Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Dolph Lundgren Is Diamond Dogs!

I continued my foray into the cinema of Dolph Lundgren over the weekend with the 2007 DTV film Diamond Dogs. As you may recall I had been pleasantly surprised by the Lundgren-directed DTV effort Missionary Man, so I was really looking forward to this one. I have to say, I continue to be impressed with Mr. Lundgren’s presence and acting ability. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t have tremendous range (but most tough guy actors don’t), however he has a unique quality which combines action hero chops with a distinct unearthliness (and I mean that in a good way). While physical capability is important in a big screen hero, it’s the latter quality which separates Lundgren from the pack. You can never quite get a fix on the guy, or feel you can entirely relate to him as with someone like a Schwarzenegger, Eastwood, or Norris. Those guys have a certain sense of humor and familiarity about them that make them relatable despite their larger than life personas. Although Lundgren is placed in stock situations faced by many an 80’s hero, expectations of jaded viewers are thrown to the wind due to the fact that he doesn’t react in a predictable manner. Having seen a number of Lundgren’s films over the years, including several recently, I can safely say that Diamond Dogs may be the best example of this quality.

One thing that I’ve noticed from watching a lot of DTV action movies over the past year is that they do tend to mirror 80’s action cinema. They tread over familiar scenarios and plot devices which feel like old friends to those of us cult enthusiasts who feel a tad disenfranchised in the Michael Bay era. Diamond Dogs is no exception to this trend, and its setup is lifted from any number of soldier of fortune, adventure-quest type films from the 80’s. Lundgren plays ex-Green Beret Xander Ronson (man that’s a great name) who, although highly decorated, was booted out of the service for reasons we never learn (sort of a nod to the abandoned plot threads of DTV Seagal). Anyhow, we find Ronson living in an unnamed city in Inner Mongolia, taking part in illegal street fights to pay off debts accrued from his failed security business. Truth be told this is sort of a departure from 80’s action rules, in that Ronson actually set up his security business in a storefront. Usually these soldier of fortune types are found in smoky bars in back streets by other in-the-know mercenary adventurers . . . and it seems like this may be the best business model given Ronson’s lack of success. If he had only watched Missing in Action, Uncommon Valor, etc., he would have known better.

Unfortunately for Ronson the street fighting business almost lands him in prison, and dries up his only means for paying back his debts. Luckily a shifty businessman named Chambers shows up shortly thereafter with an offer to hire Ronson to act as security on an expedition to find an ancient Buddhist tapestry called the Tangka. Of course the tapestry may possess supernatural powers and is rumored to be cursed, and is being sought by a rival team of well-armed thugs. But Chambers is willing to pay Ronson $100,000 to undertake the task, which would do well more than pay off his debts. Let’s just hope that Ronson has the good sense to invest the money instead of reopening the storefront business . . . after all Chambers seemed to find him without too much trouble, so really how much advantage could there be in this whole storefront thing? And did I mention that his storefront is marked by a crude, wooden sign with “Ronson Security” scrawled in raggedy chalk letters? Obviously Ronson didn’t go all out on a neon sign or anything, so all his overhead has to be going for rent. And you would think rent for a hole-in-the wall office in Inner Mongolia wouldn’t be all that much (Ronson owes $25,000). He could do far better elsewhere I would think. Ronson’s plans for the future notwithstanding, he agrees to the deal as it will keep him out of debt/jail. From this point forward the hunt is on!

So in a nutshell what we have is the setup for a standard adventure film which combines elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with some gunplay and martial arts. I had a general idea of this going into the film, and had sort of gotten my hopes up that I would get a B-movie funhouse ala Chuck Norris’s Firewalker. Didn’t happen. The problem with Diamond Dogs is that it is severely hampered by its budget. The opening on the mean streets of Inner Mongolia is fairly promising, as the action is solid and the acting is fairly decent for a DTV cast . . . and Lundgren is in top form. However once the film moves into the adventure mode, instead of exotic terrain and menacing temples we get bland landscapes and a poorly lit cave. Indeed the temple itself is even more of a letdown as we’re treated to one fairly lame trap door, and an inner sanctum that looks to be furnished with furniture from a New England antique store (so much for exotic). The Tangka box is pretty cool, although it also has a leather strap that looks like it would be more at home on a Banana Republic messenger bag than a cursed Buddhist tapestry container. As for the mountainous terrain it has a spare beauty, but it lacks the grandeur of something like Everest and the mystery of the jungle. Basically it looks like a location that was easily accessible by jeep, and not a lot of trouble for the production. So in the end it feels like Team Ronson is just out for a Sunday drive, rather than on the Last Crusade.

