Thursday, February 21, 2013

Heath Holland On...Three Flicks: Dolph Lundgren

Welcome to a new feature for Heath Holland On…: "Three Flicks!" From time to time, I’ll bring you my thoughts on three movies, either by one actor or held together by a common theme. This column, as promised last week, is the first (but not the last) to feature Dolph Lundgren.
I’ve always liked Dolph Lundgren -- he was definitely a presence in some of the movies I grew up with -- but it’s only been within the last couple of years that I’ve really started to grow an even deeper appreciation for his work. He's been around all along, doing his thing, but I didn’t notice just how prolific and awesome he was until recently.

Just a few words on his background: he was born in Sweden and took up the drums (which he would showcase later in Command Performance) as well as martial arts and contact sports as a teenager. He came to America in his early twenties and attended a few colleges on a scholarship studying chemistry. After that, he was back in Sweden as a Marine. During this time, he was fighting in tournaments and winning karate championships. After his stint in the marines, he got a MASTER’S DEGREE in CHEMICAL ENGINEERING in Australia and was awarded a scholarship to MIT. So by the time he was in his mid-twenties, he’d lived in three countries, become a karate champion and multiple black belt, served in the Swedish armed forces and attained a master’s degree. Before he’d made a single movie, he’d lived the life of several men. Those first 25 years contain enough life experience to fill several movies. DOLPH LUNDGREN IS AWESOME.

This inaugural edition of Three Flicks features a pretty wide sample of Dolph’s work, from 1989 to 2007. It was really interesting to look at how he went from such roles as the bad guy in Rocky IV and being He-Man to where he has ended up now, which is a pretty long way from those-one dimensional roles (I’m not going to get into those two movies, but I want to in a future column). Dolph’s career is as diverse as it is prolific, and he’s done a TON of different TYPES of movies, so there’s a lot of material to be discussed. Most of his movies fall short of the mark, and many of them are what we’d all consider "B" movies, but they’re also ambitious, which we reward around here.

Having said that, let’s start here with…

The Punisher (1989)

Of the three movies centered around the character of The Punisher, this is probably the one I’ll revisit the most when I need a Frank Castle fix. I hadn’t seen it in YEARS, and it was a little bit of a shock revisiting it after so long. While Tim Burton’s Batman from the same year is a more stylized, emo version of the late 80s, this is the '80s as they really were, for good or (more likely) for bad. This is what we thought was cool back then.
What I like about the way this thing kicks off is that the origin story of The Punisher takes place in a television news announcement pretty much immediately after the opening credits. I wish more movies would take the same approach, because it really saves time. After all, the origin is NOT what we’re watching this movie for. There’s no 45 minute establishment of characters, or setting of the stage. We’re introduced to some bad guys, and within minutes we’re seeing people being punished.

This is not a good movie, and I’m not here to convince you that it is, nor am I here to convince you that The Punisher is a cool character. I think Patrick said it best in one of the podcasts: you like this character when you’re a kid because he’s BAD. He does what we aren’t supposed to do. He also, as evidenced by this movie, spends a lot of time meditating naked in the sewer. There’s some very strange choices here: instead of stubble, Dolph’s face is covered in a thin layer of what looks like shoe polish. I think we’re SUPPOSED to think it’s a three day beard, but it really just looks like he needs to wash his face. Weird, bad choice. Also, Dolph looks really strange with his hair dyed black. Why not just hire someone who had dark hair and could grow a beard?

The plot is minimal and is really just an excuse to shoot people. What’s there is thin: we have an Italian organized crime family and we have a Japanese organized crime family. They both do bad things and need to be punished. Luckily, we know someone who can do that. This movie was filmed in Australia for 9 million dollars and is directed by Mark Goldblatt, editor of such action tentpoles as The Terminator, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Terminator 2, The Last Boy Scout, True Lies, and Showgirls. Okay, so the last one isn’t an action tentpole, but it sure caused a lot of tentpoles to pop up. Ba-zing! My point is that the man knows a lot about action and how to edit action scenes. He’s only directed two movies (this is his second and last), but the action is definitely the reason we’re watching it. The script is terrible and feels like it was written by the kind of teenager at which it's aimed. There’s some truly awful dialogue. The production values are super low and the direction given to the set decorator seems to be “more gray!” But the action is why we’re here, and thanks to Goldblatt, Lundgren, and Louis Gossett Jr., who seems to be in another movie, it works enough to do what it sets out to do, which is kill bad guys in creative ways.

Speaking of Louis Gossett Jr., I’m way more interested in his character. I want to see the movie that he’s in -- the one about the lone good cop trying to fight a tide of crime and corruption in a filthy city. As much as I love Dolph, he’s not given much range here and he’s pretty wooden. He is not the man he would become. Still, despite feeling cheap (in every sense of the word) and having minimal human drama to connect the action scenes, the movie delivers on the things you want. There’s a lot of over the top carnage, long shots of Frank Castle on a motorcycle, and ambitious set pieces in a variety of cool locations. They serve to do nothing but provide a backdrop for violence, but that’s all this movie needs ‘em for, anyway. It’s fun. Dumb, but fun. It does what it says.

