Monday, June 9, 2008

Dolph Lundgren is John Woo's Blackjack

Having finished with the Steven Seagal oeuvre, I’ve been adding the occasional DTV 80’s throwback heroes to my viewing regiment in order to broaden my horizons. A month or so back I had the pleasure of taking in Dolph Lundgren’s directorial effort Missionary Man, which paid homage to Spaghetti Westerns with a dash of mysticism. It was actually pretty terrific, so I figured I’d check out some more Lundgren films to see if I’d been missing out all these years. I must confess my awareness of Lundgren’s career pretty much ended with his turn as the villain in the 1995 Keanu Reeves pre-Matrix, cyberpunk film Johnny Mnemonic. As far as I knew, the man hadn’t made a film since (and bear in mind I am one to keep track of B-movie goings on). Furthermore, if you’d asked me about his entire body of work I would have guessed he’d made no more than 10 films. As it turns out, he’s appeared in 35 films since 1985 and is currently busier than ever! I’m telling you, there’s a secret world out there brimming with heroes most of us had long thought were lost to the ages. It’s like a Never Never Land for forgotten action stars, where they are creating some of their best work and defying those who would try to keep them down (i.e. the major studios)!

Perhaps even crazier than the fact that Lundgren has forged a prolific career despite my being completely oblivious to the fact, he has also worked with some amazing genre directors over the years. In addition to of course Stallone, who gave him his big break with Rocky IV, Lundgren has worked with the likes of John Glen (A View to a Kill), Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), Anthony Hickox (Waxwork), Mark L. Lester (Commando), and John Woo (Blackjack) to name but a few. I guess it’s mostly stunning to me because to my knowledge he’s never really had a box office hit (not counting Rocky IV which really wasn’t riding on his shoulders). The closest he came on that front was Universal Soldier in which he co-starred with Van Damme. In spite of having no track record, he kept being cast as the lead in relatively high profile genre films such as Masters of the Universe, The Punisher, Showdown in Little Tokyo, I Come in Peace, and Johnny Mnemonic. Madness! Or was it?

Much like Seagal, when I started thinking back I recalled that I really liked several of Lundgren’s films. The Punisher is one of my favorite Marvel adaptations (much better than the Thomas Jane version), and Lundgren was perfectly cast. I Come in Peace is a terrific sci-fi, buddy cop movie with one of the best coup de graces in film history. Showdown in Little Tokyo is a highly enjoyable B-action classic featuring over-the-top moments that stick with me to this day (haven’t seen it in probably 15 years). To be honest I also thought Lundgren really shined in the otherwise so-so Universal Soldier. His supermarket siege and subsequent lecture to its frightened customers is classic. And of course there’s his iconic 80’s role as Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Say what you will, but the man is arguably the best Rocky villain of them all (apologies to Mr. T). So why had I ignored his subsequent work all these years? Was I swayed by a general disregard for his cinematic contributions? Was I subconsciously ignoring his steady stream of DTV titles? Was I allowing my feelings for Masters of the Universe cloud my judgment toward an otherwise remarkable action career? Probably a combination of all these things. The good news is that I’m back on board the Lundgren express now and things are looking mighty fine. I’m pleased to report that my second Lundgren selection was every bit as good as Missionary Man if not better!

Before I launch full on into my review of Blackjack, I must also state something (perhaps a bit shocking) up front - I am no big fan of John Woo. At his peak (The Killer, Hard Boiled) he really did produce some of the most amazing action moments the cinema has ever witnessed. Hard Boiled in particular has perhaps the greatest extended action sequence in film history - the final 30 minutes are breathtaking. The problem is he’s just not a great storyteller. Even his masterpiece Hard Boiled is cheesy to the extreme. And his overuse of white doves and slow motion in so many of his films is flat out tiresome (not to mention comical). When the pace is frenetic he usually does pretty well, but with character moments things tend to fall apart. This is not to say I haven’t enjoyed some of his movies. In addition to the aforementioned titles I also have a soft spot for admittedly ridiculous stuff like Hard Target and Broken Arrow. Once you get past those however, I’m pretty much off the case. Face/Off? No thanks. Mission Impossible 2? Forget about it. Windtalkers? Please. On the positive side did give the world Chow Yun Fat, so there is that.

