Monday, February 4, 2008
Lightning Across the Pond: Missionary Man
In the first of our double shot from England, Dr. Tom Joliffe takes a look at Dolph Lundgren's newest starring and directing outing, Missionary Man. With more buzz than usually reserved for a direct-to-DVD action affair, Missionary Man hit the US Top Rentals at # 26, raking in $2.15 million in rental revenue. The Swedish karate champion turned chemical engineer turned action movie icon returns to the Top 50 for the first time since Detention rang up $760,000 in January of 2004.
Dolph’s latest film, and his third foray into directing, is once again one of his career best. Like The Mechanik, Dolph puts to bed some of the murkier days of his back catalogue, and proves, that the best man to help bring Dolph Lundgren back into the limelight, is Dolph Lundgren! Delving once more into a film with a theme of revenge, as in The Mechanik, there might have been a niggling worry, that re-treading that ground could breed familiarity. But what Dolph delivers is an action film in style, tone, and look, that is not only far removed from what he’s previously done, but a film that just looks and feels fresh. There aren’t many action films out there like Missionary Man, on a visual, tonal level. There’s a kind of Frank Miller vibe at times, and a bit of Robert Rodriguez too.
In Missionary Man, Dolph stars as Ryder, a mysterious stranger who rides into town for a friends funeral. Pretty soon he’s rubbing local oppressor John Reno up the wrong way. As the film progresses we start to see Ryder has other motives for being in town. It’s a modern western and has some great western trademarks, including a fantastic climax. However though on paper the story has similar arcs as Dolph’s previous directing effort, Missionary Man is such a contrast. It’s a whole different style of flick, and with Dolph’s increased level or creative control since his last directing gig, it’s a more complete vision. Perhaps unfinished business that Dolph touched upon in The Mechanik.
As director, Dolph really has a great visual eye here. What’s great about the film, is that beyond the choice of super-16, it feels as if Dolph is in complete control. He’s constrained by a tight budget certainly, but he spends it brilliantly, and really creates a great atmosphere. Dolph, his DP Bing Rao, and steadicam operator, George R Niedson combine to create a visual delight. There’s some great shots in this film, and it has a feeling of being a graphic novel brought to life, particularly with some almost picturesque still shots. Dolph has gone all out here. He’s really put the work in, and he’s really experimented with his choice of shots. At times it feels quite arty, and considering this is a DTV film, and a Dolph Lundgren film, that’s quite something! The choice of super-16 is one that can be fraught with peril. There’s a graininess to it, and the way it picks up light and colour can sometimes make a film look bad if not in the hands of a capable or inspired DP. Seagal’s Urban Justice is an example of a super-16 film that looked particularly horrible. No such problems though on Missionary Man. Of course not only is the film well shot, but given it was shot on super- 16, there was the advantage of it being mastered directly onto HD. This also allowed for easier digital grading, as well as ensuring the film looked crisp. I mean this sucker has a great transfer. Dolph makes full use of the grading tool, and gives the film an almost monochrome look. The de-saturated picture adds to the foreboding atmosphere, and is also ably helped along by the low key and effective score by Elia Cmiral (Ronin, The Mechanik). Elsewhere Dolph knows action, having worked with the likes of John Woo, and he delivers here. Obviously given the budget, there’s no huge set pieces, but in a film like this, it wouldn’t feel right anyway. There’s short punctuations of violence throughout the film, before the inevitable, and just downright badass showdown. Dolph just goes Terminator on some biker dudes and it rocks the action Kasbah!
As actor, Dolph does well here too. He’s no Olivier, he knows it himself, but he plays to his strength, playing the Eastwood style man of few words, but immense badassedness (not a real word, but should be!). Parallels with Clint will be made of course, both being movie tough guys who made the jump from actor to writer and director. Dolph will not likely have the success of Clint, but he’s the straight to video equivalent I guess, and there’s no great shame in that anymore. Even Al Pacino has tasted the nectar of straight to video, even Morgan Freeman too. Dolph’s got that tough guy charisma. Nowadays what we lack in cinema is action stars, with the sheer hardness and tough as nails presence that Clint, Bronson, Arnie, Sly, and the likes of Seagal and Lundgren, used to deliver. We’ve not had any new action men come along who had the same presence, merely pretenders like Vin Diesel and The Rock. There’s also been thesp’s like Matt Damon, who while magnificent as Bourne isn’t gonna settle down into the handing people their asses genre. You do have to, with the odd exception, have to look in the direct to video market for a good old school hardass action flick, and visit the old guard like Dolph and Jean Claude. There does some to be a new resurgence now in old school action flicks foregoing the overly complex ideas, reliance on CGI, avid fart stylistics, and pg-13 namby pambiness. Along with the advent of digital screens, meaning cheaper distribution, we might just see a return to the multiplexes for the old guard. Sly’s hit a resurgence, and in the DTV market, so have Van Damme and Lundgren, and no one would deserve another shot at the big time, and the cinema, more than Lundgren, out of the DTV action heroes.
The remainder of the cast are mixed. Given the films budget, the support cast isn’t great. The incidental characters, probably including locals given a place on screen, aren’t great. Thankfully though the important roles are well filled. As Reno, Matthew Tompkins makes for a good bad guy. Also starring is August Schellenberg a very good actor who fans of Free Willy will likely remember, and he adds a bit of gravitas to proceedings. Young actress Chelsea Ricketts is superb, and surely has a bright future ahead of her (the kid who plays her older brother isn’t great to be honest- but his role is insignificant). John Enos III stars as the lead biker and Ryder’s main foe, and though he only comes in toward the end of the movie, he does a great job.
Overall, while the film won’t win originality prizes, it feels fresh because of the style. It’s just a good old fashioned R rated action film, proving big set pieces and oodles of CGI do not make a good action film (*cough* Transformers!! *cough*). Dolph is getting more assured behind the camera with every film, while also showing a versatility to switch style and tone. All three of his films have been markedly different, but Missionary Man stands out as something that is perhaps his most unique work. Action fans will not be disappointed. I’d love to see Dolph given a bit more money to play around with. Plus given how much of a badass Dolph looks during the finale, I’d hope we might see him appear somewhere in a Tarantino, or Edgar Wright flick, someone with a gift for the surprise cast. Fingers crossed, cause the big man deserves it. ****