Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

The “Universal Soldier” franchise is a rare thing indeed – a series where the straight-to-video sequels are vastly superior to the cinema-released original (let’s forget the two made-for-TV ones in the late 90s, and also 1999’s “The Return”, which is ignored by this movie anyway despite being sort of alright). John Hyams, who got his start with an MMA documentary called “The Smashing Machine”, and whose Dad Peter worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme several times, was chosen to direct.

From the very beginning, you know you’re in the hands of a group of people who saw an opportunity to make a calling card for the rest of the film world, not just turn a quick buck or put “something” on the screen. While I’m surprised we don’t see more people like Hyams, I’m glad he did his thing here (even if the career it mostly led to is one sequel to this, and then directing episodes of “Z-Nation”). That beginning is a kidnapping, shootout and a chase through the cold-looking streets of the Ukraine – well, Sofia, Bulgaria, where all these movies are made, but it’s less egregious than pretending it’s LA – where a balaclava’ed group of soldiers grab two teenagers and fight off hundreds of cops to get to a helicopter and escape. It’s well shot! And exciting! And it looks real! Apart from the main soldier taking multiple bullets and not even being slowed down, that is!

That guy is NGU, the new generation of UniSol, created by Dr Robert Colin (Kerry Shale, who in appearance and career reminds one of a slightly low-rent Wallace Shawn). NGU is played by Andrei Arlovski, current (as of mid 2017) UFC fighter; he’s a perfect choice, having a great look, not being required to act, but being required to kick a ton of ass. When he comes back from this mission, they even bother to give us an explanation of how they create the UniSols! It only took them 17 years! It’s to do with messing with the pituitary gland, altering DNA, tons of super-vitamins, along with a healthy dose of brainwashing, and it sort of makes sense – that they bothered at all is to be commended. Colin worked for the USA but absconded with the only working UniSol and is now selling his services to the highest bidder.

So, it’s a group of Ukrainian terrorists wanting the President to release a whole load of their friends; to this end, they’ve wired up Chernobyl to blow again, and are holding the President’s children hostage in an authentically dilapidated-looking industrial building of some sort. The US want their technology back, and to prevent environmental catastrophe, so they send in the few remaining first-generation UniSols they have left. It does not work out well for them.

There’s a lot of plot in this movie, which I don’t just want to recap because that would be dull. JCVD is there, and he’s in a special program to rehabilitate UniSols, led by Doctor Sandra Flemming (Emily Joyce, best known to British audiences as the co-star of sitcom “My Hero”). He’s the best of the lot, of course (I do love a good “ultimate badass” speech), but how will he cope with being asked to go back into the field? Well, asked is a strong word. Abducted in the middle of the night, strapped to a table and injected with UniSol drugs, is a better term for it. I’ve not even mentioned the guy who’s sort of the hero of the piece! Mike Pyle, also a UFC fighter, plays soldier Capt Kevin Burke, and he’s tasked with a bit of sneaky recon and potential rescue, hopefully avoiding NGU and any of the terrorists. But then there’s what happens when a group of bad guys in a movie actually get what they want, something that happens so rarely to be worth mentioning on its own, and just who’s inside that mysterious covered crate that Dr Colin is keeping as “insurance”. Okay, it’s Dolph Lundgren, who’s on the cover of the DVD. But it’s a good reveal.

I feel like I’m skating over stuff, but there’s a heck of a lot of it to cover, which is absolutely delightful for a movie such as this, where you can normally sum up every aspect of the plot on half a beer coaster. If anything, it’s perhaps over-stuffed, where Pyle (despite being a totally good actor, he’s done basically nothing other than this) is in it perhaps even a little less than JCVD, whose credit is an “and…” at the end of the opening credits.

I love what they’ve done with the UniSols in this. NGU doesn’t malfunction – that’s the job of our favourite psychopath (who, yes, was ground up in a mulcher at the end of the first movie, but he’s been cloned here or something) – but he represents the legions of faceless soldiers who get sent to die in far-off places by governments who don’t care about them. The party line is that they’d rather use the dead to fight their battles, but you know they’ll turn them on civilians as soon as they have to. They can also be seen as cast-offs, designed for the Cold War but utterly useless in the drone-dominated war zone of today; perhaps the only reason a Ukrainian terrorist can afford them.

