Friday, 16 December 2011

Til Schweiger

Though he’s not made a career as a leading man in action cinema, Tilman Valentin "Til" Schweiger is undoubtedly one of the most successful German actors of his generation. Moving between low-budget German films (several of which he has also directed) and Hollywood blockbusters.

Schweiger’s diverse and charismatic, recognisable from Antoine Fuqua’s The Replacement Killers (1998) and King Arthur (2004), not to mention Renny Harlin’s Driven (2001) and many others.

Most notably a member of Quentin Tarantino’s team of Inglourious Basterds in 2009, Schweiger made his debut as an action hero in 2007’s Body Armour. An extremely international co-production shot in Barcelona, the film was a decent low-budget stab at imitating Hollywood action fare.

Released under the title Der Bodyguard in Germany, this British, American, Australian, German and Spanish co-production echoes the likes of Back to Back (1996), The Chain (1996) and Fatal Blade (2001) in its good guy-bad guy buddy formula.

Schweiger plays John Ridley, a retired bodyguard lured back into action to protect the very man he despises, an assassin played by Chazz Palminteri. Borrowing elements from The Transporter (2002), Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996) and John Woo movies, Gerry Lively’s film feels a little too much like a TV movie but is good fun.

Apparently playing an American, Schweiger never convinces because he can’t disguise his distinct accent, but has a strong presence reminiscent of that of Michael Rooker or Robert Patrick. He also has a fun face-off with Khan Bonfils that provides a nice climax to the story.

Chazz Palminteri’s probably the only American in this faux-American production but it’s one of those films that’s all the more endearing for its often lazy efforts at deception.

Body Armour didn’t have much impact in the film world, but Schweiger next turn as an action hero certainly would. Cast as Jack Carver in the feature adaptation of the hit videogame Far Cry, Schweiger was once again the star of a faux-Hollywood movie, this time under the much more experienced guidance of the infamous Uwe Boll.

A Canadian-German co-production, Boll cast Germans in several key roles. Schweiger was joined by the legendary Udo Kier and the mighty Ralf Moeller in a straightforward adaptation of the plot of the game from 2004 that offered Boll the chance to step on the toes of the much more successful German filmmaker Roland Emmerich.

Boll’s film echoes Universal Soldier (1992), in which Moeller had played one of the undead supersoldiers commanded Dolph Lundgren, by teaming its hero up with a female reporter (that most well-worn of clichés). Later, when the love interest needs rescuing, he shares scenes with an awful comedy side-kick, something none of the Universal Soldier films had. Thankfully.

Far Cry is no match for any of the Universal Soldier movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (it’s definitely better than the two dire TV movies though) but it’s a better than average Boll. The simple plot allows a lot of room for action with boat captain Carver employing his German special forces training to help our heroine once we get past the 30 minute mark. The last half hour is particularly action-packed.

Schweiger has the help of an obvious stunt double for his more physical moments but certainly looks the part. As in Body Armour he's confident handling weapons and his permanently stern expression would suggest he was born to be an action star.

That said, no action hero roles appear to be in his immediate future. On the contrary, Schweiger looks to be more anonymous in 2012. According to the imdb he'll be playing two characters known only as "FBI agent" in This Means War (starring Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) and The Courier (starring Mickey Rourke and Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Bas Rutten

As observed in January’s post about Mirko Filipovic, tough guys from the world of Mixed Martial Arts are now almost as common as wrestlers and kickboxers in the world of B-movies.

The likes of Andrei Arlovski and Randy Couture may get top billing in some instances, but they’re rarely cast as heroes. Surprisingly few have been cast as action heroes, with Couture arguably having the most success, as a member of Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables ensemble.

Dutch mixed martial arts icon Sebastiaan "Bas" Rutten got a shot back in 2004, starring as the oddly named Dakota Varley in The Eliminator. The film cast the UFC Heavyweight Champion as a powerboat racer who finds himself drugged and hunted on a small island.

Before this, Rutten’s imposing figure had made a variety of film and TV appearances, including bad guy roles in Sammo Hung’s “Martial Law” (the Nitro Man episode in 1999) and the awesome Shadow Fury (2001). While his profile as a competitor and commentator in the world of MMA is much more significant, his filmography is certainly diverse. These days he’s as likely to turn up in a Kevin James movie as anything action packed.

Director Ken Barbet took his time introducing Rutten to audiences in The Eliminator (originally called Varley’s Game), opening the film with a powerboat race that’s more tedious than exciting. When Rutten does get out of the board, it’s no time at all before he’s kicking one of his competitors so hard he’s launched several feet.