The Defender (2004)

Dolph made plenty of good movies in the '90s, and I’ll talk about those soon, but let's jump ahead to 2004 for The Defender. This movie has HUGE ideas and is FAR more ambitious than it has the ability to deliver on, but it tries, and that’s what is important. The attached director, Sidney J. Furie, dropped out before filming began, leaving the job open for Dolph to step up and take directorial duties for the first time. Again, this movie has some gigantic ideas behind it. You wouldn’t know it from the DVD box. Or the opening credits. Or the menu screen. You also wouldn’t know it from the bad porno music that plays during the strangest times in the movie, which would be better served by silence. Nor would you know it from the casting of JERRY SPRINGER as the President of the United States of America. In fact, I’ll be honest, for the first 20 minutes, I was really wondering what Dolph was thinking with this piece of trash, but by the end of the movie I was impressed at all it tried to accomplish and at how much of it actually succeeded.
Dolph stars as the titular (hee hee) Defender, Lance Rockford, an ex-soldier now working for the National Security Agency and leading a team of specialists in defense against terrorism. The plot unfolds for the length of the entire movie and it takes a pretty long time (relatively speaking, because all of these movies are about 90 minutes) to really find out what is going on. I found that to be refreshing and appreciated that the whole thing wasn’t laid out for me within the first 10 minutes. What we know in the beginning is that Lance was captured during the first war in Iraq in 1991 (a great year…listen to the F This Movie Fest podcast) and he ended up being subjected to torture and saw some pretty horrible things. Flash forward to the present, where he's put in charge of security for a meeting between the head of the NSA and an unidentifiable mysterious figure. Who that figure is, how they factor into the plot, and what happens from there is the whole movie, so I’ll leave it purposefully vague. Suffice it to say that what starts as a routine security job quickly goes south, and there are a few twists and turns along the way.

Again, this movie is ambitious, especially for Lundgren’s first time directing. It has great production values because it was shot on location in Romania, which is itself one big production value. For a direct-to-DVD, low-budget B-flick, it also has some creative and unusual cinematography, using lots of interesting camera angles, helicopter shots and crane shots. It does not FEEL like the 6 million dollar movie that it actually is. The action, when it comes (because action is not the only thing this movie has on its mind) is very well shot and easy to follow. By the time we DO get to the action, it’s not played in an over-the-top, one-liner kind of way. It’s given weight and impact. When characters die, it’s tragic and final. When a grenade goes off, we’re disoriented and the audio washes out, leaving us with a ringing sound in our ears. The tone of the movie is realistic, not cheesy.

It’s far from flawless, though. Jerry Springer does not belong in this movie. I can’t help but wonder if his attachment was seen as a plus or some sort of a stipulation for the production. But he’s not a very good actor, and he is definitely not a convincing president. He’s out of place here, constantly grumpy and chain smoking cigars, threatening at any moment to reveal the results of a paternity test or deliver today’s Final Thought. He rivals James K. Polk (who drilled glory holes in the Oval Office…not really) as the sleaziest President of the United States ever.

But the ideas here are interesting and thought provoking, much more than this kind of movie would normally deliver. Here is a 6 million dollar, internationally marketed movie about the nature of terrorism two years after September 11th that challenges the motivations of the war on terror and questions the decisions made by those in positions of leadership. NOT what you’d expect. And all this comes from a straight-to-DVD movie starring and directed by a largely dismissed actor eight years before Zero Dark Thirty. Like The Punisher, it doesn’t all come together the way that you know they wanted it to, but it tries, and some of it succeeds. It’s certainly worth giving a shot and for appreciating it for what it is: a movie that reaches for greatness and falls short. With a bigger budget and more resources, it could have been even better. Or perhaps not; perhaps the charm lies in the failure, and in finding a gem like this distributed by a company you’ve never heard of in a bargain bin for two dollars. Maybe it’s the way it rises above low expectations that make it worth watching.

Missionary Man (2007)

The last movie is Missionary Man (2007), again with Lundgren directing. By the way, it’s worth noting that, as of this writing, he’s directed six films and is working on his seventh. It's impressive, given that he has largely worked outside the system for 15 years. Of the three movies I’ve talked about here, this is my favorite. It’s a modern western, shot in Dallas and featuring several Native American actors and the return of James Chalke, who was also in The Defender and has popped up in five of Lundgren’s movies.
Lundgren rolls into town on a motorcycle (I like it already), carrying a bible and ordering up shots of tequila at the local bar. He goes simply by the name of Ryder, and has come to attend the funeral of a local Native American man who has died under mysterious circumstances. Kateri Walker is the female lead, reminding me a bit of a Native American Lucy Liu, but she doesn’t get all that much to do. In fact, the plot is pretty simple and unfolds at a slow, deliberate pace, eventually revealing itself to be a story about justice -- not in the way that The Punisher is, more in the way that many westerns center around someone getting killed that shouldn’t have and a stranger riding into town to settle the score. I was pleased that even though I watched three movies in rapid succession and two of them were directed by Lundgren, each of these three movies is completely different.

