R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: DTV Heavy Hitters, Pt. 2 – Redemption

Well, I’ve got plenty of column to get to this week folks, but first thing’s first. I’ve got to crown a new Bad Ass of the Month, and the competition has perked up in the last few weeks. Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith came on strong in the new Karate Kid. The four members of The A-Team also made a terrific showing, with “Rampage” Jackson’s B.A. Baracus even managing to bodyslam someone to death. Tom Cruise joined in the act with an infectiously positive performance while showing off some nice shooting, driving and karate skills in Knight and Day but once again, a DTV hero emerges to make the cut as the most bad ass character of the past calendar page turn.

Bad Ass of the Month – June 2010

Uri Boyka, played by Scott Adkins – Undisputed III: Redemption

It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that Scott Adkins is now officially one of my favorite action stars. He seems to know how to play tough guys really well, whether it’s a prison circuit MMA superstar, a white ninja, or a former special-forces commando now helping to run a drug cartel. The guy immediately gets your attention by having superhuman abilities, but looking totally legit when it comes to doing ridiculous martial arts, he looks like he’s made of granite, and he’s got screen presence to spare. Though he’s only managed small roles in big budget films, such as doing stunt-double duty for Ryan Reynolds in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in the DTV market this guy is a star, and with Undisputed III: Redemption, you see him at his asskicking best.

In the prison fighting tournament movie, we see his Uri Boyka do incredible things, from shattering bones to seemingly being about to defy gravity. Boyka even turns hard labor into a workout regiment, making throwing rocks into a truck the equivalent of a Total Gym. All this with a bum knee, earned in an epic showdown with Michael Jai White in Undisputed II. Adkins is so awesome as Boyka, that I’m about as excited for his next picture as I am just about any action star going today, and considering all of his movies don’t even go to theaters, that’s saying something.

Now on with the show…

We’re entering the midway point of these summer movie months, and so far 2009 hasn’t exactly been setting any records for quality or box office. While there have been a few bright spots, I can’t remember the last summer that Hollywood rolled snake eyes so many times in a row, and even when I’ve found that some movies have hit paydirt in terms of being a lot of fun, they still haven’t connected with audiences as a whole. Iron Man 2 and Toy Story 3 have at least both been solid hits, and I’m really encouraged by how well The Karate Kid has done, but I’m dismayed that two of my favorite action films of the summer so far, The A-Team and Knight and Day, have both been box office disappointments.

Both films have this very old-school feel to them as entertainments, and I feel like they both deliver the goods in a way that deserved more success. I think it’s really unfortunate that Knight and Day underperformed, because the movie has a lot of things going for it. Director James Mangold shoots this movie with a confident eye, constructing a gloriously old-fashioned spy caper with wonderful action set-pieces that don’t overly edit or cheapen the film with too much bad CGI. Even A-Team was a little too hyper when it came to editing its action, and Knight and Day has none of that, favoring a style that reminded me more of the Connery and Moore days of the Bond series than recent spy pictures like the Bourne films.

On top of that Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise both do excellent work in the movie. Sure, Diaz has thrown a few stinkers at us in the last few years and Cruise is completely insane, but they have a lot of great screen chemistry and Cruise is especially working overtime to try and entertain you. I know the guy has his offscreen issues, but has he really turned in a bad performance recently? We’re talking about one of the most reliable action stars of the last two decades, and it’s really disappointing that he keeps making solid entertainment that’s wasted on the masses.

In comparison look at Cruise’s output versus that of Will Smith’s, who is probably as successful a Hollywood star as we have right now. Now tell me that Knight and Day, Valkyrie and Mission: Impossible III aren’t better than Seven Pounds, Hancock, and I Am Legend. Even if I spotted you Lions for Lambs, I’d still take that film over Shark Tale, Hitch or Men in Black II. I’m not saying that Smith isn’t great in a lot of his movies, because I also think he completely earns his big checks, but I also don’t understand the disconnect with Cruise. The guy just keeps turning out one thrilling movie after another and I don’t care how many couches he jumps as long as he keeps making it worth my money to see him in theaters.

Wow. Where did that come from?

Sorry about the rant folks. My original point was that there’s some quality fun out there and some throwback action pictures that need love, and if they keep failing, Hollywood’s going to quit making them. I’d rather see ten Knight and Day’s or A-Team movies than any more Prince of Persia‘s or Last Airbender‘s. If The Expendables fails to impress, I may lose all hope in humanity. Sure, I loved Toy Story 3 as much as the next guy, but I really need some high octane entertainment during these summer months. Otherwise, the next few years could all be animated pictures and crappy comedies.

Still, at least if the DTV market keeps going the way it is, I’ll at least have solid action pictures at home to watch. This week, I get in a few more movies that I consider to be the best action flicks that decided they were too good for theaters. These are movies that don’t need gimmicks, special effects, or $100 million budgets because what they’re made of is pure, old-fashioned macho adrenaline.

The Russian Specialist (AKA: The Mechanik) Starring Dolph Lundgren and Ben Cross. Directed by Dolph Lundgren.

On first viewing, there’s nothing inherently spectacular about The Russian Specialist. The movie doesn’t have intricate fight choreography and it doesn’t have a giant body count, but as you watch the movie, its overall quality just becomes more and more apparent. The film is about a former Russian Special Forces officer named Nikolai Cherenko, played by Lundgren, living the quiet life in America as a auto mechanic. Trying to put his former life behind him after the murder of his family, he reluctantly agrees to one last assignment; the rescue of an heiress that has been kidnapped by gangsters and sold into slavery. Worse yet, the young woman has been taken by the man responsible for the death Cherenko’s own family, making this a personal mission of redemption.

Like I said before, this isn’t a movie with a ton of intricate fight scenes and it doesn’t have giant chases or set pieces. What this movie does have, is Dolph Lundgren’s solid foundation of screen presence and surprisingly good acting, as well as his growing versatility as an action director. The Russian Specialist plays out like a cross between Taken and a Western; it’s a methodical film that keeps racking up one exciting action beat after another and even manages some terrific character development. With help from supporting actor Ben Cross (Star Trek), the film builds steadily until its final showdown featuring a High Noon-like sequence with our heroes having to outwit a small army of Russian gangsters.

With its liberal use of bad-assery and a showdown between hero and villain that is one of the most satisfying that I’ve seen in years, The Russian Specialist is a movie that seems to use its low budget to its advantage. This is a picture that would have felt right at home on the cusp of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and at its center is Lundgren, who knows exactly the movie he’s trying to make. Even when it seemed like Hollywood had rejected Lundgren as a hero, here is a man that has continued to make action movies, preferring to do them on his own terms in the DTV market and making some of the best examples of the format I’ve ever seen. If you’re looking for all around solid entertainment, you can’t go wrong with The Russian Specialist.

Urban Justice Starring Steven Seagal and Eddie Griffin. Directed by Don E. Fauntleroy.

Of all the ‘80s and ‘90s action stars now making DTV movies, I feel like I’ve been the most disappointed with Steven Seagal. While Dolph Lundgren and Van Damme have managed to find new screen personas and sort of grow into the DVD market, I feel like Seagal hasn’t put in the same amount of effort. While at first I sort of applauded that he tends to put out 3 to 4 movies a year, when you watch the flicks you can see he can do that because there isn’t a lot that seems to go into those projects. Frankly, I don’t even need some sort of globetrotting super adventure from the guy, I’d just like to see a good feature that manages to echo the work that I enjoyed when the guy was a big-time action star. For me, the one movie that has managed to finally get the closest to Seagal’s Above the Law days is Urban Justice.

The big reason why this movie works while a lot of Seagal’s current flicks don’t is that it’s pretty much no nonsense. There are no vampires, wizards, or submarines, and Seagal isn’t playing an archeologist who happens to know aikido. Seagal just plays a bad ass who shows up after the murder of his son, an undercover cop killed in the line of duty. Steven Seagal IS Simon Ballister, but who is Simon Ballister you say? Well, we don’t really know, because the movie doesn’t give us a lot of back-story, but I think that adds to the film overall. We just get scenes of Seagal tracking down his son’s killers and wiping out anyone in his path, all while throwing in a few scenes of him recanting what a terrible father he was. Mostly, the film is just Ballister tearing up street gangs and scumbags.

How is the action? Definitely some of the best I’ve seen from Seagal’s DTV selections. While there’s a part of me that had fun with the wirework insanity of Belly of the Beast, I much prefer the down to earth brutality of this movie. There isn’t a ton of unnecessary editing or shoddy camerawork either; just Seagal walking into situations and letting his fists do the talking. Seagal feels dangerous again in this movie, reminding me of the hardcore killers he played in Above the Law and especially Out for Justice. This movie isn’t transcendent or groundbreaking; it just feels like a real Seagal picture, and really, that’s all you can ask for.

The Films of Isaac Florentine

Now, I know a lot of you haven’t heard of Isaac Florentine before, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case very much longer. I think if any director has what it takes to crossover from DTV to the big screen it’s Florentine, and with the profiles of his releases getting higher and higher amongst action fans, it can’t be too much longer before someone finally takes notice. Already this year, he’s released two of my favorite action films of 2010, Ninja and Undisputed III: Redemption, both of which are simple hardcore actionfests with terrific camerawork and awesome martial arts.

The entertainment factor doesn’t diminish if you look back at his last few offerings either. Undisputed II: Last Man Standing is a must watch for fans of Michael Jai White, and while no, it’s not as entertaining as Black Dynamite, it is chocked full of White laying waste to a prison full of scumbags before having to fight Scott Adkins’ Boyka in the movie’s finale. The film also started the tradition for the series where the villain of the last entry, which had Ving Rhames in the role that Michael Jai White took over for, becoming the hero of the next sequel. I can’t wait to see Marko Zaror in Undisputed IV and I wish somehow they could get Michael Jai White back for another movie!

Those looking for more standard action fare should look to The Shepherd: Border Patrol in which Florentine directs Jean-Claude Van Damme as a down and out border patrol cop looking to get revenge on the drug dealers that caused the death of his daughter. The muscle for the bad guys in the film is once again Scott Adkins, who gets his usual gravity defying action in again, and the final fight between he and Van Damme is pretty spectacular. After Universal Soldier: Regeneration, I’d have to say that this film is the next best for Van Damme as far as DTV goes. There are nice little character beats here and I like the bunny he carries around for most of the movie. Not to mention the film has an action scene where the bad guys are all dressed as priests and go bursting over the border in a greyhound bus fitted with machine guns!

I’m still getting to know more of Florentine’s earlier works, such as the Dolph Lundgren fantasy movie/war film Bridge of Dragons, and I’m positive there’s still more awesome on the horizon for the film maker. If you come across one of these gems though, and you’re tired of what Hollywood has been passing for action films lately, then I’d highly recommend any of these movies. Florentine isn’t a household name, but if you put up his films next to the work of directors like Rob Cohen or Paul W.S. Anderson, the levels of quality aren’t even close. He may exclusively be making DTV pictures now, but don’t look for him to stay that way.

Alright, that’s it for this week folks, I’ll be back soon with more face-kicking and bone breaking pictures. See you then.

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