With its island (actually Florida) death game premise and bald hero, The Eliminator is an awful lot like the WWE flop The Condemned, made 3 years later in 2007, but by no means has an original premise.

Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game from 1924 established a theme that’s become an increasingly popular subgenre. Since the first film adaptation in 1932, myriad, increasingly action-packed variations have used the “hunt the human” theme, including Death Ring (1992), Hard Target (1993) and Surviving the Game (1994).

But whereas the latter examples had excellent casts and glossy production values, The Eliminator is cheaper and less satisfactory fare. It doesn’t even have the amusing exploitation movie appeal of Death Ring, with it’s cast consisting of siblings and off-spring of icons such as Swayze, Norris and McQueen. It’s left to Rutten to draw in his fans and top-billed Michael Rooker to lend it credibility with a broader audience.

Rooker appears intermittently but Rutten’s not left to carry the film alone. For much of the time he’s teamed up with Paul Logan (a regular supporting player in the genre and star of Ballistica (2009) and MegaPiranha (2010)).

Vehicles for UFC stars are rarely watchable, just look at Ultimate Force (2005) and Cyborg Soldier (2008) starring Rich Franklin, but The Eliminator is at worst average. Rutten has considerable charisma and his choreographed fights are reasonably entertaining, especially those at the climax, during which he also brings down a helicopter.

Rutten’s had a steady stream of action roles, in the likes of The Vault (2005), Backlash (2006) and Saints and Sinners (2010), but The Eliminator remains his sole turn as an action hero. But at only 46 I wouldn’t rule out a second opportunity coming his way.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Phillip Rhee

Working his way up to leading man status over almost 20 years, Korean-American martial artist Phillip Rhee (a 6th degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, 3rd degree black belt in Hap Ki Do and 1st degree black belt in Kendo) and the staple of the Best of the Best franchise apparently retired at the peak of his career.

After roles of various size in films such as The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Los Angeles Streetfighter (1985), Hell Squad (1986) and Silent Assassins (1988), the latter he gained his first producer credit on, Rhee firmly established himself in 1989’s Best of the Best as Tommy Lee.

Over the next decade, Rhee was exclusively cast in the role of Tommy and even though he ultimately gained sole above-the-title hero status, his career did not go beyond 1998’s Best of the Best 4: Without Warning.

Though he was one of the creators and producers of Best of the Best and it’s more brutal Rocky 4 (Sylvester Stallone, 1985) meets Bloodsport (Newt Arnold, 1988) sequel in 1993, Rhee played second fiddle to Eric Roberts in both before taking full control of the franchise as director and lead actor for Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back.

Made in 1995, the film was tailored as a sequel from Barry Gray’s script "No Turning Back", which was originally about a black marine returning home from the Persian Gulf; not that you could call that concept original. Rewritten to make Tommy Lee the main character, the film played like an old fashioned western.

Only arriving on screen some 17 mins into the film, Rhee didn’t seem confident as a leading actor, but perhaps that’s due to the fact that he was making his directorial debut simultaneously.

Best of the Best 3 was obviously not a big budget movie, but it has high production value in the form of a great supporting cast (R. Lee Ermey, Christopher McDonald, Gina Gershon, Dee Wallace Stone) and excellent action sequences. While he may have taken on too much responsibility, he can certainly be proud of the films successes as a hugely entertaining action film.

Rhee and his brother Simon (stunt coordinator) add neat touches to all the action scenes. When Tommy sees his sister and nephew threatened, he takes down the thugs with the help of a can of shaving foam he just purchased. When those same thugs start causing trouble at the town fair, Tommy fights them off while dressed as a clown.

Later Tommy is chased from the villain’s lair by three goons on motorcycles, Tommy effortlessly kicks all three off of their motorcycles in a single leap. But all that is just a teaser for a final, action packed 20 mins in which gunfights, explosives, missiles, shotguns and knives all have a part to play. Even the one-on-one showdown lasts more than 4 minutes. Most American-made action movies of the period were not such good value for money.

Three years later, Rhee got back in front and behind the camera for what would be the final Best of the Best installment. How much time has passed in the film world is uncertain, but Tommy is suddenly presented to us as a widow and father to a six year old and this seems incongruous considering his loner status in the last film. (It’s worth noting that the same character development later occurred in Universal Soldier: The Return (Mic Rodgers, 1999), which trumps this film for the sheer stupidity of its reanimated protagonist being able to procreate in the first place.)

While inferior to each of the previous installments, Rhee’s performance in Without Warning demonstrated a definite growth in confidence. Where Best of the Best 3 still featured the franchise trademark of more experienced actors who overshadowed the star, Without Warning was Rhee’s first and last test in really carrying an action movie by himself. Something he certainly succeeded at.

There are notable supporting players, such as Tobin Bell, but those who share the screen with Rhee have very small roles. Ernie Hudson is well cast and highly credited but Paul Gleason is miscast as a trustworthy Priest.

Deviating even further from the formula of the franchise, Without Warning finds Rhee in Don “The Dragon” Wilson territory as a single father who comes into possession of a disc (that most popular of 90s MacGuffins) that the bad guys are desperate to get their hands on. If you’ve seen Bloodfist IV: Die Trying (Paul Ziller, 1992) or Lion Strike (Rick Jacobson, 1995) you know the score.

What this means is that we have Rhee at his most confident but trapped within an extremely formulaic plot. None of the previous films win any prizes for originality but they each had unique qualities.

Without Warning has one stand-out sequence, in which Tommy stumbles into a henchmen’s training room leading to an excellent stick fighting scene in which a fencing sword comes into play.

Filmed in Los Angeles, Without Warning is more like a Roger Corman or PM Entertainment cheapie, only there are no rocket launchers or over-the-top car crash sequences. Although there is a lively chase sequence involving motorcycles, a helicopter, a van and a tanker truck. But while Rhee’s performance is confident and so is his direction, his script (which he was partly responsible for) was decidedly lacklustre.

Many have asked “whatever happened to Phillip Rhee?” and I join them in this chorus. While his career certainly peaked with Best of the Best 3, there was enough that was good about Best of the Best 4 to suggest that Rhee could have continued to direct and star in high quality fare.

Now in his 50s, it’s unlikely we’ll get to see Rhee take centre stage again, either as Tommy Lee or a new character, but he’ll always be one of the best of the best.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

John Stamos

Back in 1986 a movie poster proclaimed “Stamos: the new breed of hero!” The film was Never Too Young To Die and that man was John Stamos. Nobody seemed to notice and an action hero was not born.

Along with the likes Rob Lowe and Richard Grieco, Stamos was one of Hollywood’s beloved bad boys in the 1980s. Most famous for playing warm-hearted Uncle Jesse in 192 episodes of family sitcom Full House (between 1987 and 1995) alongside Bob Saget and the growing Olsen twins, his action adventure was consigned to obscurity and has never been released on DVD.

Recently unearthed by Phil Hobden over at the Filmsploitation podcast, the film cast Stamos as Lance Stargrove, a handsome college gymnast drawn into a web of intrigue when his father’s killed. If the hero’s name isn’t enough to pique your interest then what if I told you that his father is a spy played by one-time James Bond George Lazenby!

Still not convinced this is a must see? Well, the villain of the piece is a homicidal hermaphrodite played by Gene Simmons!

Simmons made for a stern, cool antagonist in the Tom Selleck film Runaway (Michael Crichton, 1984) - that’s the one where he had the big gun with heat-seeking bullets and an army of mechanical spiders - but here embraced camp with the kind of vigour unseen beyond his performances with KISS. He doesn't chew the scenery, he rapes it!

He's Velvet Van Ragnar, a bar performer and the leader of an army of street punks. Their outfits must have been left over from all the Mad Max ripoffs that were being made at that time. There were a hell of a lot of those.

If you thought The Joker in The Dark Knight (Christoper Nolan, 2008) was crazy, you have to see Ragnar in action. He cackles maniacally and kills people with a razor sharp middle finger nail!

The greatest irony of Never Too Young To Die is that it isn’t played for laughs. There are light-hearted moments scattered here and there, as they were in many similar films of the period, but rarely has a hero encountered such an insane and deranged nemesis.

Never Too Young To Die is one of those “everything but the kitchen sink” movies. Combining themes from several popular genres with no regard to logic or a consistent tone.

At one point a Conan The Barbarian lookalike charges into a barn to attack glamour icon and love interest Vanity, who puts her back to the wall, presses a button to make it spin around and emerges with a machine gun.

Another absurd moment is when Stamos chases Vanity as she drives a Corvette down a desert road and the pair are in turn pursued by the Mad Max goons.

Gymnastics, spies, barbarians, a hermaphrodite villain... quite how a film with so much cult potential has stayed so obscure is a mystery. Of course it goes without saying that it's bizarre and cheesy, but isn’t that what the 80s were all about? Isn’t that what we love in retrospect?

