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.

13 Sins (2014): Blackly Comic Puppet Theatre

Film Poster for 13 Sins

The 2014 film 13 Sins is a remake of the 2006 Thailand comedy/horror film 13 game sayawng, aka 13:Beloved. This blackly comic variation of extreme puppet theatre, where someone else is pulling the strings, is just this side of brilliant; the plot twists and turns and the ending is clever.

Directed and partially adapted by Daniel Stamm (Necessary Death, The Last Exorcism), 13 Sins stars Mark Webber (Laggies, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), Tom Bower (The Hills Have Eyes, Crazy Heart), Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Drive), Devon Graye (Husk, Legendary) and Rutina Wesley (True Blood, The Perfect Guy) and follows Webber’s character through his trials and tribulations.

The plot, like the original film, is about a salesman, Elliot Brindle; a Wilbur Milquetoast type of chap, who is fired from his insurance sales job for not being ruthless enough. His job helps him to support his mentally challenged brother and was allowing him to help pay for his wedding to Shelby (Wesley). His aging father is in poor health and on the day Brindle is fired, he learns that the bank means to foreclose on his dad’s house.

Elliot’s life is in meltdown. His father (Bower) is a racist and miserable old curmudgeon who despises both his sons. As Brindle is trying to pull everything together he gets a cell phone call offering him $1,000 if he kills the annoying fly in his car. Elliot swats the fly and is told that the money has been deposited into his bank account and that a larger amount will be deposited if he eats the dead fly.

Rushing home Brindle checks his account online and sees the money there. He immediately swallows the fly and another amount is instantly put in his account. Hooked, the desperate man agrees to play a game that has 13 challenges; each more horrific than the last. At the end of the game if Elliot wins he gets millions of dollars and his “crimes” are covered up so he will face no charges or jail time.

If he loses, or forfeits a challenge the money he has already won is taken away and he will be arrested…or worse. Part of the rules are that he cannot tell anyone about the game, try to discover who is running the game, or attempt to learn the origins of the game. Another rule that becomes apparent later is that he is not the only player. This means he must complete all his challenges before the other contestant or he loses.

Without seeing the Thai original it is difficult to compare the two films. Looking at 13 Sins “on its own” reveals a movie that uses black comedy to brilliant effect. There is also a good dose of irony and a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to Stamm’s film. The German director did a brilliant job on his 2010 combination “found footage” and “mockumentary” film The Last Exorcism and it is nice to see that he can step up his game, even if it is for a remake.

13 Sins is an entertaining fast-paced film. The action goes quickly enough that there is almost not have enough time to finish wincing, or doing that horrified giggle reaction to some incident, before the next challenge is introduced and completed. Webber owns this film and his increased character growth makes the movie work brilliantly.

This is a real 4 out of 5 stars, a whole star is lost because it is, after all, a remake. It is streaming on US Netflix at the moment and definitely worth watching. The original can be seen on Amazon which is where this reviewer will be heading shortly.

Drive (2011) Gosling and Refn in First Partnership (Review/Trailer)

Poster from Drive The 2011 Ryan Gosling film Drive, which was his first partnership with Nicholas Winding Refn, is a compelling film that grips the viewer and plunges them into the monosyllabic world of Gosling’s nameless character. With star turns from the lead, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Christina Hendricks, the movie hits all the right notes and entertains despite the odd plot hole.

The story follows “the Kid” aka the driver in his everyday existence which is, to say the least, pretty quiet. The man himself does not say a lot. Even his spiel to prospective customers consist of about three or four lines of dialogue. When Gosling’s character is not stunt driving for the movies, he offers his services as a getaway driver.

The Kid’s talents lay not in speedy escapades with the police chasing him and his cargo up and down roads in reckless pursuit, but in his pre-planning his route and cleverly losing whatever tail he may have picked up. A robbery at the start of the film has Gosling’s driver listening to a basketball game as he takes his two passengers away from the crime scene.

It only becomes apparent later that he is monitoring the game to use the event as part of the escape plan. When not working as a getaway driver or in the movies, he is a mechanic at Shannon’s (Cranston) garage and his employer/friend has big plans for the driver. Included in the plans are Albert Brooks, as Mr. Bernie Rose, and Ron Perlman’s Nino, aka Izzy. Both men are ruthless and dangerous.

Entering this mix are Carey Mulligan’s married Irene, and her son, along with her recently released from prison husband, Standard. Before Irene’s other half got out of jail, she and Gosling got pretty friendly and when the ex con is threatened into doing a job to repay protection dues from prison, driver steps in to help.

The film is dark and in the “romance” between Irene and the driver, there are not many moments where either one declares their feelings for the other. Silence may mark their mutual attraction, but the signs are there and both actors convey them adequately.

Refn uses silence again in scenes which are trauma heavy or where Gosling’s character erupts into violence. Muffling the sound, only later to fill it with music, intensifies the action. The director works well with Ryan Gosling and went on to make Only God Forgives. While not as well received as Drive the film shows just what a successful team these two artists make.

Looking at Refn recent cat lists, it appears that he favors Christina Hendricks as collaborator and it comes as no surprise. Her small role as the “helper” in Standard’s robbery, the Mad Men actress really stands out. Like the other actors in Drive with “smaller” roles, she knocks her performance out of the park.

It certainly took me a long time to watch the 2011 film. After seeing Only God Forgives I’d intended to see Drive immediately afterward. Still, the wait was worth it and this is a real 4 out of 5 star film. The loss of a star has more to do with the glaring continuity goofs than anything else and the movie is entertaining. A must see for Gosling or Refn fans.

The Book of Life: Zoe Saldana and Ron Perlman Have Something For Everyone

The Book of Life: Zoe Saldana and Ron Perlman Have Something For Everyone

Reel FX teams up with Twentieth Century Fox to bring the animated feature The Book of Life to screen and the film has something for everyone, including Ron Perlman and Zoe Saldana who make a great double act for all ages. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, co-written and directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez the movie starts in modern times with five students who are, as a hapless museum tour guide puts it, the detention kids.

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