Hey folks, Harry here... Below is Col. Travis' first article for AICN. If you love my show, then in no small part, you should show love to Travis' first of a series of articles revisiting the various members of EXPENDABLES 2's gallery of manly man films. Now, here you go...
You. Not. Expendable. Part 1: Dolph Lundgren Revisited (RED SCORPION, THE PUNISHER, & I COME IN PEACE)
What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
You. Not. Expendable. Will revisit some of the classic (and not so classic) films starring the various and sundry cast members of The Expendables 2 in order to open up a conversation about action cinema in general and to prepare us all for the carnage that Expendables 2 will (hopefully) reap upon us all.
As we approach the August 17th theatrical release date of The Expendables 2, You. Not. Expendable will highlight different cast members, singling out a few of their feature film endeavors. The jury is still out on whether you, too, will want to revisit each of these films.
I kick off the column with Dolph Lundgren because Synapse Films recently released a rather stunning Blu-ray of his Red Scorpion. I’ll discuss that title more below, but falling in love with Red Scorpion just got me onto a Dolph Lundgren kick. My logic then followed that I wanted to track down some of his other early films that I either hadn’t seen yet, or hadn’t seen in a VERY long time. So we’ll be discussing the aforementioned Red Scorpion, The Punisher, and I Come In Peace AKA Dark Angel. So, let’s revisit why Dolph Lundgren is not expendable.
- They Think They Control Him. Think Again.
- A human killing machine. Taught to stalk. Trained to kill. Programmed to destroy. He’s played by their rules… until now!
I’ve already tipped my hand that I pretty much loved Red Scorpion. It was my first viewing of the film, and what a way to experience it. Synapse Films’ Blu-ray release of Red Scorpion treats this action classic with love and adoration, providing an excellent (if not cutting edge) 2K scan of the film, and packing the disc out with a commentary track and newly produced interviews with Lundgren, Producer and Convicted Criminal/Political Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and make-up legend Tom Savini! If you already love the action films of the 1980s and haven’t seen this one yet, just stop reading now and go buy this sucker. I’m literally thrilled to own it.
Now that I’ve slathered praise all over this Red Scorpion release, let’s talk about the film itself. Seemingly tailor made for Dolph Lundgren, he basically gets to reprise his break out role in Rocky IV as Ivan Drago. One can easily envision a different scenario where instead of being trained to be the ultimate boxer, Ivan Drago was trained to be Spetsnaz, a Soviet Elite Soldier who, as the tagline suggests, is programmed to destroy. But this was 1989, and a movie hero can’t be a commie, right? What better plan, then, to have a trained Soviet killer experience a genuine and heartfelt doctrinal shift that ultimately makes him the greatest Commie-killer imaginable? That is Red Scorpion in a nutshell.
If I had been a grown adult in 1989, I might have been offended by the ridiculously anti-Soviet/anti-communist messages of the film, and the political leanings of its producer, one Jack Abramoff. But viewed here in 2012, the politics of the film just kind of crack me up. And yet at the same time, the drama of Nikolai Rachenko’s “redemption” works quite well. Of course, the ultimate sign of Ratchenko’s conversion from Commie to rebel leader is when he loads a shotgun shell into the chamber and says to his new rebel friends “Let’s kick some ass”. So no, this isn’t On The Waterfront we are talking about here.
But my sense is that Rachenko is played by Lundgren as a bit of a big, lunky puppy who hasn’t quite grown into his abnormally large body. Lungren appears impossibly young in Red Scorpion, and that naivite is both important to the story and helps the audiences get behind Rachenko. He is a killing machine, but he is also young and impressionable. So when he hits rock bottom after failing in his first mission to assassinate a rebel leader, this enormous puppy of a man is rescued and redeemed by a tiny old bushman named Gao. It sounds ludicrous, but Gao is played by a legit native bushman and Rachenko’s time in the wilderness with Gao is tender-hearted and treated more like a legitimate story arch than a training montage.
But the time eventually comes for the newly enlightened Rachenko to walk out of the wilderness a changed man. And when he teams up with the rebels he once hunted, it really is time to kick some ass!
I can’t move on from Red Scorpion just yet. I have to mention that there is one firearm in the film, featured on all the major artwork I have seen representing Red Scorpion, that is cooler than even Terry Crewes’ auto shotgun from the first Expendables film. This gun does awful, terrible things to whatever it is shot at. And I’d like to posit that the gun itself undergoes the journey that Rachenko does! Starting out the film in the hands of a Communist General, this gun blows a shotting range to bits. And once the gun switches its loyalties and falls into the hands of the Red Scorpion himself, the USSR is pretty much doomed.
Once Dolph picks up this weapon, we are treated to an incredible Tom Savini make-up sequence in which a man’s arm is blown entirely off ON SCREEN. It is an amazing gag that I had to freeze frame through after I saw it. And then once that dude is dispatched, Dolph turns the fury of this cinematic hand cannon against one of those badass Soviet helicopters that you see in every action movie with Russians in it. Guess who wins?
If Dolph Lundgren had had a couple of more films like this one in his early career, I genuinely think he could’ve transcended his current level of celebrity and broken into the uncontested action god realm. But as fate would have it, his next couple of films wouldn’t quite reach the level of 1980s excess and grandeur that Red Scorpion achieved. I’d suggest that Red Scorpion is a B-level action movie that didn’t get the memo and just shot for the A-list.
- If society won’t punish the guilty, he will.
- Judge. Jury. Executioner. All in a day’s work.
- The guilty will be punished.
I won’t give as much time and attention to the next 2 films as I did to Red Scorpion. They simply don’t warrant that amount of scrutiny!