Simmons completed an action villain trilogy by starring opposite Rutger Hauer in Wanted: Dead or Alive (Gary Sherman, 1987) but Stamos was rarely the bad boy on the big screen. He played the romantic rebel in Born to Ride (Graham Baker, 1991) but his career did not involve the handling of any more firearms. His most notable roles since his Full House days have been in ER and Glee.

Not only is Never Too Young To Die notable for its absurdity but is also notable as perhaps the first teen-friendly spin on the James Bond formula. It’s impossible not to see in it the blueprint for much more successful films such as Teen Agent (aka If Looks Could Kill, William Dear, 1991), Stormbreaker (Geoffrey Sax, 2006) and Abduction (John Singleton, 2011).

All of those are obviously very tame in comparison; although Mickey Rourke was pretty weird in Stormbreaker he’s no Gene Simmons.

Perhaps it’s Albert Pyun's equally obscure Spitfire (1995) with which it shares the most DNA.

Thanks again to Phil Hobden!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Ian Jacklin

If you’re a fan of action movies from the 1990s, the types of movies that starred Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Gary Daniels, Lorenzo Lamas, Jeff Wincott, Sasha Mitchell and Cynthia Rothrock, then the chances are you recognise the name or the face of Ian Jacklin.

Between 1991 and 1996, Jacklin starred or featured in more than 10 very modestly budgeted action movies. Among them were Ring of Fire (1991), Capital Punishment (1991), Final Impact (1992), Deadly Bet (1992), Blackbelt (1992), Kickboxer 3: The Art of War (1992), American Streetfighter (1992), Ring of Fire 2 (1993), Final Round (1994), Warrior of Justice (1996) and Sworn to Justice (1996).

The producer of Capital Punishment and American Streetfighter was David Hue (aka David Huey) and he must have liked what he saw in the young Canadian because it wasn’t long before The Jackal was making his action hero debut. As far as action movie titles go you can’t get much better than Expert Weapon (1993).

The film was written and directed by Steven Austin, who performed the same duties on American Streetfighter but seemed to leave the action genre behind afterward. This might suggest that it’s badly made, but while it has its flaws and is certainly a product of its time, it’s great fun.

This is a movie that introduces its hero as a cop killer facing the death penalty, a thug who urinates on a Bible; an act prompting a beating from the visiting Priest (Mel Novak). We’ve seen plenty of anti-heroes come and go but Adam Collins is something else.

The evolution of Collins into “The Expert Weapon” reflected Jacklin’s own transformation from villain to hero in the eyes of the audience. In most of the movies we’d seen him in up to this point he’d been the heavy, the muscle or the bad ass lead villain. Collins journey is an echo or outright rip-off of that of Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita (1990).

A pawn in a government project headed by one-time Flash Gordon Sam J. Jones, Collins goes through the usual trials and training montages on his way to becoming an elite government assassin. This includes encounters with a glamorous acting instructor played by Judy Landers.

When he’s unable to pull the trigger on the blind female companion of a target, Collins goes rogue, becoming protector and ultimately lover to the woman.

Jacklin’s a karate and kickboxing champion and more than capable in the fight scenes but the action highlight for me is when he kills Joe Estevez with a screwdriver. A memorable scene for an entirely different reason is the car chase. On the run from fellow assassins, the chase takes Collins from the town centre to a deserted landscape and then back again in a moment or two. Why? Apparently to accommodate an explosion (a money shot for the trailer) that would have been more costly if done in a built up area.

Urinating on Bibles (not something I’d condone personally), a kung fu fighting Priest, the death by screwdriver of Martin Sheen’s brother, a blind heroine as unconvincing as Jessica Alba in The Eye (David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2008); there are a lot of great reasons to watch Expert Weapon, but it wasn’t Jacklin’s best movie.

His second as leading man has even more to recommend it. In Death Match (Joe Coppoletta, 1994), Jacklin was surrounded by genre icons. Martin Kove, Matthias Hues, Richard Lynch, Jorge Rivero, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, Eric Lee and Steven Leigh all make this a film that Brett and Ty over at Comeuppance Reviews called "The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, 2010) of its day." The cameo by Richard Lynch is particularly notable as he gives a long, irrelevant monologue highlighting the growing influence of Quentin Tarantino on filmmakers at this time.

Having made the transformation from villain to hero, Jacklin is 100% good guy as John Larson, a man prepared to stare death right in the face for the sake of his best friend. At the start of the movie, John and Nick (Nick Hill) go their separate ways and John rides for miles along the coast to start a new job, only to turn straight back when his new employer delivers the message that Nick’s in trouble.