I selected Blackjack blindly, and was completely unaware it was a John Woo film. So when I popped it in the DVD player and his name came up, I was a little worried (and a lot surprised). Surely there are folks who would have rejoiced, but the mixture of John Woo and DTV raised red flags in my world. Thankfully there were no white doves, and slow motion was used judiciously! The film follows the adventures of one Jack Devlin (Dolph Lundgren), a former law enforcement agent now (apparently) in the security business. Actually, it’s never clearly explained to my satisfaction what he does exactly, but by the looks of his way cool apartment he is doing pretty well for a former government employee. And he has a butler with an eye patch who acts as the Alfred to his Bruce Wayne. No mention of deceased rich parents, so he’s got to be doing some sort of freelancing.

Anyhow, Blackjack opens with Devlin helping out an old friend who owns a casino in Vegas. The friend is being muscled by the mob for protection money (I think), and they have threatened to kill his young daughter. Enter Devlin who arrives just in time to save the daughter from a siege on the family home. A major gun battle a la Woo ensues with plenty of twin pistol action, including an insane moment where Devlin jumps out a window onto a huge trampoline (all while firing blindly with his guns) escaping a massive explosion and landing in a swimming pool. Also during the fight, Devlin is temporarily blinded by a flash grenade which triggers a phobia of the color white. Repeat, Devlin is temporarily blinded by a flash grenade which triggers a phobia of the color white! I kid you not, this becomes a major plot point for the rest of the film as Devlin struggles to overcome this problem (largely by wearing sunglasses day and night . . . much like Corey Hart). I’ve heard of snakes, spiders, heights, etc., but the color white is truly inspired as an action hero fear.

Other than the white phobia, this initial plot thread serves only to introduce the friend’s young daughter. After the opening shootout the film flashes forward and we find out the friend has been killed in an accident, leaving Devlin the responsibility of taking care of the young daughter’s upbringing. As I write this, I’m realizing just how close this whole scenario really is to Batman. Eccentric playboy who (by all appearances) is quite wealthy fights crime, has quirky butler, and young ward. He’s even troubled by a psychological issue which later turns out to be the result of witnessing the murder of his father as a young lad. I wonder if the Blackjack team is paying some sort of royalties to DC Comics for this stuff. In any case, it’s sort of disconcerting that we never see the accident that leads to this major turn of events given the buildup of the friend in the beginning. Not to worry, we’ll be shortly introduced to a new (and much cooler) friend in the form of Fred “The Hammer” Williamson.

It turns out “The Hammer” is a former colleague of Devlin who is running his own bodyguard company. At the moment he’s guarding an up and coming supermodel being stalked by her ex-husband, who is portrayed paradoxically as both a rube and a Shakespearean dramatist . . . and also a deadly sniper. He tries unsuccessfully to woo (pun very much intended) Devlin into helping out, but he’s just a bit too busy with taking care of his surprise daughter. If you guessed that “The Hammer” is going to get shot, thereby forcing Devlin to pick up the mantle pat yourself on the back. Well done! In keeping with the superhero tie-ins I suppose this is not unlike Peter Parker shirking his duties and getting Uncle Ben killed. With great power comes great responsibility Dolph. Okay maybe this is a stretch, but you’ve got to admit the Batman thing is pretty transparent. And hey, Dolph did portray a hero from the Marvel Universe who ironically is an adversary of Spider-Man. Six degrees of Lundgren my friends.

Naturally this all leads to a series of chases and close calls which causes Devlin to grow close to/slowly fall in love (sort of) with the troubled model. Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston have nothing on these two. The Devlin is in the details though (couldn’t resist), and it’s the details that make Blackjack such a rewarding experience. First of all, around the middle of the film John Woo orchestrates one of the finest extended action sequences of his career. The ex-husband ambushes a caravan leaving a compromised safe house, inexplicably employing a gang of motorcycle assassins (really it is never explained where he got these incredibly devoted henchmen who make only a single appearance in the film . . . it’s a moment worthy of DTV era Seagal). There are acrobatics, flaming/flying cycles, exploding limousines, and lots of gunplay. But best of all, the sequence culminates in an abandoned milk factory . . . do you see where this is going?

That’s right. The gunfight results in gushing/flooding milk (which you may recall is white), paralyzing Devlin with fear. Somehow the ex-husband puts two and two together and calls Devlin on the phobia. He says something to the effect of “You’re afraid of the color white aren’t you?” To which Lundgren delivers one of the best (and worst) one-liners in action film history. Are you ready for this? Lundgren says, “No, I’m just lactose intolerant.” Genius. I’ve got to say, a shootout in a milk factory with a hero who’s afraid of the color white is one of the most inspired things I’ve ever seen in an action movie. It’s the sort of thing I’d expect David Lynch to do if he were to ever delve into the genre. This scene alone makes the film essential viewing. But there’s so much more.

