R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: DTV Heavy Hitters Pt.1

This past weekend, old school action entertainment was alive and well, and I feel like this summer got the shot in the arm it’s needed since Iron Man 2 got the ball rolling at the beginning of May before it died a slow death. Remakes of Karate Kid and The A-Team had us partying like it was 1984, and frankly I was shocked by just how good they really were. Karate Kid was an admirable and moving remake of the ‘80s classic and A-Team was non-stop ridiculous awesome featuring the craziest action scenes of the summer so far. There was a time where I could have seen either of these films failing miserably, but in the end I don’t think I could’ve been more satisfied with the results.

Now, if those two movies got you into a mood for more “throwback” entertainment, there’s another picture worth searching for with muscle-bound heroes, bone crunching fight scenes, training montages, and over the top action. No, I’m not talking about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I’m speaking of Isaac Florentine’s Undisputed III: Redemption starring martial arts wunderkinds Scott Adkins and Marko Zaror. Thing is, you won’t find this film in theaters even though its more entertaining than 90% of the summer flicks that have hit this year. Undisputed III is a Direct-to-Video actioner that shows just how far these types of fight films have come over the years, and is a great example of the type of old school thrills you can find if you just look a little harder.

Sure, when it comes to DTV action films there’s still a lot of crap out there. These movies are cheap and easy to make, so a lot of times there isn’t a ton of effort put into them, and frankly, that can really show up onscreen. In the last few years though, it seems like a lot of directors and stars have finally started to take this format seriously, and what we’ve ended up with are more and more quality action pictures that are originating on home video. A while back I talked about how the DTV market could be the “Grindhouse” of the new era; a place for film-makers to throw caution to the wind and let the lower budgets and therefore lower scrutiny of these projects really get their creative juices going. It looks like that’s finally starting to happen. Action stars of yesteryear are teaming up with new faces as well as up and coming directors, surprising us with some absolutely captivating results.

I’m sure there’s more out there that I’m missing, but here’s a few pictures from my list of the stuff to look out for. If you’re tired of overly edited fight scenes or crave that ‘80s or ‘90s-style adrenaline rush, these are the movies to take note of that should keep you happy.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Andrei Arlovski, and Mike Pyle. Directed by John Hyams

It’s funny, because when I started reviewing films for this site a few years ago, it was another Jean-Claude Van Damme DTV, Second in Command that clued me in on exactly what was wrong with the format at the time. Full of exposition and not nearly enough action to keep me interested, the movie was a failure on so many levels. Looking at Universal Soldier: Regeneration I can see just how far things have come; because not only is this the best Van Damme action movie in over a decade, this is probably the best DTV of all time.

My colleague Rob Saucedo recently went into more depth with this thing, and right now I can’t get into great specifics because I got a lot to cover in this column, but here’s the skinny. The movie is about a rebel faction in Russia that has taken over Chernobyl, and threatens to blow it up unless their demands are met by the country’s government. Also, to make sure that there’s no interference, the terrorists have brought along the newest version of Universal Soldier (Andrei Arlovski), who ends up wiping out a contingent of older models when the United Nations tries to retake the nuclear facility. As a last resort, former “Unisol” Luc Deveraux, who is going through psychological treatments in order to recover from his former life in the program, is sent in to try and contain the situation and take the reactor back from the terrorists.

Now, if you’ve got visions of Universal Soldier: The Return in your head, then throw them right out. Awesome with a capital “A”, this film does for the Universal Soldier franchise what the last Rambo did for Stallone’s PTSD troubled vet by taking itself completely seriously and throwing out all the crap that came in between the first Universal Soldier film and this one. What we’re talking about here is a hardcore, violent action picture, with incredible atmosphere by director John Hyams, who absolutely gives us the best fight scenes of the series and maybe the best of Van Damme’s career.


Photographed by the director’s father Peter Hyams, the director of Van Damme vehicles Timecop and Sudden Death, the movie has a gritty, realistic look about it that helps to set the mood of the entire picture. I can’t say enough about the way that director John Hyams also puts together his action scenes, favoring long takes to choppy editing and basically giving us a clinic on how to orchestrate a rush of adrenaline. Also, the movie’s emphasis on physical stunts to CGI or visual effects is very, very welcome.

Finally there’s the cast. MMA veterans Andrei Arlovski and Mike Pyle make a terrific impression on the audience. This goes especially for Arlovski, who plays this role quiet and menacing, showing us a lot of screen presence here. Van Damme gives us a post-JCVD performance that is more than admirable, with a scary 1000-yard stare and an amazing physicality we haven’t seen in some time from him. Stealing the whole show though, is Dolph Lungdren. He’s onscreen the least out of all the principle cast, but makes the absolute biggest impression possible. There’s a feeling of desperation to this character, full of sadness at not being able to fully grasp why he’s been brought back and every moment he’s onscreen is nothing less than fascinating. Let me tell you, I can’t wait for The Expendables, and Lundgren is definitely one of the biggest reasons why (more on him in a moment).