Part of the “fight to the death” subgenre that Bloodsport (Newt Arnold, 1988) spurred on and Bloodsport 4 (Elvis Restaino, 1999) pretty much marked the demise of, Death Match follows a predictable heroes quest as John investigates his friend’s disappearance and schemes to enter the world of underground fighting when he finds he’s fallen prey to the villainous organisers.

A lot of fights (choreographed by Benny “The Jet” and Art Camacho) take place before anonymous wealthy spectators in Death Match, but only a handful of them involve Jacklin. As is typical in this genre, they merely help stretch the running time to the standard 90 mins. John prepares for combat by training with Benny “The Jet” and practicing in silhouette against a sunset.

Jacklin takes centre stage in the plot some twenty minutes in and does the All-American hero thing well but he’s totally overshadowed by his high profile co-stars and perhaps this explains why further starring roles were not forthcoming.

Martin Kove and Matthias Hues stand out in particular and it is their names and Hues’ imposing image that grace the film’s DVD cover. Hues provides the “Odd Job factor” as the muscle for Kove’s character, but unusually, Hues’ role is much more fleshed out than is typical. He doesn’t just grunt, flex and fight, he and Kove share the screen on equal terms as their characters are described as business partners. Both are involved in their own lengthy and fairly pointless subplot in which they take on other bad guys (Lynch and Rivero make their cameos) for underworld supremacy.

Death Match wasn’t Jacklin’s movie, it belonged to the bad guys and after his showdowns with Hues and Kove it was back to supporting roles. As the industry began to change, Jacklin’s career went in a different direction. After the likes of Bikini Traffic School (Gary Graver, 1998), he established himself as an independent digital filmmaker.

Since 2000, Jacklin has been Owner of Co-Dependent Pictures Inc., working as a Producer, Director, Editor and Camera Operator for videos with subjects as varied as real estate, music videos, events and weddings.

Once a champion in the ring and on screen, these days The Jackal is fighting for awareness of natural health. In 2007 he made a documentary called about alternative treatments for Cancer. To find out more about Jacklin and the cause he’s fighting for look him up on Facebook or visit his website.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Dong Jin Kim

A Grand Master of Tae Kwon Do and co-author of Christian book titled Power in No Other Name, Dong Jin Kim starred as Jack Foster in Secret War (Evan Seplow & David Kim, 2004).

Forster is a Korean-American New York cop preparing to retire from the force so he can take over his master’s dojo. But after an accident puts him into a coma he becomes an unwitting guinea pig in a dangerous covert experiment.

In a misguided effort to save his brother’s life, Dr Mike Foster steals the valuable experimental chip he’s been working on to turn people into super soldiers and implants it into Jack turning him into the 38 million dollar man

Unaware that he’s being controlled, Jack is placed into a series of staged confrontations designed to test the chip and impress prospective buyers. It sounds more than a little bit like Steve Wang’s Drive (1997) but sadly it’s nowhere near as good.

Recognising that he’s not quite the man of control he once was, Forster learns to control his rage, much as Bruce Banner would do in The Incredible Hulk (Louis Letterier, 2008), but must still contend with various assassins sent by a grimacing psychopath with the same chip in his head.

Kim demonstrates his impressive martial arts skill in an almost unending series of decent fight sequences, choreographed by Marcos Antonio Miranda and Robert Samuels, that just about make this shoestring sci-fi action flick worth your time. The most notable being a long dojo sequence in which several black-clad assassins with weapons attack.

Dong Jin Kim is not the most handsome action hero, he’s no Ho-Sung Pak, but he’s no Leo Fong either and is a more than credible screen fighter. Secret War, his sole screen credit to date, highlights his weaknesses as an actor but you never doubt his capabilities as a martial artist.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Franco Columbu

Forever in the shadow of his close friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, bodybuilder Franco Columbu was determined to make it as an action star. He produced 4 vehicles for himself in less the 10 years, but because he lacks Arnie’s screen stature, literally and figuratively, he’s barely known beyond the bodybuilding community.

Born in 1941, a former Mr Universe and Mr Olympia nicknamed The Sardinian Strongman, Columbu retired from competition in 1981 but has always kept in shape. Even as his hair thinned he remained a physically impressive screen presence and played supporting roles in several of Schwarzenegger’s early movies. He was even a Terminator. But it wasn’t until 1993, that his film career gathered momentum.

Most international audiences might be vaguely familiar with Columbu as the fictitious director of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Jack Slater IV. This was the movie-within-the-movie the young protagonist of Last Action Hero (John McTiernan, 1993) was drawn into with his magical ticket. In a film full of winks and nods, it was a tip of the hat to a dear friend and just one of many gestures of support for his friend’s screen ambitions.

A year later Franco made his first real bid for stardom. While the title for his starring debut was Beretta’s Island (1994) it may as well have been Franco’s Sardinia. His character’s codename is Beretta but for most of the time he’s referred to by his real first name. Playing a prize fighter turned Interpol agent turned wine maker, the role is fantastical autobiography.

An opening prologue makes it clear that Franco’s intent was to not only to showcase himself but his beloved country of Sardinia. “Sardinia is my homeland. This beautiful island has always been a refuge for me; untouched by the destructive effects of greed and drugs. Several years ago I was disheartened to find that drugs had infiltrated my precious Island, bringing with them winds of evil that have poisoned even the children of the land. This film is dedicated to the fight against drugs, and to those who have worked to stop the plague of drugs in every country. These are the true heroes of our time and I salute each one of them with gratitude and respect.”

We see a lot of the island but it’s an unusual portrait. Following Hollywood conventions, the film is almost entirely in English and most of the actors are American. But action frequently pauses to show appreciation for the setting and the customs of the location; there is a heavy emphasis on an important local religious festival in the third act.

Franco is seen riding in a horse race and dancing with the elaborately dressed locals. At one point we observe a Catholic ceremony. Franco sits among a congregation in traditional dress. A procession begins and shortly thereafter the plot resumes only to stop again for a musical interlude. A singer performs for the crowd and Franco joins in. This same song recurs in subsequent films made between 1994 and 2001.

In an otherwise bland action movie, this pride in heritage would become a distinctive characteristic to all his movies. Something notably absent from the films of his iconic workout partner. Franco’s vanity projects each pay tribute to his homeland and the narrative thrust is always a threat to the country and its people.

Beretta’s Island is far from perfect, it has enough plot for 45 minutes and no more, so there’s a lot of padding. Director Michael Preece has a long history in episodic television and so was probably at the mercy of Franco as producer and writer in attempting to get the film to the standard 90 minute running time.

Inevitably it’s amateurish and indulgent. In addition to the travelogue moments already mentioned we get scenes of Franco working out. At the start, Schwarzenegger makes one of the most gratuitous cameo appearances in film history. He and Franco, who met way back in 1965, are shown working out together for three and a half minutes. Fans of Pumping Iron (George Butler & Robert Fiore, 1977) may get a kick out of it but it makes for boring viewing for the rest of us. The closing credits begin with the message “Thanks to my friend Arnold Schwarzenegger.“

The odds were stacked against Franco breaking out as the next big action hero. At 53 and only 5' 5" tall, with thinning hair a thick accent and little acting talent, he relied on his muscles to impress and it wasn’t enough. Subsequent films would rework the Beretta’s Island formula with equally limited success.

The differences between Taken Alive (Christopher Holmes, 1994) and its predecessor are few but notable. This time instead of playing a motorcycle riding wine maker he’s a moped riding sculptor called Enrico Costa. Franco is less heroic and overshadowed by actors such as Frank Stallone and Robert Ginty, whose characters are more complex.

Schwarzenegger didn’t appear this time but did endorse the film in the trailer with his usual enthusiasm. At the end of the film’s trailer the unmistakable Austrian accent can be heard saying “Hi, this is this is Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m Franco Columbu’s buddy in Pumping Iron and in acting. I want to talk to you a little bit about Taken Alive. This is an action packed movie. Action from the beginning to the end. You know, my kind of a movie. And I want you to rent it, and I want you to buy it. Rent it, buy it, rent it, buy it. If you don’t do that, I’ll be back.”

This time Franco was not a man of action, rather a quirky local artist who gets mistaken for an agent, and this is one of the film’s main weaknesses. We are expected to accept that he’s naïve and simply found himself in over his head with government agents and kidnappers. It’s obvious things aren’t quite right and the fact that he goes along with things so far so casually is silly. At one point he gets frustrated and just heads home.

Motivation to be heroic only comes at the finale, when one of the bad guys steals his rent money. He strips off his shirt and kills a few people only to be told that the victim has found happiness in the arms of her captor. He does get the opportunity to prove himself at the explosive finale but that’s it.

