Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Movie Review: Dark Angel, a.k.a. I Come In Peace (1990)

The Itunes frenzy continues this week, as I just keep finding great titles that aren’t available on home video. While Yor was an exciting discovery it pales in comparison to the review I’m bringing you today – Dark Angel (a.k.a I Come in Peace). Ever since my foray into the world of DTV (direct-to-video) exploration, Seagal has dominated my reviews. This is understandable given that he was my gateway into this below-the-radar underground of cult cinema, courtesy of Vern’s excellent book Seagalogy. If Seagal was my gateway then Dolph Lundgren was the fellow who cemented the deal. After watching close to 20 Seagal DTV films I needed a break and happened to notice that Dolph was still working. To my knowledge he had dropped off the face of the earth after Johnny Mnemonic, but in fact he had become just as prolific as Seagal in the realm of DTV. I picked up one of his directorial efforts, Missionary Man, and was fairly blown away by the quality. Unlike the Seagal films which banked on audacity as the key selling point, Lundgren actually made a solid action film that delivered the goods on a budget.

Impressed by his abilities I started going through his back catalog and quickly found that he had matured into a true action star, even if Hollywood proper was unwilling to acknowledge this fact. This will no doubt be an earth shattering statement given how my love of all things Seagal is firmly established, but in my appraisal Lundgren is the most well-rounded action star to come out of the 80’s. You see Seagal, Van Damme, Norris, Schwarzenegger, and all those guys (with the possible exception of Stallone who does reach from time to time) all are fairly predictable from film to film. They play themselves over and over. Seagal is interesting in that he promotes certain themes and can be classified as an auteur, but his films (which I love on their merits) aren’t as diversified. Lundgren is a capable actor and director, there is a surprising amount of variety within his filmography, and he’s truly a cool guy (how many other action stars can boast of being a world champion in martial arts while also holding a master’s degree in engineering). He often gets lost in the mix among the stars who generated better box office receipts, but I suggest that if you take the plunge and embrace Dolph you will be happy you did.

So let’s talk about Dark Angel. Honestly I was floored to see this on Itunes, not to mention completely ecstatic. Of all Dolph’s early films this is perhaps my favorite, running neck and neck with The Punisher (which is still the best incarnation of the Marvel comic, even if he doesn’t wear the costume). Although released in 1990, Dark Angel is without question a product of the 80’s. This is not only due to the fashion, music, and hairstyles, but most significantly because it is set in perhaps THE trademark 80’s action film scenario – the mismatched buddy cop movie. Thanks to Lethal Weapon the combination of streetwise/rogue cop paired with by-the-book/traditionalist cop became a hallmark of the decade. While it’s being parodied by Kevin Smith in theaters at the moment in Cop Out, there was a time when people couldn’t get enough of the scenario. Even Lethal Weapon had (regrettably) four entries! The cool thing about Dark Angel is that it combines the setup with a sci-fi storyline, which makes the formula feel fresh (even if The Hidden already did it pretty well in 1987). Essentially a sci-fi criminal comes to earth to collect human brain fluid, which is apparently an extraterrestrial drug that’s a hot item on the galactic market. Unfortunately for him Dolph is assigned to the case, so you know he doesn’t stand a chance of collecting his wares!

Aside from the coolness of combining a sci-fi premise with the buddy cop formula, Dark Angel is special for a couple of other reasons. First and foremost is the main baddie Talec. B-movie regular Matthias Hues turns in a top notch performance as the creepy universal drug dealer come to earth (in peace). He has translucent eyes, is ridiculously tall, and has a fancy gun that fires bullets which cause enormous explosions. The explosions are one of the most memorable aspects of the film, and I recall at the time thinking the budget must have been pretty healthy since nearly everything gets blown up. It reminds me of current video games where the selling point is that players can demolish anything in the environment (e.g. Red Faction, Infamous). Folks seem to like that now, and they must have liked it in the late 80’s too judging by how much gets blown up here. It does seem like “blowing stuff up real good” as a marketable commodity in genre films really came into its own in the 80’s, given the number of films that featured show-stopping explosions.