JCVD and Lundgren both have great faces for action like this – there’s the real sense that they’ve done some hard living and fighting before getting to this point, and they’re roles that wouldn’t work (and, indeed, didn’t) when they had younger men playing them. The pain of what their lives are like are written into every scene, and it’s a top-3 all time performance for both of them. Dolph even gets a gibberish speech near the end to match his speech from part 1, which is a nice touch. This is a movie made by people who spent time thinking about what their world would be like, but still made sure it was packed with really good fight scenes and gun battles and exciting stunts. For part 5 of the franchise to be comfortably better than part 1 is an extreme rarity…in fact, I can’t think of any others.

Hopefully you’ve already decided to go and watch this. It’s much much better than any fifth part of a series about zombie soldiers has any right to be.

Rating: thumbs up

Advertisements

The Punisher (1989)

the punisher movie poster

Released on video at the same time I refused to watch anything without subtitles that wasn’t a miserable drama, I never caught the original “Punisher” (see yesterday’s review of the Thomas Jane instalment if you’d like a little background on the character). It reviewed terribly, with one of the nicest things said about it that it was “a boring one-man battle with never-ending action scenes.” But, dear reader, I have a rather different opinion, and would like to tell you how it’s both much better, while occasionally being just as bad as those reviews make out.

 

Backstory is dispensed with in a 30-second flashback / dream sequence, as NYPD’s finest Frank Castle sees the car containing his wife and kids blown up, due to him going after the Franco crime family. He officially dies in the blast, disappearing underground (literally) and becoming the Punisher, dedicated to bringing down organised crime.

 

Now, the first thing to notice is that the producers knew what they were doing when they hired Dolph Lundgren. He’s a big, strong, handsome guy, not the greatest actor in the world, but the great thing about the Punisher is, he’s an emotionally numb, withdrawn guy who exists solely for revenge, so the guy playing him doesn’t need to be a great actor! And Dolph is absolutely fine in the role, looking every bit the haunted soul with nothing else left to live for.

Punisher,The (1989))_011

Also cleverly, he’s surrounded by a couple of very good actors. Louis Gossett Jr plays his former partner Jake Berkowitz (if there’s a less likely guy for a name like Berkowitz, I’ve yet to see him); and Jeroen Crabbe (Dutch, and not really hiding his accent) plays mob boss Gianni Franco, returning to the US after Castle slaughters all the other lieutenants. The plot is nice and simple – as Castle works his way relentlessly through the mafia (a court case at the beginning tells us that 125 murders have been credited to him in the last five years), the Yakuza try and move in on their territory. Now, this must have been right at the beginning of the Yakuza becoming a thing in Western culture, because one of the cops says “Yaku-who?”, so some of the more cartoony elements of their representation are to be forgiven, I suppose. Alongside the mafia families trying to band together, the Yakuza and the Punisher, we’ve also got Berkowitz and new partner Sam Leary (Nancy Everhard) trying to convince the world that Frank Castle is still alive and working as the Punisher. She brings in computer modelling to try and work out where the Punisher lives, and Berkowitz mocks computers, only to be immediately proved wrong. I like those little moments of levity.

 

One of the many fun things about this is how the Punisher does not mess around. Even in Thomas Jane’s incarnation, he let a few people go, tried to be a decent guy, but Dolph starts at a run and never really lets up. People are violently murdered right from the off because this Punisher understands if you don’t put them 6 feet under they’ll just be back on the streets ruining the lives of innocent people in no time. “If you’re guilty, you will be punished”.