With Franco playing such an incidental hero, a damsel that’s in no distress, a villain who turns out to be quite a nice guy and a very cynical ending, in which the crooked politician at the heart of the story gets away with everything, Taken Alive is surprisingly unconventional. Perhaps this is why Columbu chose to revisit the character and make him more conventionally heroic.

Opening with an action sequence that establishes Enrico Costa as a government agent (!), the plot of Doublecross on Costa's Island (1998) then moves forward 6 years to find Costa sculpting in his native land. It’s here that a sense of déjà vu overcomes viewers. While Franco does reprise the role of Enrico Costa, the film is not a sequel, rather a reedit of Taken Alive with a new but familiar sounding title and new footage.

Franco produced and directed Doublecross on Costa's Island, which combines a version of Taken Alive’s kidnap plot with a new one in which Costa is hunted by various assassins. Gone is the original film’s plot device of an incriminating videotape and with it most of the scenes involving Ginty’s corrupt politician (here his name is misspelled Gintry). In their place are many more scenes of Franco in action.

In the original film Costa played an innocent local partnered with a government agent, but here almost the reverse is true. It is Costa who is the trained agent and Barbara Niven’s special agent becomes a tourist thanks to some of her key scenes being removed and the redubbing of others. This trick backfires in the climax when she grabs a shotgun and boldly confronts kidnappers. The behavior seems extremely out of character.

While half the film consists of recycled footage the differences between the two edits are significant. The added scenes mainly feature Franco and supporting actor William Smith, upgraded to villain as “the guy who pulls all the strings in Washington”, so it’s no surprise that the actors who didn’t reprise their roles play a much smaller part than before.

Inevitably the mixture of new footage and old causes the plotting to get a bit confusing. The intersection of the two plot threads is handled very poorly, with Costa’s search for the kidnapped woman coming from out of nowhere. One moment he’s dodging bullets and the next he’s playing tour guide and saying “by the way we need to look for a woman who’s lost in the hills” in a voiceover. Bad editing aside, the second is definitely the more action-packed version of the Enrico Costa adventure. There’s much more gunplay, more cars are dropped down cliffs and Costa is even set on fire.

At 60, Franco made his final foray into the action genre with Ancient Warriors (2001). Directed by Walter Von Huene, whose varied career included a stint as Schwarzenegger’s acting coach in the second half of the 90s, the film showed Franco playing a different kind of character and a supernatural side of Sardinia.

Once again there we get the impression there are an awful lot of Americans in Sardinia and everyone speaks English. Here Franco’s character Aldo Paccione seems to be one of the only natives.

After playing the lecherous narcissist Beretta and the quirky Costa, Franco shows a more mature side as a loving husband and father. A military leader haunted by the death of his father in the prologue, Aldo is a shadow of his former self, but when more evil Americans, led by uber-villain Richard Lynch, threaten Sardinia and his family he gets back into action.

Unfortunately this is another film in which Franco, despite being producer, allowed himself to be overshadowed by much more experienced co-stars. Far too often his character is absent. Seasoned co-star Daniel Baldwin shares the burden of carrying the film, at least for a while, though he seems to practically disappear as the film moves on. As it turns into a men-on-a-mission movie a variety of other characters are introduced.

Aldo is the main character driven by the desire to find the man with the terribly scribbled snake tattoo who killed his father. As a consequence his wife is shot and there’s more than one attempt to kill his disabled daughter. A variety of supporting characters rally to help him, including the obligatory wise-cracking black guy and a girl who looks like a model (because she is). Franco occasionally runs around firing two pistols but he’s a less effective hero than in any of his earlier films. Given his age that’s not a surprise.

As usual the plot is a mishmash of elements, the main one involving Lynch’s character’s search for the secret of eternal life amid Sardinia’s caves. It is in this element of the story that the mythical ancient warriors of the title play their brief part. Imagine a really cheap hybrid of The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, 2010) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981). But even with this new supernatural addition to the Columbu film formula it’s the weakest of the quartet. Less narcissistic, no scenes of bodybuilding and clothes kept on in the finale, but less interesting.

Now approaching 70 years of age, the chances are that Franco won’t be picking up another semi-automatic weapon and chasing evil Americans. Although we shouldn’t rule it out. With Schwarzenegger apparently planning on a return to action following the excited response to his Expendables cameo, who knows. Considering how supportive the Austrian Oak has been of the Sardinian Strongman’s aspirations we could even get a reunion someday. But let us hope that it’s not another long montage of weight lifting.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Johnathan Schaech

Johnathan Schaech (pronounced "Sheck") has smouldering good looks that have been exploited in a number of supporting and leading roles over the past 20 years.