The Punisher is a Marvel property that seems incredibly easy to adapt into a feature film, but has never quite hit the mark 100% yet, and since it has had 3 attempts at this point, I get the feeling that Marvel is going to chill out on the Punisher train.
Literally every human reading this knows the complex backstory of Frank Castle AKA The Punisher (Lundgren). His family got killed by bad people, so he kills bad people. And he generally looks really cool while doing it. Punisher mythology lesson complete!
I’ll start out with what Dolph Lundgren’s version of The Punisher gets right, but it is a short list. For one thing, and this is a big thing, the body count in The Punisher is simply off the charts. Within 20 minutes, Frank Castle has killed a couple dozen people. By the end of the proceedings, I have to believe that Castle has put a good 100 plus notches on his gangster-killing wall. 1989 was a different time for films and for Marvel! Even back then, although the movie was made, it wasn’t treated as a major priority and feels produced on the cheap. But the great part about that is the sense of abandon that the movie has. Human life is cheap in this film. And I guess you only get that level of irresponsible murder on a film that doesn’t have dozens of marketing/studio execs pulling for the biggest mass appeal possible.
For evidence of my last point, watch the Tom Jane Punisher movie.
Beyond the body count, I have to say that I really did enjoy some of the action set pieces and action direction of The Punisher. Lundgren’s enormous bulk paired with his legitimate martial arts training has always been the big draw, and he gets to shoot lots of guns AND fight lots of dudes (and a couple of ladies) in The Punisher. I felt that the geography and camera work in many of the major action sequences was clear and exciting.
But there is a whole movie that is wrapped around those action scenes that just isn’t very good at all. Lundgren must not be able to grow much of a beard, because the filmmakers here felt like it was a great idea to PAINT a 5 o’clock shadow on Lundgren’s face. I’m not sure if they were going for a vague skull reference in his makeup, or if they just figured “Hey, punishing people is dirty work”. But Lundgren’s face is smeared with silly looking black make-up for the duration of the film and it is more than a little bit distracting.
Then you have Louis Gossett, Jr. running around looking for Frank Castle. And I do mean looking for him. Actually, Gossett, Jr.’s character, Jake Berkowitz (!), literally does absolutely nothing in the film but look for Frank Castle. If you took every single moment of Berkowitz’ screen time away, it wouldn’t affect the major plot at all! The Punisher is basically killing off gangsters and gets wrapped up in a gang war between the Italians and the Yakuza. He single-handedly kills both gangs, and saves lots of small children in the process. But if you imagined Louis Gossett, Jr. ultimately teaming up with Lundgren for some carnage, or really doing anything, you will be disappointed. I guess Berkowitz provides some important exposition, or represents the humanity of Frank Castle, or what Castle could have been. But whatever, dude.
Dolph isn’t necessarily miscast as The Punisher. It was probably a smart move for him to take this role. But he is kind of upstaged by his crazy stubble make-up. While I like that The Punisher actually does a whole lot of punishing in this iteration, the movie is filled with so much miserable exposition and poor acting and set designs that Dolph’s version can only be considered the second best Punisher. (With Punisher: War Zone being the least of all evils and Tom Jane’s being the clear worst.)
- Good cop. Bad alien. Big trouble.
- Detective Jack Caine thought he’d seen every kind of crook on earth. He had.
I Come In Peace was apparently titled Dark Angel throughout the rest of the world’s film markets, and it seems somewhat hard to find for home video today. I personally had to rent a VHS copy of the movie from I Luv Video. But it does appear that there is a limited edition DVD version, under the title Dark Angel, that can be purchased on Amazon.
However, I can’t say I recommend that purchase. I Come In Peace literally makes The Punisher look like a daggone masterpiece of action cinema!
With taglines like the ones featured above, I had high hopes for a pretty fun ride with this flick. But I Come In Peace is seriously lacking on almost every level.
The premise is fun enough: Det. Jack Caine is a tough cop who, after losing his partner and getting yelled at by his superior officers, is asked to go on a forced vacation. But when the feds step in, they put him back on active duty and partner Caine up with an annoying young FBI agent (Brian Benben.) Things get crazy quickly, though, when it turns out that they are on the hunt for a killer alien! A poor man’s Predator 2 ensues.
Man, where do I start with this thing? For one thing, how many cop movie clichés did I touch on in my previous paragraph? That’s right: all of them. The dead partner, the angry police chief, the loner/rule-breaker hero, the new partner who eventually becomes best buds with the hero. Each of those clichés in and of themselves can be tolerated, but this movie has ALL of them, and does them all poorly.
Then, you have the aliens. There are two of them. And they keep trying to kill each other. Eventually we learn that one is a bit of an interstellar drug dealer who is creating a cosmic drug out of the brains of its human victims, or something like that? And the other is an intergalactic cop trying to stop him. We learn very little about these aliens, which could be a mystery-building strength, but it isn’t. There is no mystery about them, they just show up and battle it out.
Oh, did I mention that the aliens pretty much look like normal dudes with milky eyes? It is almost like everyone in the movie was clued in: These guys are aliens! But as a viewer, they literally just looked like slightly juiced up punks. Not to mention that they aren’t “dark” at all, so I’m not sure why the title Dark Angel would have ever applied. The villain alien literally looks like an albino Edward James Olmos, only more normal.
I Come In Peace feels a lot like Predator 2 (released the same year), with an urban cop fighting an alien that SHOULD outmatch him on every level. But the screenplay is more riddled with clichés than bullets, and once you throw in the super-annoying sidekick whose comic relief is eye-gougingly inauthentic, this one isn’t even fun enough to appeal to my retro-kitch aesthetic. Just watch Red Scorpion twice and skip this one!
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis