Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Heavy Action: Precious Cargo

by Patrick Bromley
It's Zack Morris versus John McClane in "My Childhood: The Movie!"

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.
My childhood affection for SBTB, anchored as it was by the lead performance of Mark-Paul Gosselaar as the Ferris Buelleresque Zack Morris, has instilled in me an unnatural interest in following his career even now, more than 20 years later. I will admit to being less than vigilant in keeping up with his post-Bayside TV projects, as he has had at least a dozen failed series since then. I didn't even watch him on NYPD Blue, the one respectable series he landed and a show Adam Riske assures me is very good. Ok, yes, I'll admit to having seen my fair share of Franklin & Bash, because I'm not a fucking monster, right? RIGHT? But his film career, limited as it may be, has long fascinated me. When he had a supporting role in the DTV psychological thriller Twisted Love in 1995 -- I believe his first post-Belding film role -- I made sure to rent it from the video store. And when he finally got a starring role in the 1998 MTV films production 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
Precious Cargo is one of the first action movies I've ever seen that feels like a TNT show. It's headlined by a former TV star and rounded out by a cast that movie fans might recognize but not necessarily name (except Claire Forlani), with Bruce Willis guest starring as the bad guy of the week. Like so many modern DTV actioners, it feels fairly small and cheap, possessing the scale of an average episode of Burn Notice. But I don't actually mean the comparison as an insult! I enjoyed Burn Notice for what it was. There was action, there were double crosses, a sense of location, characters who were competent professionals, and, best of all, a sense of lightness and fun. Precious Cargo (I really don't like that title) has all of those things. And seeing as how the great majority of DTV action movies are grim and humorless -- Steven Seagal's SprayHair™will not allow a joke at its expense -- it's nice to come across one willing to be goofy at times. Not all of the comedy works; in fact, most of it doesn't. But I so appreciated the tone that co-writer/director Max Adams (in his feature debut) is striving for that I'm willing to cut the movie some slack. Many modern DTV action films try to compensate for their lower budgets by trying to be badass. I like that this one wants to be fun and entertaining above all else.

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.
To my welcome surprise, Mark-Paul Gosselaar makes for a pretty solid action star. I wouldn't cast him in Death Wish or anything, but for the smartass, breezy tone of Precious Cargo he's a good fit. The years look good on him, and between his slightly more rugged look and his flashy smile and handsomeness, Gosselaar is convincing as a guy who could conceivably con people with charm but who has also been doing it a little too long. His physicality works, and while I won't presume that he performs all of his own stunts, there are certainly enough where it's clearly him to earn him some additional action movie cred. Aside from a boat chase that's fairly cool, most of the action in the movie is generic. It's pretty infrequent, too; keeping costs down means lots of scenes of characters talking and making plans and, if you're Bruce Willis, sometimes threatening one another in between naps. It's all part of what makes this feel like a TV show a lot of the time. That said, if Precious Cargo was the pilot of a new series, I would totally tune in the following week. It's just fun enough.

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.

Got an action movie you'd like to see discussed in a future Heavy Action column? Let us know in the comments below!


  1. Replies
    1. Its been in my que for about a week now but I just cant bring myself to watch it. Its actually Bruce Willis who is turning me off from this movie. His VOD track record is horrible. I actually don't mind these VOD action flicks. Scott Atkins has a few I enjoy Michael Jai White has a few I like. I even watched one with Dean Cain in prison that wasn't too bad. There ok as long as you know what your getting into. My last straw with Bruce Willis was The Prince with him and Jason Patric. Bruce just seemed to wanna be anywhere but in that movie.

  2. Cool! Thanks for putting a spotlight on this! I'd seen this around, but never considered watching it, even though I too like the lead actor. Might give it a shot now.

  3. With one notable exception (Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a movie or television show whose lead actor uses both forenames is usually a sign to me that it probably won't be very good. Tiffani-Amber Thiessen might be a magnificent thespian, but her decision to go triple-barrelled on her SAG certificate lost her a potential fan in this viewer.

    Tom and Huck may very well be the definitive celluloid take on the Mark Twain classic. I do not know, because its star is one Jonathan Taylor Thomas.

    It's entirely possible that Full House is the funniest comedy since The Phil Silvers Show. If it is, it's a pleasure I must forever forego as two of its cast members are people who elected to go by the names Candace Cameron Bure and Mary-Kate Olsen. The latter was only about two when she started acting, but that's no excuse.

    Clarissa never got to explain one damn thing to me because she was played by Melissa Joan Hart.

    And Precious Cargo (PB is right, it's an awful title. I'm sure I've seen that on signs in the rear window of cars I'm driving behind to indicate the motorist has their offspring on board. Your rotten kids are not "precious", they're monsters like everyone else's, and your boastful claim to the contrary is the reason I'm tailgating you) will go unviewed by yours truly for the foreseeable future, compromising my goal to see every movie that has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (I thought 1985's The Hills Have Eyes II was pretty good) because of one of its stars. You know who doesn't use both of his forenames, Mark-Paul Gosselaar? That's right: Walter Bruce Willis. Your lacklustre career is your own fault, Mark-Paul.

    The trend for young actors going by multiple forenames seems to be dying out, thankfully, probably because of social media and the fact that most of us nowadays have short attention spa... I forgot what I was going to say. Good riddance, anyway. To me it smacks of insecurity: Fred Johnson is a nothing name, but Fred-Francis Johnson has movie star written all over it. Wrong!

    No offence intended to Hollywood Heath Holland. His parents were big Raiders of the Lost Ark fans, right?

    1. Right? I mean Tommy Lee Jones, Daniel Day Lewis and Philip Seymour Hoffman? Pshhh...What a bunch of jokers.

    2. So you don't watch any Jake-Jake Gyllenhaal movies? Oh wait, that's only me that calls him that.

  4. Exactly.

    No, Day-Lewis is Sir Daniel's surname. He's the son of former Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis. His full name is Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis, but I've never seen all that on a movie poster. I don't think Two-Face grew up being called Tommy Jones and decided to add the "Lee" when he started thesping. His name is one of those like JoBeth Williams or Sarah Jane Smith from Doctor Who. Sarah Jane did not like being called Sarah, although the Doctor sometimes used this diminutive. I might be mistaken, but I think Philip Hoffman added the Seymour when his career was already somewhat established. Actors can be a bit up themselves like that.

    There was a very definite fad in the '80s and '90s for young actors in American television to go by both forenames, and it always slightly bugged me.

    1. I think the name thing a lot of times has something to do with the Screen Actors Guild.

    2. Yes, I'm sure you're right. Michael Keaton had to change his name from Michael Douglas because Kirk's son was a member of the SAG and there's rules about not having two people with the same name on that organisation's books.

      I wonder if there was another actor called Michael Fox around when Michael J. Fox was getting started. I know the J doesn't actually stand for anything. I heard once that Fox used this initial because he was an admirer of the actor Michael J. Pollard. I think I heard that, anyway. It's possible I dreamt it.

  5. I thought i recognised that face on the poster.
    It's a Zack Attack