The Punisher (5)

ASIDE: I read while doing a bit of research for this that Joss Whedon, beloved nerd icon and director of the two Avengers movies, would kill the Punisher off and never bring him back if he were in charge of Marvel, saying he wants heroes who try and stop death, who don’t kill innocent bystanders – okay, in a fairly old interview, but nevertheless. Now, I’m a socialist and think prison is a poor solution to the problems of inequality, drug addiction and so on (while understanding the current system needs them), but given the other side of this argument is a character like Batman who goes out of his way to never kill anyone, I think I’m on the Punisher’s side. Batman sends his foes to Arkham Asylum, and every now and again one of them will escape, kill a ton of people, damage huge amounts of property, then get re-captured and put back in there. Batman’s been doing it for over 70 years, and I just want him to kill the Joker for good. In the world of superheroes where no-one ever dies and the same stories are told over and over again, one of the many reasons people tend to grow out of comics as soon as more complex storytelling options become available, someone like the Punisher is a breath of fresh air – he’s decided on his course in life and that is absolutely that.

 

The central chunk of the movie is the Punisher trying to rescue all the kids of the mafia bosses, who’ve been kidnapped by the Yakuza. Now, this isn’t the best bit, even though I can understand the movies giving him the Achilles heel of wanting to save kids (given that his own died); but it does give him the best of the movie’s many fight scenes, him against the two Yakuza underbosses. While I just thought it was a decent, brutal fight, it turns out that the two karate masters they hired for the roles insisted on doing their parts full-contact, so the reason it looked like it hurt was because it really hurt (Lundgren was a former European karate champion as well). The final fight, where he fights first the Yakuza boss Lady Tanaka and then Gianni Franco, is pretty weak by comparison. Actually, it’s pretty weak by comparison to any fight, and is the movie’s low point – sadly, it’s right at the end, which leaves a slightly sour taste.

 

This version of Frank Castle is quite a bit stupider than his Thomas Jane incarnation. That guy got the bad guys to do a lot of his work for him (by getting the boss to kill his wife and best friend, for example) whereas Dolph’s version is much more “kick the door open, kill everyone inside”. He’s also a lot crazier, kneeling in front of a shrine in his sewer home, filthy and completely naked, asking God to give him advice on how to act; plus, he shows an indifference to his own safety that borders on suicidal, as he refuses body armour while on his way to storm the Yakuza building at the end. The only time he ever seems happy is when he’s in the middle of slaughter, which is a layer of the character that Thomas Jane didn’t feel comfortable getting into, it would seem. The 2008 Ray Stevenson version is another kettle of fish entirely, but we’ll get to him later.

The Punisher (3)

I think it’s handy when watching this movie to remember it was made the same year as Tim Burton’s first “Batman” movie. While it’s obviously a different beast, it has a stronger tie to that than it does the other “Punisher” movies, or any of the recent slew of superhero efforts. It captures the feel of the comics of the time remarkably well and has a great look to it. Plus, it’s an awesome late 80s action movie in the same mold as so many other “video shop classics”.

 

I’m as surprised as you are, readers, but I think I actually prefer this version to the 2004 one. There’s a lot to be said for a movie that dispenses with the backstory and just gets into it – and this one doesn’t pretend to shy away from the more unpleasant parts of the Punisher’s psyche. He’s a filthy murdering lunatic who’s lived in the sewers for five years, whose only friend is a drunk actor / hobo. He knows as well as we do that his actions haven’t really made the city any better, crime is still rampant, but it’s what he’s been driven to.

The_Punisher_1989_2

If they were ever going to do a movie about the end of the Punisher’s life, I’d quite like to see Dolph take on the role again. He’s 58 now, but he’s still a big strong-looking guy, and having him fight the Kingpin (his last antagonist in the series of comics started by Garth Ennis) before retiring permanently would be interesting to watch.

 

A surprising sleeper gem, and one I think you should give a try to. Not perfect by a long shot, but extremely entertaining. One last thing, as every review must mention it by nerd law – he doesn’t wear the iconic skull t-shirt at any point. But, perhaps deciding it was too cheesy, they still put a very large reference to it right on Lundgren’s face. Check out the below screenshot and compare the shape of his stubble to the shape of the famous skull – perhaps it was too subtle for the comics fans. Maybe they were expecting to lose the rights and wanted to make sure they could retrofit it to “Generic Revenge Guy” without too many problems?

 

Rating: thumbs up

p1

One In The Chamber (2012)

OneInTheChamberBR

When the Eastern European filming locations that so many American productions use these days aren’t dressed up to look like New York (or wherever), and their true location is embraced, even a low-budget movie like this can have an interesting visual flavour. “One In The Chamber” is set and filmed in Prague, and the sense of the remnants of communism slowly crumbling while gaudy capitalism attempts to take root is everywhere.

 

Cuba Gooding Jr is a “fixer” for whichever crime family pays him the most money. He’s the stoic type, barely ever cracking a smile (perhaps thinking about his career would help with that); and inbetween jobs keeps his eye on a young woman who runs a small bar. She’s a plot device, being kidnapped towards the end, and it turns out Cuba killed her Dad when she was a kid, and he’s felt guilty about it ever since.

One-In-The-Chamber-DI

Anyway, he’s hired by one family to kill off their main rivals; he fails to completely wipe them out, so they bring in “The Wolf” (Dolph Lundgren, who clearly loved every minute of this), a wisecracking, Hawaiian-shirt-and-fedora-wearing assassin who’s so awesome his existence is only thought to be a myth. The two of them, after going for each other quite a bit, eventually figure out it might be smarter to work together, as it’s not like either of their employers is all that nice.

 

This is a good, solid, no-frills sort of thriller. We see our two stars kick a ton of ass, and while there’s nothing spectacular there’s a whole lot of great little scenes, like when The Wolf takes out the entire basement of an illegal betting shop. The atmosphere really sells this one, as the gangsters seem tired and miserable with their lot, neither good enough to be the hardcore Russian mob or stylish enough to be the Mafia. The futility of their pursuits hangs heavy over this movie.

One_in_the_Chamber_79126_Medium

Lundgren steals every scene he’s in, as a crazy person’s idea of what a “cool” assassin is like, and although it wouldn’t have made sense to have him as the star of the movie, he’s great throughout – I now want to see more of his recent output. Gooding’s fine too. It’s nice sometimes to not have anything particularly negative to say about a movie!

 

Hollywood has, in recent years, stolen the thunder of the Eastern European B-action movie industry. Movies like “John Wick” and “Taken” are pure B-movies with A-list talent and money, but it’s still fun at times to see what the rest of the world is up to. Director William Kaufman is building a decent career in this area, and I’m interested to see more of his movies now.

 

Rating: thumbs up

In The Name Of The King 2: Two Worlds (2011)

tumblr_ltrjl8Xnbk1qm3qa2o1_500

Our friend Uwe Boll decided, after losing the rights to the “Dungeon Siege” name (oh no, said no-one, ever) to just make a sequel to “In The Name Of The King” anyway, only with none of the names or locations from the first one. Throw in a money saving plot, and you’ve got yourself a “winner”.

The tax loophole that Boll had exploited to such wonderful effect closed in 2006, so despite financing already being in place for his next few movies (I’d suggest 2007’s “Postal” being the last movie to benefit), by 2011 and this movie funding had become a great deal tighter. Gone were the days of the first movie’s insane casting choices – all we get here is Dolph Lundgren, a fine fun B-movie leading man, but he’s no Burt Reynolds. Aside from a too-good-for-this-movie performance from Natassia Malthe, the only other casting choice of note is Lochlyn Munro as the King, a guy who (in part 1 comparisons) isn’t close to the level of even Matthew Lillard or Leelee Sobieski.

Dolph is basically the perfect guy. A former Special Forces soldier, he runs a dojo where he trains kids and also does a class for cops, for free (they leave donations for the young ‘uns). As he toasts his fallen comrades, a bunch of weird hooded figures suddenly appear in his home and start trying to kill him. And to let you know this movie isn’t messing around, then Malthe shows up (listed as “Manhatten” on IMDB, but that can’t be her name, surely?), helps him out and pulls him through a magic portal to Generic Fantasy World.

487ca5eed7e2482cb17db2e82e79e021

Only this one is significantly smaller than that of the first film. We see a run down old castle, some forest and the odd hut – the remote Canadian locations are absolutely beautiful, but there’s not many of them. The film cleverly tries to handwave away there only being like 50 people in this entire kingdom by having a plague set loose by the mysterious Raven kill nearly everybody, including everyone who survived the first movie – they can’t refer to any names or places, but the continuity attempt is there.

Anyway, it’s double-crosses and fantasy quests and all that good stuff, with the added bonus of a 21st century guy doing some wise-cracking, questioning why he’s part of some prophecy or other. Honestly, when the word “prophecy” is uttered in a fantasy movie my brain just checks out…plus this movie uses generic fantasy speech more than perhaps any other movie I can remember. No contractions, lots of thees and thous…I hope my mediaeval ancestors swore like troopers, to be honest.

I’ll get the good things out of the way first. Dolph using modern fighting styles in a fantasy setting feels like a fresh idea, and it’s done well. He’s a fine leading man, and Natassia Malthe is great too. In fact, most of the acting is strong, apart from Munro, who seems drunk the entire time. Talking of Munro, when we first see him he’s visibly putting on a wig, but this ludicrous hair plays no part in the rest of the movie, leading me to doubt my own eyes.

5373_5

The bad is, unfortunately, everything else. The dialogue is rotten, the plot is incomprehensible and stuff that happens at the beginning makes no sense when related to stuff that happens at the end. The ending manages the impressive feat of being hilariously stupid and unsatisfying at once, and when you realise you’re watching something that rips off the Martin Lawrence movie “Black Knight”, you know you’re in for a bad time.

Still, not all “thumbs down” ratings are equal, and I’d call it an entertaining bad movie, which you’ll have fun mocking. It’s got plenty of bizarre technical goofs (elasticated underwear in the olden days? Plus, you can apparently see cars parked through the gates of the castle at a few points, but I didn’t notice them and I’m not going back to check) for the eagle-eyed or easily bored among you.

Rating: thumbs down

Bridge of Dragons (1999)

Bridge_of_Dragons

Nu Image make the sort of films I love, pretty much. Starting with low budget sci fi and action (Cyborg Cop, Project Shadowchaser) in the early 90s then, in recent years, lucrative deals with action superstars like Sylvester Stallone and Gerard Butler (the Expendables series, Olympus Has Fallen), they’ve got a good thing going and clearly learned well from their old bosses at Cannon. They’re one of the main companies operating out of Sofia, Bulgaria, where aging stars like Jean Claude Van Damme and this film’s own Dolph Lundgren make action movies just like they used to at their height.

Then there’s director Isaac Florentine, one of the kings of this new straight-to-video world. He’s made a few films with Scott Adkins, like the amazing “Ninja”, and, weirdly, quite a lot of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” episodes. This is from relatively early in his directing career, and is also the first film that Nu Image made in Sofia before buying a studio there a few years later. So what’s it all about?

After a good old traditional “soldiers storm the rebel base” scene to kick us off, we’re introduced into the film’s world, and it does something simple and clever that more low-budget films ought to do – sets the action in a fictional country, so you don’t have to worry about landmarks and trying to make a normal town square look like *famous city*. It’s a place with princesses and evil generals, where high-tech military equipment rubs shoulders with horse-driven carts; and Dolph is “Warbird”, one of General Ruechang’s top mercenaries. Ruechang has seized de facto power after the death of the old king, and is about to marry Princess Halo to make the power “legal”. Only problem is, she doesn’t want to, so escapes, and Dolph’s a good guy so after a bit of tracking her down, goes over to her side, and that of the rebels.

968full-bridge-of-dragons-screenshot

Because of the location, there’s lots of really great scenery and set-pieces. They film in what I assume is the grounds of the old Communist government’s headquarters, and there’s palaces and so on that would be way out of their price range if they filmed in Britain or the US. It’s an interesting visual style and even when the action’s not very active, there’s usually something to look at. It is a bit weird how all the evil empire’s vehicles have a large “666” written on them though.

The problem is, surprisingly, the action. Florentine makes some weirdly goofy choices when it comes to how to film – Lundgren looks awful running in slow-motion, for one; and some people are very obviously yanked out of shot in a weird, awkward way when an explosion happens. I’m guessing budgetary constraints stopped the use of squibs, so people just seem to fall over when guns are fired in their general direction too. Perhaps it’s a problem with HD as opposed to the viewing method of choice for low-budget action, a crappy VHS tape, as sometimes all you notice are the extras holding guns in the background who’ve clearly got no idea what to do.

The actual one-on-one fights are decent, though, with Lundgren (who’d apparently just qualified for his third-degree black belt in karate before filming started) acquitting himself well. The General, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who you’ll have seen in hundreds of similar movies, is great too, and there’s a surprisingly good bit of fighting from Dolph’s sidekick, Gary Hudson (a fine “That Guy” actor).

1330407241_2

It’s a curious one. For all the interesting choices it makes, it’s hampered by a hundred little things, niggles that you’ll notice in pretty much every scene. Florentine certainly improved, but Dolph seems like he had stopped caring a few years previously, and realised that just scowling and kicking ass were all he needed to do. Shame. I think this also qualifies for our misleading title award – no bridges, no dragons, nothing you could metaphorically call a “bridge” either.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Youtube Film Club – Dark Angel (1990)

Lord knows what those helicopters are up to (they're not in the film, by the way)

Lord knows what those helicopters are up to (they’re not in the film, by the way)

They don’t make them like this anymore. Could you imagine a low-budget action movie with this number of sets, decent actors and real cars blowing up in 2014? It’s a damn shame, but we still have fine films like this to revisit.

Dolph Lundgren seems like a nice guy. Ludicrously smart (advanced degree in Chemical Engineering), great martial artist (former European karate champion), used to go out with Grace Jones and hung out with Andy Warhol, he’s one of those fellas who you really hope isn’t an insane right-winger who treats women like dirt. Anyway, this film was made while he was at the height of his initial fame, after “The Punisher” and just before “Universal Soldier”, and is absolutely chock-full of bad-ass-dom.

I love how the first few minutes of this film couldn’t be more late-80s. A rich scumbag has a CD player in his car, surrounded by wood panelling – and after he gets blown up and the credits are rolling, we see the soundtrack is done by Jan Hammer! Jan Hammer is the 80s! Anyway, Dolph’s partner dies while undercover on a drug sale, because Dolph was stopping a robbery next door, but because he’s a whisker away from busting the entire White Boys drug ring (yes, that’s the name of their gang, and they are all white I suppose) he gets a new partner. Not just any partner, though, an FBI agent who you may recognise from sitcom “Dream On”, Brian Benben. You think these two guys – one the tough-dressing monster and the other the suit-wearing rules-follower, will have different approaches to tackling the bad guys? You bet your ass they will!

Credit where credit's due, Lundgren is a handsome guy

Credit where credit’s due, Lundgren is a handsome guy

I sort of wanted more of Dolph’s old partner, after he replied to “where did you go to school?” with “The university of suck my dick”, but Dolph does his best with the quips. The film is full of fun little performances – as well as Benben, there’s ultimate That Guy actor Sam Anderson as an evil corporate guy, Michael J Pollard (of “Sleepaway Camp 3″ fame) as a guy called Boner, and Betsy Brantley as Dolph’s on-again-off-again girlfriend and local coroner.

The other fun performance is from Matthias Hues, described on IMDB as “Bad Alien – Talec”. He’s the guy you call if you want your slightly wooden action hero to look less wooden; he’s huge, has that great dead eyed look and convincingly throws people around (we also covered his performance in “Digital Man”). Without wanting to spoil too much, this film joins the ranks of that small but well-loved genre, “two different aliens fight each other on Earth”, but you know it’ll be down to Dolph to finish him off.

There’s a surprising amount of fun stuff in this, lots of little details. There’s the photo Dolph gets sent in the mail, from the guy who killed his partner, showing him with two beautiful women on a tropical island with a sarcastic message on it; Dolph’s scientist friend and his nuclear-strength coffee; the hideously 80s apartment that Dolph lives in; and the decent rapport two such different actors have in Lundgren and Benben. But it’s not just a laugh – there’s a couple of good fight scenes in there, and more cars blowing up than you’d get in anything but the biggest-budget movies these days.

dark-angel-1990-02-g

Okay, it was never going to win any awards, and unless you were brought up on 80s action films, you might not love it as much as I did. But considering the pedigree – low budget, no big names, one of the B-list of action superstars, this film is hugely enjoyable. If you don’t love comically mismatched cops chasing a drug-dealer-killing alien round the streets of Houston, then I’m pretty sure we’d struggle to be friends. Add in a great quip ending and a surprisingly decent central performance, and you’ve got a recipe for success.

