There are two separate narratives at work in Precious Cargo, the 2016 DTV action movie starring Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Bruce Willis. Neither of these narratives speak to the film's plot, which is a fairly straightforward story of a gang of crooks and con artists who scheme to rip off a crime boss (Willis) for a haul of diamonds. No, the two narratives at work in this film are the two trajectories of actors whose careers once meant a great deal to me. For one, Precious Cargo may be the peak; for the other, it's another step in a steady descent into mediocrity that seemingly won't end until his legacy is totally destroyed. That the crossing of these two paths culminates in trashy, DTV action movie junk makes it a movie made for an audience of me.
Listen. I watched a lot of Saved by the Bell as a kid. Like, a lot. Like, I used to record it on Saturday mornings on a VHS tape, holding the VCR remote at the ready so I could cut out the commercials in real time. I had pretty much every episode of the show's original five-season run (minus the Good Morning, Miss Bliss season and any/all of The New Class) on a couple volumes that were labeled as such. I can neither explain nor defend my affection for this show, as even when I was a kid I recognized that the show was not objectively good. The writing was hacky, the performances broad, the production incredibly cheap and the canned laughter obvious. But if I have ever had something I would truly consider a "guilty pleasure" (I don't feel guilty about most of the stuff I enjoy), I think my childhood fandom of Saved by the Bell would be it. My wife, aware of this checkered past, recently arranged for me a surprise birthday outing of family and friends to a pop-up restaurant in Chicago designed to look exactly like The Max. It was surreal. There was a long wait to get in and every table was full, and as I looked around at the crowd inside I just wondered "What are we all doing here?" The show was not good. Surely everyone else knows that too, right? Even those that like it as I did? Nostalgia is a weird, weird, powerful thing.
Dead Man on Campus -- a movie I could actually see in theaters -- I was there twice on opening weekend. Once with an appendicitis! The movie was not much of a hit and the Preppy One's film career stalled out. Pretty much every single thing he shot since 1998 was made for TV, minus one supporting role in the Robert De Niro drama (!) Heist in 2015. This makes his stepping up as an action lead in Precious Cargo a pretty big deal.
Then there's Bruce Willis, another actor who started out on a cult TV favorite before making the move to features. The difference here is that unlike Gosselaar, Bruce Willis become one of the very biggest movie stars on the planet for the better part of three decades. While his days of domination at the US box office appear to be behind him, Willis is still incredibly bankable in global markets. This is exactly what makes it possible for him to have glorified cameos in four or five DTV action movies a year: putting his name on the poster ensures that producers can get financing and that the film will probably turn a profit even though his participation is limited in both screen time and the level of him giving a shit. I can't think of a single Willis performance among Willis' DTV work in which he seems the slightest bit invested in the part he's playing or the story that's being told. Bruno knows what brings to a movie -- his name -- and exerts exactly that much effort. As someone who grew up loving David Addison and who still considers Die Hard to be the best action movie ever made, it is incredibly disheartening to see the level of utter disinterest Willis displays in his current action output. Maybe some of the directors making these movies could keep a running total of what the star is earning each minute he's on screen in the corner of the frame. That way, I would feel like one of us is getting something out of it.
|Pictured: Bruce Willis, phoning it in
Unlike its DTV contemporaries, which tend to be star-focused because that's what will get fans to rent the thing from Redbox on a Friday night, Precious Cargo emphasizes a team dynamic. Sure, Gosselaar is calling the shots, but he calls in a couple of his friends (including "sexy sniper" Logan, played by Jenna B. Kelly, and John Brotherton of Furious 7 fame, whose major character trait is that he argues with his wife) and it gives the film the feel of a heist movie. This is a group of likable criminals trying to pull off a job and fuck over a criminal who is an unlikable scumbag. Walking the line between both sides -- the untrustable femme fatale who talks our protagonists into the job -- is Claire Forlani, playing Gosselaar's ex-lover who reappears in the middle of his date with a new veterinarian girlfriend (Lydia Hull) and reveals herself to be about eight months pregnant. Forlani does her best with an impossible character and an American accent, but both get the better of her in the end.
Whether or not Precious Cargo leads to more action roles for Mark-Paul Gosselaar, I cannot say. I can say with utmost certainty that it will not spell the end of Bruce Willis' current run as the genre's most disappointing Casher of Checks despite heavy competition from Nicolas Cage and John Cusack (and before you say anything, Steven Seagal's SprayHair™is in a different class of disappointment). I don't know that I would recommend the movie to my #HeavyAction peeps. I also wouldn't recommend it to the hardcore SBTB fans, because at no point does Gosselaar call a "time out" and freeze all of the action around him. But any of you who, like me, live your lives where those two sweet Venn Diagram circles overlap, might have a good enough time. If you like it, great! You're ready to move on to Burn Notice.