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.
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.