In addition to the whole phobia of white business, the film establishes early on that Devlin is able to use playing cards as deadly weapons. In a nutshell, he employs them as makeshift ninja throwing stars, an ability that comes in handy on several occasions. It’s a bit reminiscent of the film Heat with Burt Reynolds, although his innocuous edged weapon of choice was credit cards. In theory, I suppose that Devlin could employ credit cards too. But in a film named Blackjack, it makes more sense to go with the playing cards . . . despite the fact he has no real connection otherwise with gambling or the like. While the film opens in Vegas, you never get the sense that Devlin is a gambler or casino devotee. So really, it must have been tied to the fact that his name is Jack, and that Blackjack is a cool sounding nickname (although he is never referred to as such throughout the film). When you think about it, given the importance of the whole phobia business, a title highlighting that might have been a better choice. Something like Whiteout, or maybe . . . Blinded by the White. Please feel free to add any suggestions you may have.

Another element I really love is the butler with the eye patch. He’s played by character actor extraordinaire Saul Rubinek, and is also just a bizarre touch. He speaks with a German accent (I believe), is obsessed with the culinary arts, and is unafraid to charge into danger without a gun. This last one is truly puzzling, as Devlin could easily have supplied him with a firearm in one particular case. Sometimes this sort of bravado is shown to illustrate what an entirely competent character the individual is. Not so here. The guy gets captured, leading to another amazing moment of the film. The ex-husband sets up a row of scarecrows (stuffed with straw and everything), one of which disguises the butler. He then begins shooting them one at a time to get Devlin’s goat. It’s a surprisingly tense scene, and again (like the milk shootout) just a little weird.

I guess in the final analysis it really is the quirkiness of the film that makes it stand out (which is certainly true of the better Woo films). Watching the over-the-top action sequences would be somewhat entertaining, but without the unusual elements sprinkled throughout, the film could have turned into a rather bland affair. Thank goodness this one is more Hard Target than Mission Impossible 2! I should state for the record these strange qualities do not venture into the insanity of Seagal’s DTV efforts. This film actually has a coherent story, and plot points that tie together and pay off. The only one that stands out as questionable is the motorcycle gang . . . but it’s so cool that I’m willing to give it a pass. Otherwise, this film is totally comprehensible and I feel entirely confident that I have a firm grasp on the scenario that was presented.

Finally, I should say a word or two about Dolph. I’m not sure that he has the presence or charisma of Seagal, but what I do like is that he’s a question mark as a hero. You never have the same good faith or level of trust in him as you do a Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, etc. Those guys sort of radiate good-natured hero, whereas Dolph is a little more sinister . . . even when he’s on your side. It’s especially disconcerting to see The Punisher raising a young child. But in my mind that’s what makes him stand out from his contemporaries. Yeah he’s the tough guy action hero, but you don’t really know how you feel about him. You want to warm up to him and see him as the good guy, but there’s something not quite right. Bronson was sort of the same way. He was clearly supposed to be on the right side in his films (whether playing outside the rules or not), but he wasn’t one to joke around. He seemed serious, and so does Dolph . . . lactose intolerance notwithstanding.

Lundgren is terrific in Blackjack, and I look forward to seeing more of his films in the future. Not going with the full immersion program as I did with Seagal, but expect to see mention of him here again. In the meantime, pour yourself a cool glass of milk (or soy milk for those with lactose issues) and check out Blackjack if you dare.


Jox said...

Cool review!

I STRONGLY suggest you check out Dolph's directorial debuts with "The Defender" and "The Mechanik" (a.k.a. "The Russian Specialist" in the US). Also check out my website "DOLPH-the ultimate guide" on!


Jim Blanton said...

Oh, those are definitely on my list! I was very impressed with Missionary Man. It certainly showed that his talent extends behind the camera as well.

Actually I thought MM easily ranked on the same level with his well-known films. Which again just goes to show that the quality stuff is now happening to a greater extent outside of the mainstream.

Jox said...

Well then you're in for a treat! Because MM was somewhat less successful in achieving DL's ambition and vision...

Jim Blanton said...

Wow! That speaks very well of those two films then! I felt MM was as competently made as Blackjack (which was in theory more of a prestige project I would think given Woo's participation), and paid off satisfactorily.

Really looking forward to seeing those and doing a comparison!