Still one of the best action films to come out at all this year, Universal Soldier: Regeneration is one of the biggest DTV surprises ever and a masterpiece of the format.

The Tournament Starring Robert Carlyle, Kelly Hu, Ving Rhames, and Scott Adkins. Directed by Scott Mann.

The plot for The Tournament is pretty simple. Every ten years, a contest is held where the world’s greatest assassins vie for $10,000,000 by having them all travel to an assigned city and then wipe each other out until only one is left standing. For some, this is a chance at revenge, others seek redemption, and some simply want to be considered the world’s very best hired killer. For us, this movie is nonstop entertainment and contains 97 minutes of complete insanity.

Somewhere around the craziness level of movies like the Crank films or Shoot ‘em Up but with a smaller budget, we see people get shot, stabbed, cut in half, run over, and blown up. I’m not just talking about people disappearing in a ball of flame; I’m talking about watching a person turn into a pile of meat. Every combatant in the competition has a GPS locator/explosive device implanted in them, and often times those things tend to explode you from the inside, with no limit put on the gory details.

A movie like this is exactly what I’m talking about when I say that DTV action films need to get back to their Grindhouse roots. This movie is mean, darkly funny, and action packed from start to finish. Everyone is uniformly good here from Ving Rhames’ vengeance seeking murder machine to Kelly Hu’s killer with a conscience. Robert Carlyle also shines as a priest who accidentally swallows one of the GPS devices and gets thrown into the tournament, unbeknownst to him. Lastly, while he doesn’t get a ton of screen time, Scott Adkins is once again awesome in this, doing things in a fight scene with Kelly Hu that doesn’t necessarily seem humanly possible.

You won’t find a lot of message or meaning in The Tournament, but you sure will find a ton of action and violence to make up for it.

Command Performance Starring Dolph Lundgren, Melissa Smith, Hristo Shopov, and Dave Legeno. Directed by Dolph Lundgren.

Command Performance is the most basic of all modern action movie formulas; a Die Hard clone. This is a formula that’s proved fruitful in the past, as many action stars have managed to pull out some of their most successful adventures within the confines of this basic structure, including Seagal in Under Siege, Van Damme in Sudden Death and arguably even Keanu Reeves in Speed, but would it prove just as successful for Dolph Lundgren, especially with a lower budget than any of these other examples? I think the answer is a definite yes.

First off, the film takes place at a rock concert being held for the Russian President when the stadium is attacked by terrorists, and the only person standing between the President, pop star Venus (Melissa Smith) and the bad guys is the drummer for the warm up band, played by Dolph Lundgren. Does this sound ridiculous? Yes. Does this premise also hold the opportunity for a metric ton of awesome? Absolutely.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its problems. Melissa Smith is pretty lousy as the Brittany Spears-like Venus, and she’s onscreen quite a bit, especially in a large section of the movie where it’s only her and Lundgren’s Joe trying to survive the onslaught of bad guys. Also, this type of action film has produced some of the greatest screen villains of all time, and Dave Legeno’s Oleg Kazov just isn’t up to the Hans Gruber standard. Kazov gets played all menacing and serious and that’s fine and all, but in a Die Hard rip-off I like my heavies over the top.

Thankfully, one name makes up for all the movie’s faults; Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren plays Joe, a bad ass former biker who’s gotten into some trouble in his past, but has cleaned up his life and loves just being able to play his music. He doesn’t do kung fu and isn’t a former Navy Seal or anything, he’s just an awesome dude, and you can tell that the actor/director/real life drummer is having a blast here with this role. There just seems to be a lot of elation in this performance, and you can really get behind the guy as he kills the terrorists one by one with whatever’s around (which are usually musical instruments). Lundgren the director may be a little manic with his action, but there’s still a lot to love here getting to see Joe waste these scumbags by stabbing them in the throat with drumsticks or bashing them to death with a guitar. There’s just a special joy to seeing Dolph Lundgren kill terrorists with a primary weapon of rock and roll that’s a little hard to really put into words.

Alright, I’m a little disappointed, because I’ve got quite a few more DTV heavy hitters I’d like to get to, but I’m going to have to save them for next time. I should have some movies featuring a face-bashing Michael Jai White, an arm breaking Steven Seagal, a spin-kicking Scott Adkins, and DTV auteur Isaac Florentine all ready for next time. Until then folks. Excelsior!

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