Monday, August 25, 2008

Movie Review: Lost Boys: The Tribe (2008)

Before I sat down and watched the recently released direct-to-video sequel to The Lost Boys, I fully expected my blog entry on the subject would take the form of a public service announcement. I had already seen a few reviews which made it sound like the worst cinematic crime perpetrated on genre fans since Highlander 2: The Quickening. In reality, the film isn’t all that bad taking into account it’s a DTV film with not much in the way of ambition . . .

First off, what you have to realize going into Lost Boys: The Tribe is that it’s basically a remake of the first film. You have two siblings (this time a brother and sister) who move to a kooky seaside town to live with their quirky aunt (at just 94 minutes they didn’t have time to introduce the single mother character and love interest from the original). Upon arrival they encounter a fun loving group of surfers (i.e. The Tribe) who happen to be vampires (which I guess is sort of like Point Break except they don’t rob banks . . . and speaking of Point Break isn’t that a franchise begging to happen on DTV. Seriously, you know they could totally convince Swayze to do this, as you never actually see his character die. Sure Keanu Reeves probably wouldn’t go for it at this point, but maybe they could get his Bill & Ted counterpart Alex Winter. A Swayze Point Break quote comes to mind that seems relevant. “Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation can cause your worst fears to come true.” That being the case, if the DTV powers that be are afraid of taking the Point Break plunge, their hesitation could cause fears of lost revenue to become an actuality. Come on DTV producers more Point Break!). One of the siblings (the sister) gets tricked into drinking the head vampire’s blood (this time Angus instead of Kiefer Sutherland), and the brother must work with Edgar Frog (Corey Feldman) to prevent her from becoming a full blown vampire. Pretty much a carbon copy of Lost Boys 1, with the exception of “The Tribe” subtitle and some gender switches. Now you could make the argument that the creative team was pulling a Gus Van Sant Psycho type experiment, or a John Carpenter Escape From L. A. update. I’m not convinced of that though as in the former case it’s not a shot-for-shot remake, and in the latter it doesn’t go far enough in announcing itself as a version for another era. I’m willing to listen to arguments to the contrary, but at this moment in time I’m not buying that The Tribe team undertook some radical cinematic experiment here.

In truth, the fact that The Tribe is a remake is probably its greatest deficit simply because it forces the viewer to constantly compare it with the first installment. If this were an entirely new scenario it would be much easier to lose oneself in the film due to the novelty factor. However, despite being an underachiever on the creative front, The Tribe is not the disaster you may have been anticipating. The film works as entertainment (assuming you can overlook the fact that it is supposed to be a sequel to a much loved 80’s cult film) because the cast and crew seem to have set out to make a fun B-movie with no pretensions. In that regard I think they succeeded for the most part. The Tribe never drags, and does an adequate job of holding one’s interest. Also, for a DTV title the film looks pretty nice (it even adopts the 2:35:1 cinematic ratio of the original), and the camera work is fairly dynamic (without succumbing the ever popular Michael Bay syndrome). And as for the cast, while they lack the talent of the first entry’s roster they make up for it with enthusiasm. The sole exception to this would be Angus Sutherland, who’s a little too mellow to be very threatening. It’s true that he’s supposed to be a laid back surfer, and in the beginning the mellow works. When the fangs sprout though, the role could have used a little more bite (couldn’t resist : )

At this point I would be remiss in my duties if I did not highlight the contribution of Corey Feldman. One of the things the first Lost Boys film is most remembered for is the presence of the two Coreys, Haim and Feldman. While this one doesn’t sport a Haim (more on that in a moment), Feldman does return to perhaps his most famous role as overenthusiastic vampire hunter Edgar Frog. I confess when I saw the original back in ’87 I enjoyed Feldman’s performance a great deal . . . and the movie as a whole. The intervening years have not been so kind to the film, but it still remains a nostalgia fixture of sorts for me. That said, I think Feldman’s character has fared pretty well in terms of not dating. Consequently, the presence of Edgar works nicely in the sequel as Feldman assumes the role of elder statesman (what a strange concept). He updates Edgar in a believable way that respects the character’s history, while avoiding mockery in the name of pop culture irony. Truly I’ve got to give Feldman major points, as this performance is pitch perfect ( I just hope he brings the same gravitas to his role in any forthcoming Goonies DTV sequel). If you liked him the first time around, you’ll be happy with Edgar 2.0.