Rating: thumbs up

PS. This film’s US title was apparently “I Come In Peace”, said repeatedly by Hues’ alien. Because he kills everyone he meets, right? Okay, “Dark Angel” really makes no sense whatsoever as a title, but it’s still tons better than that. Plus, there’s like ten other films called “Dark Angel”, so you might trick someone after one of those to buy your movie (okay, that’s a terrible justification).

Stash House (2012)

stash house

Directed by: Eduardo Rodriguez

The fact that I paid money to watch this film makes me a fool. ‘Stash House’ is abysmal. Yeah, I know the DVD cost me only one English pound, and on my trip to Poundland I was also able to pick up a toothbrush, a pack of folders and a bottle of Palmolive shaving gel. Those three items at least will prove to be useful, and more importantly value for money.

‘Stash House’ is a drab thriller starring Dolph Lundgren. But it doesn’t start out that way; it starts off all dramatic, as a twitchy guy loads a gun. He gets out of his car, walks into a church and staggers up the aisle as a gospel choir sings an uplifting hymn. The man, by this point sweating buckets, staggers into the confession booth. He seeks forgiveness for his sins, but before the Reverend can connect with the man, the man turns the gun to his own head and pulls the trigger. A spray of crimson desecrates a giant wooden crucifix.

A sweet American couple named Emma and David are introduced as love’s young dream. Emma is a vet who cures fluffy bunnies and adorable kittens. David earns his money doing something boring that requires him to wear a suit and provides him a lifetime gym membership. He also has a subscription to Men’s Health and spends more time in the bathroom than Emma does.

David, being a romantic buys them his and hers mountain bikes, he then takes Emma to a house that has a splendid high tech security system. He opens the gate using a modified USB stick and takes Emma for a guided tour. He informs her that it is their little love nest, and he’s got a brilliant deal on the property. Emma gives him a look that says “How come? Did someone die here?”

Close. David stumbles upon millions of dollars’ worth of heroin whilst rummaging around. He stands back, stunned. This is a stash house. There’s also an old man trapped in the basement. I won’t acknowledge the old man because he’s pointless and contributes nothing to the plot.

A bloke called Ray, who at first I think is a cop, but then appears to be either a security guard or a neighbourhood watch patrolman, stops by and welcomes the couple to the area. Their ditzy blonde friend also stops by with a crap house warming gift that Emma is too polite to say that she hates.

At night, after the discovery of the smack stash, the couple decide to leave the house but then Ray pops up again and reveals himself to be an angry bad guy armed with a pistol fitted with a silencer. Dave manages to disarm Ray by pushing the new mountain bikes off of the roof rack onto him. The couple run back into the house. Emma seals them inside the house by accidentally backing into a light switch. Ray gets pissed off and fires a gun several times at a bullet proof window, not realising after the first couple of shots that he is firing at a bullet proof window. Ray spends most of the film shooting, generally missing his intended target and then yelling out in frustration.

Dolph Lundgren arrives and tells the irate Ray that they must keep the couple alive, because the film needs to be stretched out to an hour and a half, and killing them twenty five minutes in would lead to very dire consequences.

After Dolph joins the house warming proceedings the film becomes tedious, as the couple become rather resourceful and ballsy, coping wonderfully well with the stress that comes when dealing with two armed men who just might be Special Forces trained. We learn that David got the house on the cheap because he knew the last owner was involved in drugs, and was the twitchy man who blew his brains out in church. Everything then gets a bit hide and seek as the couple niftily evade their intruders.

Dolph Lundgren has always been dull, one of the worst action heroes from the glory years of Arnie, Sly and co. You could argue he really only excelled in ‘Rocky IV’, when he played a Russian boxer with no personality. Unfortunately he can’t play a sinister villain with no personality, because villains in thrillers require a little pizazz.