Another major problem with Diamond Dogs is that it lacks a strong villain. The main nemesis is a fellow named Zhukov who is a European gangster type, with an army of non-descript thugs. While he manages to kill off a lot of the “good guys” he just doesn’t have a personality that makes you take him very seriously. The shifty Chambers actually works better as a villain, or better still the Tangka itself which is arguably responsible for much of the misfortune experienced by Ronson and his company. What was needed was a Paul Freeman or even a Sonny Landham (who is now busy running as the Libertarian candidate for the Kentucky Senate seat incidentally). Instead we get master thespian Raicho Vasilev from classics such as Alien Apocalypse and Puppet Master Vs. Demonic Toys. I don’t know about you, but I think the Puppet Master and Demonic Toys franchises really jumped the shark when they decided to go head to head.

Okay clearly Diamond Dogs has its share of problems, but it has one major asset that manages (just barely) to turn things around – Dolph Lundgren. As I mentioned before, this film is an excellent example of that unusual presence Lundgren exudes. Diamond Dogs abounds with action/adventure clich├ęs from the opening street fight sequence to the final showdown. And being an 80’s hero himself, Lundgren is certainly at home to an extent. The thing is where the goings on would be the equivalent of wrapping oneself in a familiar old blanket in the hands of someone like Norris, with Lundgren at the helm everything is just a little off kilter. He looks a bit strange with a shaved head, and he still speaks in a somewhat stilted manner which puts a little bit of darkness behind his sarcastic banter. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying his performance is stilted or stiff at all. He just comes off as a rough customer rather than a loveable scalawag. As always, it makes the proceedings a bit disorienting than would be the case in the hands of more familiar true blue heroes.

While I like Dolph’s presence, this alone would not be enough to salvage Diamond Dogs. Sometimes there can be a single solitary element that turns an entire film around. Literally, some films have moments that come in the very last frame that throw everything into a perspective that can turn a disaster into a masterpiece. Now I’m not saying that Diamond Dogs pulls off such a miracle, but it certainly does something that makes it worth recommendation. By the time it reached the final showdown, I was feeling that Diamond Dogs was a pretty lackluster affair. Dolph had dispatched most of the bad guys, and really it just wasn’t all that exciting. However, when the villain gets the drop on Ronson, he is saved by Chambers’ adopted daughter with whom Ronson had started developing a bit of a love connection. She takes aim at the baddie who manages to get into a scuffle with her before she fires. During this time Ronson, who’s a little winded but still very capable, watches the whole affair play out within spitting distance. Ultimately, the villain turns the gun on the girl and mortally wounds her. What is surprising is that Ronson could easily have prevented this by pulling him off. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a hero so blatantly let a damsel in distress perish in a film. I was so taken aback that the remaining 3 or so minutes of the film sort of went by in a haze. And then it dawned on me . . . Ronson had failed in pretty much everything he had set out to do from the beginning of the film!

I went back and considered all that had happened over the course of 90 minutes, and Ronson managed to save exactly no one he was hired to protect. In some cases (e.g. his supposed love interest) he just obliviously looked on as things took their course. The more I thought about it, he reminded me of Big Trouble in Little China’s Jack Burton. In that film the identified “hero” played by Kurt Russell never really saves the day (except in one instance). He’s played as a buffoon with the real hero being his sidekick Dennis Dun. The same could be said of Ronson except that a) he has no sidekick, b) the consequences of his failure prove to be far more serious than Burton’s, and c) unlike Burton, Ronson doesn’t really seem to care all that much when bad things happen. I’ve seen bait and switch films where heroes turn out to be villains, but here it’s something far more subtle. Ronson is just plain incompetent, proving that he was justifiably booted from the Green Berets! How often is it that an action movie shows by example that its (supposedly) wrongly disgraced hero deserves his fate? Diamond Dogs doesn’t hit you over the head with this revelation, but it’s there if you pay attention to the clues.

In conclusion, Diamond Dogs is a bit of a mixed bag. While it has a sort of spartan charm, a heavy toll is taken in the form of low production values. Its saving grace is a strong central performance by Dolph Lundgren, and a challenging take on the nature of its hero. Ronson on the surface may appear to be a typical action hero, but a closer look reveals he’s something else entirely. The sly manner in which Diamond Dogs gets this point across is to be commended, and makes the film something quite special. You have to pay your dues to get to the end, but the trip is ultimately worth it.

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