Another strength of The Tribe is the special effects. While no awards will be handed out, they aren’t sloppy and strike a nice balance between practical makeup and stunt work with CGI. It was nice to see such restraint in a DTV offering. Usually cheap CGI is the order of the day in the DTV world due to budgetary restraints, and every young filmmaker with a Mac seems to take a kitchen sink approach. Interestingly The Tribe opens with the worst CGI shot of the film, which shows a bird’s eye view of the town. In the original this would have been accomplished with a helicopter shot of the actual coastline. Here it has to be achieved via a computer. This opening filled me with dread, but honestly the rest of the effects are pretty decent. The vampire makeup in particular is nice, as it resembles that of the original instead of trying to do some unnecessary revision. One other item to mention is that the opening scene features a cameo by Tom Savini. Perhaps they got him to do this as a nod to the fact that they were updating an 80’s horror film, and intended to do so with plenty of practical gore/monster effects work (even though Savini has no involvement at that level). Or maybe they just like Savini – who knows. The strange thing is that literally moments before watching the film I was thinking of Savini and wondering what he’d been up to lately. Creepy.

One thing I mentioned recently in my review of Indiana Jones and the Case of the Crystal Skull (and applies here), is that fans of genre sequels have a tendency to critique films because of what they are not. In the case of The Tribe, a lot of negative reviews focus on the fact that it is nothing more than a remake and should have covered new ground. While I understand that sentiment, I believe you have to look at what the filmmakers set out to do and how well they accomplished that. Here they were not attempting to tell a new story, rather it seems they were looking to transplant the original plot in a slightly different setting. To that end I’d say they achieved the objective with relative success. Where they fell a little short was in the performance of Angus Sutherland, and perhaps not pushing the limits quite enough. Ironically the filmmakers invite this criticism themselves by providing a tantalizing glimpse at the film that could have been. After the end credits roll for a while, we’re treated to a short segment that reunites the Coreys and suggests the possibility of a forthcoming adventure. Although very brief, the snippet manages to generate more excitement than anything seen in The Tribe.

Even more interesting than the “official” Haim cameo, the DVD offers two alternate endings that are cooler still. Both open up the door to a sequel that would bring in Haim (who appears to have suffered a vampire attack) and the absent Frog brother Alan (Jamison Newlander) who is referenced several times in The Tribe. What’s incredible about these alternate endings is that to me they looked like what would happen if Rob Zombie were doing a Lost Boys sequel in both tone and execution. I’m not the world’s biggest Rob Zombie fan, but I have thought his directorial efforts were both decent and interesting (including his reimagining of Halloween). Furthermore, unlike most modern genre filmmakers, he has a signature style that’s identifiable (which is a breath of fresh air these days). I wouldn’t mind at all seeing him take on the project, or having director P.J. Pesce continue on the path toward emulating his style. Either way is fine by me. It may sound incredible, but in the space of a couple of minutes Pesce creates a thrilling scenario that I hope gets taken seriously should they continue making Lost Boys sequels.

Sleep all day. Party all night. It’s fun to be a vampire. Such was the tagline of the original film. It may not be as fun this time around, but given its constraints The Tribe does a decent job of entertaining even if it’s not a great sequel. If the powers that be allow the creative folks to move forward with the scenario suggested by the alternate endings, the franchise could take a very interesting direction which (dare I say it) might surpass the original. Here’s hoping they do just that and give fans the true sequel they’ve been waiting 20+ years for.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Movie Review: The Dark Knight (2008)

Last Thursday I finally had a chance to catch the new Batman entry, The Dark Knight. Before I launch into the complete review I need to get a few things out of the way up front. Firstly, I am a casual comic book reader not a die hard. I’ve always enjoyed comics, but I’ve never followed monthly installments with any sort of regularity. Usually I tend to gravitate toward graphic novels or limited run series that tell particular story arcs. Secondly, I’m partial to the DC Comics universe as opposed to Marvel. I enjoy both, but the heroes of DC have historically held more appeal for me. Thirdly, of all comic book heroes Batman is my hands down favorite. I’ve always been fascinated by the notion that a regular human could stand toe to toe with the likes of Superman as a full-fledged superhero. Finally, I read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns during its initial run in the 80’s and have held that incarnation of Batman as the most successful and interesting. So that’s where I’m coming from. And I should also confess that I’ve found all the big screen renditions of Batman to be less than satisfying (but loved the early 90’s cartoon). That includes Christopher Nolan’s first effort Batman Begins. To me it was on the right track, but just devolved into empty CGI nonsense toward its conclusion. So that’s where I’m coming from on issues surrounding Batman.

Given that I was less than thrilled with Batman Begins, I really wasn’t looking forward to The Dark Knight. I figured it would probably be more of the same, this time with The Joker back in the action. The early trailers looked okay, but my jaded self wasn’t in the mood to get too excited about it. Then the reviews started pouring in and gradually sold me that I needed to go see it. So I did. All I can say is I don’t know what got into Nolan, or how this thing slipped by the studio, but it is simply amazing. Not because it is a blockbuster spectacle, but because it tries its best not to be. Don’t get me wrong there are explosions and chases, but they aren’t “satisfying” in the way you would typically see in a comic book film. Before I get too deep into that though, I should start from the beginning . . .

I’m not going to say too much about the plot, because enough has likely been said already. A new villain called The Joker emerges in Gotham, upsetting a lot of the good work being done by Batman and ace attorney Harvey Dent. Trouble and tragedy follow. That’s it in a nutshell, and the story has certainly been seen before (even in this franchise). The difference here is in the telling. The film opens with a bank robbery orchestrated by The Joker, in which he makes off with the money and kills his entire gang. Generally these summer roller coaster films start with a bang that announces you are about to see a thrill ride that’s going to be a fun, two-hour escape. The Dark Knight does start with a bang, but it’s a pretty ominous one. We see some brutal gunplay, chilling clown masks, and violence that would be at home in a gritty crime film. There’s nothing fun (or funny) about it. Furthermore the whole spectacle was achieved sans computer effects (at least none that I could detect), and the resulting “reality” ratcheted up the tension. It’s funny, but you really forget what it’s like to feel true tension in this era of the summer blockbuster, but The Dark Knight sure is a potent reminder.

From that point we get an introduction to Batman as he spoils a parking garage rendezvous by The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), the villain featured in Batman Begins. Again the action felt a bit more visceral than before, and there’s nothing fantastic about what happens. In fact, although Scarecrow uses some of his fright powder on a Batman impersonator, we are not treated to a hallucinatory CGI sequence as we were in Batman Begins on several occasions. It’s like Nolan is on a mission to avoid even the most obvious opportunities to engage in that sort of trickery. Perhaps even more than the opening sequence, this was a clue to me that something was up. Actually I also thought it was pretty cool that they would go to the trouble of having Murphy show up in what barely qualifies as a cameo. Kudos for that Team Nolan!

The last piece of the puzzle is Gotham’s D. A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and to a lesser extent Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). These two represent the official face of law enforcement. Dent is basically on a crusade to clean up Gotham using sanctioned means, while Gordon has gone the other route and begun working with Batman. Eventually he persuades Dent that it’s a good idea and the three form a sort of team. In the hands of lesser actors this could all have turned into a pretty shallow affair, but these guys are all on top of their game. I’ve never seen Eckhart in a film before, but he is a real standout here. In fact, part of me was wishing he was playing Batman. While I like Bale well enough when he’s in brooding mode, there’s a bit of depth missing. Eckhart on the other hand does a fantastic job in conveying a broad range of emotions, creating a character you feel for even when he crosses the line. And Oldman is terrific as Gordon, it’s just that the role provides him with a little less to do than Eckhart. In some regards, Gordon and Batman become peripheral characters in the film as compared to Dent and The Joker. It’s not that they aren’t important, it’s just that they are reacting to events rather than driving them. As such, whenever they take center stage it’s really just about them foiling plans rather than struggling with issues (with a few exceptions).

And that brings us to the subject of Ledger. Like Eckhart I didn’t really have a fix on this guy. I’d seen him in passing, but never taken notice. This is without question his movie, with Eckhart running a close second. Every time Ledger is on screen (which is quite a lot) he has your total attention. Unlike previous renditions of The Joker which skewed toward the fantastic, here Ledger plays him as a garden variety psychopath with strange (and disturbing) makeup. I mentioned earlier how this film is more grounded than previous Batman films, and Ledger’s performance is perhaps the best example of this. While he does have grand schemes as any “supervillain” would, here his plots are something you would see in the real world. Bank robberies, assassinations, and bomb threats. There aren’t any funny gimmicks to be found either (e.g. Smilex gas, balloons, squirting flowers, etc.). This guy is just a deranged fellow bent on causing chaos. In fact, this characterization and realism has invited commentary suggesting that Nolan is making a comment about terrorism and how we respond (e.g. by the book Dent vs. renegade Batman). I think it’s pretty obvious that this is the case, and in the end the suggestion is we may like to publicly believe in the straight and narrow, but absolutely need Batman. Or at least that’s what I came away with.

Despite the fact that the film makes a stab at social commentary, there are other facets related to the whole Dark Knight phenomenon that I find equally (if not more) fascinating. Firstly, this movie has been hyped beyond belief. Usually that’s a red flag for me as it’s rare that movies ever live up to massive hype. This one did but not in the way I expected. The hype I was hearing was stuff like “this is the greatest comic book movie ever” or “finally someone got Batman right.” And on this score I have to respectfully disagree. The film is a tremendous success as a dark, crime thriller that happens to feature interpretations of DC Comics characters. As a “comic book film” or a “Batman film” though I don’t think it succeeds. You see to me a comic book film plays by a slightly different set of rules than a fantastic film set in the real world. You might have exaggerated colors and production design, stilted banter between heroes and villains, dynamic battles, etc. See any of the previous Batman films (or better yet the early Superman movies) for an example of what I mean. They play like a comic book. Even Ang Lee’s Hulk for all the criticism it receives for being artsy played like a comic book. The Dark Knight never plays like a comic book.

What about the abduction in Hong Kong or the Gotham street chase you may ask? Granted those are incredible, but Nolan goes to painstaking efforts in grounding the tools and actions in military tactics and technology. And both of those sequences, while thrilling to a degree, are anticlimactic. In one Batman basically hauls someone out of a window and in the other he loses a game of chicken from which Gordon has to bail him out. Getting back to that whole notion of Nolan grounding the film, not only is The Joker portrayed in a decidedly anti-comic fashion, incredibly so is Batman. Yes he’s wearing a costume, but it’s really just a suit of body armor. There’s no iconic yellow bat symbol here, just a vague outline of a bat that’s barely visible. Even more disconcerting is that he’s using a voice modulator to disguise his voice. The result is that he sounds very mechanical. At first I really didn’t care for this, but as I came to understand the film was trying to be “realistic” to a degree I accepted it and moved on. Even his solutions to the various dilemmas involve hardware (e.g. the skyhook abduction and tracking The Joker using a form of sonar) as much as any sort of comic book crime fighter know how.

The bottom line is that from the action to the characterizations this is not a comic book movie. There’s no way this is a universe inhabited by the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, etc. Before I saw the film I had a brief conversation about it with Fantasmo All-Star Tony Mercer (who had also not seen it) and he brought up a concern about Nolan altering the iconography of The Joker. This speaks exactly to the realistic grounding of the film, and at the time I shared his concern to a degree. Too often studios and directors hijack comic book characters and translate them into something unrecognizable, operating under the faulty premise that the creators’ concept was somehow lacking. Usually such tampering results in lackluster junk such as The Fantastic Four. However, I would argue in the case of The Dark Knight the tampering produced an amazing product. It’s not a “Batman” film or a comic book movie, but it is an amazing crime movie that features great performances and lots of ideas to chew on by using a familiar cast of characters. So while The Dark Knight is successful, it is not in the way some fans have hyped it. It’s one of the great movies, but not in terms of its success in depicting comic book heroes and villains.

The second thing that fascinates me about The Dark Knight is that it is such an anti-blockbuster. I trekked out to see the film at an IMAX screening (which I would highly recommend), but as I alluded to earlier the spectacle type sequences are incredibly anticlimactic with regard to satisfying standard expectations of explosions and effects riddled action. Take the opening heist sequence for example. Nolan shot this specifically in 70mm (only six sequences were shot this way, the rest of the film is 35mm). It’s beautifully photographed, but there’s nothing about it that screams spectacle worthy of IMAX treatment. It’s like it’s almost absurd that this big budget alleged comic book film is denying us the whistles and bells we have come to take for granted. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few adrenaline charged moments relating to visual action, but they are truly few and far between. Most of the tension comes from character discussions, which is astounding given the nature of a project like this. I guess I was just a bit amazed sitting in an IMAX theater watching a movie that was more about the conversation than things going boom.

Lastly, and somewhat related to my previous point, it was also surreal watching the movie in a house packed with small children. You’ve got scenes in this thing with The Joker impaling foes on pencils, telling truly disturbing childhood tales, threatening to slice people’s faces, etc. And none of it is played for laughs as was sometimes the case in earlier installments. You could tell there was some discomfort going on in the theater with folks who realized they’d walked into something unexpected. I think this one squeaked by with a PG-13 simply because there’s not much in the way of language, but it is a LOT more intense than the likes of Temple of Doom (the impetus for the PG-13 rating). So it was a little weird watching a comic book film (that dispensed with all things comic) masquerading as escapist summer entertainment, replete with IMAX screenings, turn out to be a gritty cinematic metaphor concerning the war on terror. I guess you could say it has more in common with some of the more imaginative “alternate reality” type graphic novels that draw from the DC universe. When it turns out this good, I’m okay with abandoning the iconography. I just hope that Nolan keeps this up, as I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Random Coolness

Normally when I post I tend to zero in on a particular topic, but there have been several pieces of random coolness that have come my way over the past week or so I just have to mention . . .