In addition to starring and directing, Lundgren also co-wrote the script. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not. It’s bad when you get lines of dialogue like this, delivered by a junkie to Lundgren as he tries to clue him in that foul play was a factor in the death of the man Lundgren sees buried: “These guys….DROWNED SOMEBODY in the river…..IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.” To which Ryder replies “I know EXACTLY what you mean.” If what he means is that they drowned someone in the river, I think WE ALL get it. WINK WINK. Shhhhhh!

Also, there’s a problem with the colors and saturation of the film. It’s REALLY washed out, almost to the point of being black and white, with HEAVY grain. I assumed this to be a deliberate choice on Lundgren’s part, but after reading up about the movie, it seems that it was a botched conversion from the 16 mm HD masters leaving the film in a state that was not intended. I suppose this is why the film is not available on Blu-ray, which is really unfortunate.

Like The Defender, the movie takes its time getting to where it wants to go and provides a slow burn, choosing to ratchet up tension rather than deliver a breakneck pace. I said that it’s a modern western, but I also think that it feels like a '70s revenge movie. It just has this vibe that I can’t quite explain. In fact, I noticed it with both of the two that Lundgren directed. They aren’t paced like your typical American studio action movie. They take their time, which we don’t see a lot of these days. They give the audience the benefit of the doubt and count on them to sit tight until the movie is done. They don’t flash-edit or have pounding soundtracks. In fact, this soundtrack is positively relaxed. It’s usually just a lone electric guitar with single strums, like a sad Eddie Vedder loaded up on Valium and locked in a room with no one to play with.

Unfortunately, along with the low budget (I couldn’t find an exact figure) and the nature of a B-movie like this, many of the townspeople seen in this movie seem to actually be locals and are pretty bad at line delivery. The rednecks feel uncomfortably authentic and many of the Native American actors are obviously uncomfortable on camera.

However, I REALLY enjoyed this movie. The final confrontation takes place in the middle of this small western town and has violence to rival what we saw in The Punisher. It’s brutal, and because we haven’t seen anything quite so intense leading up to the finale, it feels epic. After the 75 minutes leading up to the last battle, the payoff is more than earned. Missionary Man is not just my favorite of these three movies, it’s now one of my favorite Dolph Lundgren movies.

So there you go. Three flicks featuring Dolph Lundgren, all different from one another, all worth watching. Seeing where he’s gone, starting with Rocky IV and ending up in The Expendables, I admire him and think he’s gotten so much better with age. His movies, while usually low budget and straight-to-DVD, have more charisma, style, and watchability than many of the others that litter the action movie aisle. He works continuously, more than just about anyone. He has consistently starred in at least one and sometimes two movie each year for the last 20 years, and in 2012 he starred in FIVE movies. It looks like in 2013, he’s slated to appear in SEVEN. This from a man who lived in Spain for years and just came back to LA for The Expendables in 2010. Between 1995's Johnny Mnemonic, his last theatrical release for quite some time in 1995, and his theatrical comeback 15 years later with The Expendables, he was a involved in TWENTY-FOUR film projects.

We’ve got a lot to talk about!


  1. Great job, Mr Holland; I’ve been looking forward to you doing something about Lundgren since we talked about it in the comments for your Hobbit article, and it didn’t disappoint.

    Dolph really is an interesting person, he’s had such a fascinating life and it’s great to see him forging this new path for himself over the last few years. It seems like he just does films for the pure enjoyment rather than because he has to.

    I’ve never seen Missionary Man, but you had me at “Lundgren rolls into town on a motorcycle” and I’m a huge fan of westerns and films that take that style into a modern setting so I’ll track down a copy of that for sure.

    1. Right on! I'll karate kick and you karate kick at the same time and we'll high five Dolph style with our feet.

  2. If you haven't seen it, Heath, I strongly recommend THE KILLING MACHINE (aka ICARUS). Another strong directorial outing from Lundgren, with an extremely solid performance from him as well.

    1. That is definitely on my list of Dolph movies to see. There's so many! Thanks, Movie Zombie?

  3. Thanks for the Dolph and recommendations, Heath. I love Lundgren's version of "The Punisher" (it helps that I'm a stone-cold Jeroen Krabbé whore, and he plays one half of the bad guys Castle fights with) and I think it gets unjustly forgotten in the 80's action rush. Next time Dolph comes up in a column, Heath, make sure to include "I Come In Peace." :-)

  4. Wow, I had no idea Dolph was such an interesting (and apparently really smart) character. Haven't seen a ton of his movies but he's got enough charisma that you like him even if the movie isn't great. I started watching Red Scorpion last week and was interrupted but I liked where it was going - other than that I haven't seen him in anything for years but I'll try to check out your recco's at some point!