Dark Angel certainly takes a page or two from this chapter, and ramps it up to the extreme. In my mind it does it better than most of its 80’s brethren though (e.g. Die Hard), as it makes a point of how absurdly over the top the explosive gun is through its self awareness of the fact. With something like Die Hard one expects that a building wired with explosives will blow up big as a matter of course, thusly the setup dictates the result and prepares you for its arrival. In fact the promotion at the time of its release made a point of how realistic the goings on in Die Hard were, with Bruce Willis intentionally cast as an everyman hero. Let’s face it though, realism in Die Hard probably begins and ends with Bruce arriving at the building. In Dark Angel the explosive gunplay is gleefully ridiculous/continuous and the filmmakers acknowledge it as such from the word go. Consequently as a viewer you get caught up in the enthusiasm and playful spirit that these guys were shooting for (no pun intended). Don’t get me wrong I love Die Hard and films of its ilk, but it’s refreshing to see something like Dark Angel that engages in a touch of self parody.

Back to Talec though. The other neat thing is that every time Talec captures another poor victim, he says to them “I come in peace.” This is the gag that the whole movie more or less rests on, as immediately after he says this line his poor victim is dispatched in a dramatic fashion. This is probably a good time to discuss the title(s) of the film, and my impressions on that front. First off, you’ll notice this is a review of a movie called Dark Angel. That’s the European version of the film, and the version available on Itunes. The title here in the states was I Come in Peace. During the film’s initial run I must confess I didn’t care for the title. It just seemed clunky, and made it sound like a second rate release rather than blockbuster material. I’ve warmed to it over the years however, and with most people I know who follow such things the title generates fond memories. Truly it could be argued that the title has been responsible for keeping the film alive in people’s memory. This is likely due to the wonderful (if obvious) use of the line at the end of the film (spoiler coming) in which the alien utters the line to Dolph, and Dolph responds by saying “and you go in pieces.” Brilliant.

It’s a bold approach to go with a catchphrase as the title of your film when you think about it. Let me illustrate. When you consider a movie called The Terminator for example, that has a cool/action-packed sounding ring to it. If the same film were called I’ll Be Back I don’t know how well it would have fared. I Come in Peace boldly adopts a title that highlights a running joke throughout the film. If they had called it something like Alien Vice or the like it might have had better luck at the box office. For my money though (at least in hindsight) I feel they made the right decision. Apparently in Europe they thought the translation of I Come in Peace wouldn’t work and went with Dark Angel. It’s been out on DVD over there for years under that title in glorious widescreen (which caused some major jealousy on this side of the pond). I admit it is a pretty cool sounding title and I’m not upset that Itunes went with the European edition . . . but the movie will always be I Come in Peace to this viewer and other fans. Without that title, which foreshadowed its iconic usage in the final reel, the film might have slipped into total obscurity.

Along with the aforementioned factors, the other quality that makes the film a classic is the chemistry between the two buddy cops. It should come as no surprise that this is where buddy cop movies ultimately succeed or fail. If the leads don’t have a solid foundation then the formula will not work (see Red Heat with Schwarzenegger and Belushi for a prime example of this). Here the leads are Dolph and Brian Benben (Dream On, Radioland Murders) and they are terrific. Dolph is the perfect slacker cop who runs on instinct, which had to be a surprise to audiences watching it back then. Most people knew him as either Ivan Drago or He-Man at that point in time, so the Dolph image was that of a rigid character. This movie is where you can notice him starting to become at ease as an actor and a star. It’s clear that he’s having a good time free from the pressure of turning in an iconic performance laced with expectations. His speech is also more natural than his earlier performances, as I believe he was still honing his accent up until this point.