#1 – A great DVD review site called DVD Drive-In (http://www.dvddrive-in.com/) posted an update mentioning some exclusive Warner sci-fi double-feature discs being released exclusively through Best Buy. For the most part they’re bottom of the barrel stuff, but a few are of high interest. One of the discs is a Hammer double-feature which includes the somewhat rare space western Moon Zero Two (which I believe was an early MST3K subject) and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Neither of these represent Hammer’s best, but they are notable for being a bit unusual for the studio famous for Dracula, Frankenstein, etc. The other one worth picking up features Battle Beneath the Earth and The Ultimate Warrior. The first film sounds pretty terrible, but let me tell you the second one is a great piece of 70’s post-apocalyptic action (starring the great Yul Brynner no less). I don’t know how long these are going to be available (other Best Buy exclusives saw limited runs), so you might want to get them while you can. And who knows, you may be seeing The Ultimate Warrior or some of those others at a future Fantasmo : )

#2 – George Booker of Klaxar's Focus Group dropped a note turning me on to a cool site reviewing music and film called No Ripcord (http://www.noripcord.com/). And if you’re curious to see another take on our infamous tribute to Steven Seagal, be sure to check out George’s full review under the features section.

#3 – And speaking of Seagal, if you head over to the Ain’t It Cool News site (http://www.aintitcool.com/) you can check out Vern’s review of Seagal’s latest film Kill Switch (co-starring the late, great Isaac Hayes). Vern mentioned this one at our Fantasmo tribute and it sounds pretty crazy (can’t wait to see it). Within the review he also mentions that Seagal may be pursuing a reality TV project along the lines of Dog the Bounty Hunter (you knew this had to happen). Like Vern I also have mixed feelings about Seagal venturing into self-parody, but I’m intrigued. As other posts here have mentioned, be warned that Vern’s reviews feature strong language and adult situations (and in the case of Seagal graphic violence).

#4 – Criterion is releasing a cool looking DVD of Brand Upon the Brain! by director Guy Maddin (http://www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=440). I’ve only seen Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, but if this one is anywhere near as bizarre as that (and it sounds like it is) it’s a must see!

#5 - A colorized version of Richard Elfman's cult classic Forbidden Zone is being released! Normally I'm not for such a thing, but this one sounds like it follows more closely to his original vision and works really well (http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/34239/forbidden-zone-in-color/). If you've never seen this thing it's pretty crazy. And it stars Oingo Boingo's Danny Elfman (who would later compose the music to most of Tim Burton's films) and Herve Villechaize!

So those are just a few things of interest if you are interested! Back later this week with some more reviews!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Episode 40: Fantasmo Prom Night

Hey Superfans!

That’s right Fantasmo is turning 40 (sort of)! For this milestone entry we’re kicking off our fall season with a back-to-school episode of sorts. Have you ever noticed that a lot of horror movies tend to take place around high schools? While it’s hard to nail down an exact figure, high school horror accounts for a significant percentage of the horror output of the 70’s, 80’s, and beyond. There are even subgenres within the setting, as the focus can be on testing (Final Exam), parties (Happy Birthday to Me), accomplishments (Graduation Day), etc. Team Fantasmo’s favorite among these are films that highlight the ever popular prom celebration. Although the classic Jamie Lee Curtis film Prom Night is identified in many cases as THE prom horror film, we think there are others that are more successful in getting the job done. For this very special Fantasmo we will be screening arguably the best prom film of them all, Brian De Palma’s Carrie, plus Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Prom Night’s underrated, superior sequel). But that’s not all! We’ll also be decking Theatre du Fantasmo out in full prom mode so you can relive those glory days (without peer pressure, slashers, and vengeful psychics)! We guarantee you’ve never experienced prom until you’ve experienced it the Fantasmo way! Here are your full Episode 40 details:

When: Friday, September 5

Where: Chesapeake Central Library

Films:

8:00 P.M. – Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) – Rated R

9:45 P.M. – Carrie (1976) – Rated R

You definitely can’t afford to miss seeing these on the big screen in a festive prom setting as only your Team Fantasmo could bring to you! And don’t forget coming up in October is our all-day Monster Fest horror convention followed by an all-night horror movie marathon . . . it just doesn’t get any better than that! More details coming soon . . .

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.