and the action is practically non-stop. Even though the aim of the film was to do a pastiche of the 80’s action films that made all the big names in the film famous, Sly and director Simon West have gone back even further.

Years ago, when silent films were all the newest rage, there was a cowboy star who would kiss his horse rather than kiss his leading lady (nothing strange, trust me) and Stallone does something similar at the end of The Expendable 2. Well in spirit at least.

It is not often these days that a sequel is just as good as, or better than, the original but that is this case here. Maybe the secret is in not having a too cohesive plot or not caring too much about plot; either way it works and it is pure entertainment.

Just don’t take the film seriously and you will love it.

The “Lone Wolf” aka Chuck Norris. Seriously though, how old is this guy?