With regard to Benben he’s in full-on Benben mode. If you like his trademark combo of sarcasm and hyperactivity then you’ll love his by-the-book FBI agent. For example the stock scene where the two partners are introduced could have come off as old and tired (even at that point in time), but the way Benben plays it is terrific. He keeps belittling Dolph’s intelligence, bragging that as an FBI agent he has more education than a regular cop. He’s totally in Dolph’s face with the smugness, which is crazy because Dolph could clearly wipe the floor with him. This begins a terrific ongoing joke throughout of how Dolph dwarfs Benben in size, so it works on a visual level as well. Most importantly as the characters grow to grudgingly like and respect one another, you can tell there is a genuine camaraderie between the actors. Pairings like this either work or they don’t, and in this case the casting department did a fantastic job. Caine (Lundgren) and Smith (Benben) may not be Riggs and Murtaugh in stature, but for what it’s worth I would have rather seen I Still Come in Peace than Lethal Weapons 3-4!

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen a Dolph movie, or even if it hasn’t, this is a great one to revisit. I can’t heap enough praise on Itunes for coming through and making films like this, Yor, and so many others available. I had never seen this in its original aspect ratio, and for films that rely on visual effects that’s a significant drawback. I Come in Peace on a panned-and-scanned VHS tape, that had a poor image to begin with, is an entirely different experience when viewed in the digital realm. I still have a few more reviews for Itunes finds coming, and I’m going to get myself psyched up for our April Schlock-O-Thon by taking the plunge and watching Vanilla Ice’s Cool As Ice. I can’t tell you how close I’ve come already to downloading it off Itunes . . . my curiosity at seeing a pristine, widescreen copy of this is nearing a crescendo. No doubt I’ll end up confirming the old saying “what good is wisdom if it brings no profit to the wise,” but truly how much worse can it be than The Apple and I sat through that twice! Stay tuned.


fantasmo all star craig said...

I have to admit that while I didn't care at all for Lethal Weapon 3, I thoroughly enjoyed 4. Jet Li of course was a huge draw for me, but I really liked the little bits where Riggs and Murtaugh had to face facts that they weren't as spry as they once were, and that a new generation of cop was coming up to take their places. The boxing scene was a fine example, and I especially enjoyed the scene at the end- where even though the audience knew there would be the final showdown- Riggs and Murtaugh at first had the attitude of "he's not worth it", and they turn to walk away to live and fight another day.

But they just had to ask Li's character how he did that trick with Riggs' pistol...

Jim Blanton said...

Yeah, I'll give you that. It was a good bit in their acknowledging getting older. The tough sell for me is how the humor got out of control by #4. The first one had the perfect mix of serious action and mild humor (and of course Atkins). The second one slipped a little, but was still pretty solid. #3 was a train wreck. Actually I also have to give them kudos on having Jet Li as the villain - much better than the Uzi-toting real estate guy from #3!

Interesting note about #3. I remember going to see that in the theater with a guy who hadn't seen the first two films. I had built the whole thing up, telling him it was one of the best action series of all time (which was a fair statement up until that point). The next thing I knew we were walking out of the theater, and my credibility had been torpedoed by Joe Pesci and a whole lot of ill-conceived, zany antics.

All this being said, the one thing that remained a constant was the awesome chemistry between Gibson and Glover. It would be cool to see them pair up for a totally unrelated film.

Jox said...

DARK ANGEL / I COME IN PEACE is the movie that should have established Dolph as a mainstream action star had it come a couple of years earlier. That said, it's fantastic to see that Lundgren managed to stay around and start his come back with his directorial debuts; if you loved MISSIONARY MAN then you should have a blast with his masterpiece THE MECHANIK / THE RUSSIAN SPECIALIST! Also check out his recent efforts COMMAND PERFORMANCE and the upcoming ICARUS!

Jim Blanton said...

I agree on Dark Angel completely. It was Dolph's first movie which allowed him to portray a down-to-earth sort of character. As you say though timing is everything, and it was a little late in that particular cycle. Great movie though!

The Russian Specialist is indeed amazing! That was one I caught shortly after Missionary Man and helped to cement the deal with me. On the subject of Command Performance I'm mixed. The fact is I went into it with ridiculously high expectations, and it didn't quite deliver. Don't get me wrong it's a solid enough film worth seeing, but it wasn't the masterwork the teaser trailer had me prepared for. Can't wait for Icarus!!