He's appeared in films of varying caliber, but almost exclusively in dramatic roles. He's not the first person you’d expect to see in a physical role. But that’s exactly what happened when he got the lead role in the sequel to the cult hit Road House (Rowdy Herrington, 1989).

Reworking the concept of the first film, which was about a bouncer in a small town bar, Road House 2 (Scott Ziehl, 2006) casts Schaech as a DEA agent who heads back to his hometown to take care of some family business.

He equips himself well as an action hero; there’s some complex choreography that he (with the help of stunt double Sam Hargrave) handles really well. He even gets to go one-on-one with the Richard Norton, whose appearances are all too few since the end of the 90s.

Sadly Patrick Swayze did not reprise his role as Dalton for Road House 2 (not even for a cameo) but there is some continuity. Schaech, who also gets a screenplay credit, plays the son of this iconic character. The timeline discrepancy is never sufficiently explained and he doesn't make a single mention of his mother.

Schaech may be a newcomer to action hero status but he’s no stranger to made-for-DVD sequels. Albeit "erotic" ones. Early in his career he starred alongside Alyssa Milano in Poison Ivy 2 (Anne Goursaud, 1996) and nearly 10 years later in the lamentable 8mm 2 (J.S. Cardone, 2005).

8mm 2 was only titled as a sequel, originally called The Velvet Side of Hell, but distributors Sony Pictures Home Entertainment must have been pleased with the release. They were backing Road House 2 and must have felt Schaech could carry the belated Road House sequel.

Most DVD sequels are not good but Road House 2 really bucks the trend. At least in my opinion. It’s not perfect but has a good cast, decent production values and excellent action sequences. While films like Timecop 2 (Stephen Boyum, 2003) are an embarrassment, Road House 2 stands as a worthy successor. It’s arguably one of the best direct-to-DVD action films of the 2000s and of direct-to-DVD sequels in general.

There are reasons to love and hate Road House 2, but you simply cannot fault the film’s style and action. This has less to do with Schaech than it does with J.J. Perry and his stunt team. A special mention has to go to Sophia Crawford and Karin Silvestri, who make the climactic girl-fight between feisty love interest Beau (Ellen Hollman) and knife-wielding psycho-bitch Nadja (Marisa Quintanilla) much more memorable than Schaech’s with either Norton or lead villain Jake Busey.

Schaech wasn’t born to be an action hero, just another handsome bloke dropped into an action film, but his career continues to thrive, with supporting roles in thrillers such as Takers (John Luessenhop, 2010) and 5 Days of August (Renny Harlin, 2011).

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Mirko Filipović

Back in the 80s and 90s there was a tendency to cast wrestlers and kickboxers as action heroes, these days it’s mixed martial arts fighters that get the call.

From Andrei 'The Pitbull' Arlovski in Universal Soldier: Regeneration (John Hyams, 2009) to Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson in The A Team (Joe Carnahan, 2010), almost every established star gets their shot at movie stardom. Some, like Oleg "The Russian Bear" Taktarov, have carved out respectable second careers as actors, but most just don’t have the charisma to match their violent prowess. Croatian sensation Mirko Filipović for one.

Nicknamed Cro-Cop because he used to be a member of Croatia's elite Police Special Forces tactical unit, Filipović’s prolific career began in 1996 and continues to this day. In 2005 he was given the lead in the Croatian/American co-production Ultimate Force; not to be confused with the British drama series of the same name.

The film gave Filipović the starring role of Axon Rey, codenamed Sphinx, an elite killing machine hunted by the very people that trained him. Imagine The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002) with all the style and gripping pace removed and you’ll get an idea how bad this film is and why Filipovic hasn’t starred in a film since.

With no acting experience, it seems the makers didn’t feel it appropriate to challenge the giant and so he’s given nothing to do. He spends half the film wandering around an island having a dialogue and tension-free fight scenes (with plenty of opportunities to use his trademark left high kick) and gunfights against a repetitive score.

Asked to do barely a moment of acting, he hardly speaks, while this works just fine in some films, it’s just strange here. They were clearly just too lazy to write a proper script. Supporting characters having dull conversations or deliver monologues that are heavy with exposition.

The plot is threadbare and director Mark Burson clearly had no budget to work with. The film was shot in English with a largely Croatian cast and a helicopter lends some production value but there really is nothing notable about this film, save for the fact that practically every scene has been given a colourful filter in an attempt to lend some sense of artistic style to the proceedings. On this evidence stone-faced Filipović belongs in mute supporting roles only.