When you actors are blander then a carpet sample board, and the director fails to create the necessary nail biting tension, then you know a thriller is destined to fail. ‘Stash House’ must only be purchased if it is intended as a gift for someone you detest immeasurably.

– RJW
2/10

Stash House on IMDB
Buy Stash House [DVD]

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

Part of the fun of watching a film like this, deep into a series when they’ve abandoned the numbering convention, is trying to figure out how many of these damn films they’ve made. Was there one or two in the middle before Jean-Claude Van Damme was brought back into the fold? Did they make one after that one set in the abandoned factory, but before this?

unisold

Anyway, turns out this is the sixth film in the series, and the fourth starring JCVD. But don’t worry, those of you who’ve yet to be subjected to a minute of this particular cinematic strain, to say there’s little in the way of continuity between them is to imply that there’s any continuity between them, and there’s not. Aside from JCVD’s name being the same in the films he’s appeared in, the rest of the series might as well not exist. I think Dolph Lundgren has died three times in previous “Universal Soldier” films now.

I presume I won a bet with my wife (although I don’t remember doing so), as she voluntarily joined me. I think, rather than going through the intricacies of this film’s plot, I’ll just tell you the films they ripped off to make it – it starts off with a bit of “Memento”, then strays into “Total Recall” territory, briefly moseys through “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” before you giving you, both barrels to the face, a big dose of “Apocalypse Now” at the end. Plus lots of fighting! (although not as much as you were probably expecting).

The star of this film is British actor / martial artist Scott Adkins, and he sees his wife and kids slaughtered before his eyes by Luc Devereaux (JCVD’s character’s name throughout the series). Revenge is in order, and as our hero works his way through the assembled bad guys (including a turn by former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski, who does his entire substantial part in the film without uttering a single word of dialogue), he comes to realise he’s a little more than normal himself, and there’s a reason he’s being drawn to JCVD, Dolph and the rest of the Universal Soldier group…

I know giving it any level of analysis is treating it better than it deserves, but there’s probably a good story about the ways this film series has portrayed the Universal Soldiers. In the first film, they were a bright, gleaming, futuristic gang of mercenaries with no free will at all; then I didn’t see the two films without my man Jean Claude in them, because life is too short; then the two newer films have turned them gradually from the baddies of yore to some sort of freedom fighter types, people who operate outside the system. This new film is fascinating in a way because it changes things again, to them being some sort of shadowy group bent on taking over the government.

Anyway, after it ended, I was pleasantly surprised, and that worried me. Have my standards dropped so low that Universal Soldier 6 is going to get a good review? Well, they’ve probably dropped a bit, otherwise my brain would have committed suicide halfway through the second viewing of “After Last Season”, but there’s actual real stuff to praise about this film. Firstly, the plot is decent, and engaging. Okay, there’s bits where you go “oh, come ON”, but not too many. Secondly, the fights looked good. Director Peter Hyams seems to have got his start with the MMA documentary “The Smashing Machine”, and his love for the sport is obvious in his casting choices. The fights look like they hurt, in the most part, and were filmed well.

I think it was Mark Kermode who said that if the current system pretty much guarantees that every major blockbuster will eventually make back its money, and will most often make a profit, that leads to the question “why don’t they just try and make good films?” I think the people who were behind this heard that call. They figured that their low-budget Universal Soldier movie was going to make its money back anyway, so decided to do something interesting with it – give it a plot that holds the attention for more than a few seconds, and make it good.

I was wondering about the facepaint too

I was wondering about the facepaint too

Now, before you art-house types rush off to get the movie on VOD, bear in mind it’s not the highest-budget film of all time, and there’s plenty of wood in the acting ranks. But Jean Claude Van Damme is superb in it, even if he is doing an impression of Colonel Kurtz – makes me sad that he didn’t use the cultural cache he had after “JCVD” and make films that were a bit meatier.

So, enthusiastic thumbs up from me. Fans of the series will love it, non-fans of the series…will probably not bother jumping on at part 6, but those who do will hopefully get a kick out of it too.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
Buy Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning [DVD]