Director: Keoni Waxman
Producer: Binh Dang, Steven Seagal
Cast: Steven Seagal, Georges St. Pierre, Luke Goss, Darren E. Scott, Florin Piersic Jr., Martine Argent, Lauro Chartrand, Bruce Crawford, Claudiu Bleont, Howard Dell, George Ramos, Adina Galupa
Running Time: 93 min.
By Paul Bramhall
In Cartels the not-so-dynamic duo of director Keoni Waxman, and his muse Steven Seagal, collaborate once again on one of their countless direct-to-DVD titles. Interestingly Cartels was originally due for release in 2016, however perhaps realising that it would have been the 7th Seagal movie to hit the shelves that particular year, distributor Lionsgate wisely decided to push it back to 2017. Not only did they decide to push the release date back, but they also made the decision to change its title. Originally set to be called Killing Salazar, perhaps sensing that Seagal’s filmography is overly littered with titles that have the word ‘kill’ in them, it was eventually changed to the more simplistic Cartels. That’s fine, with the only detrimental effect being that it ruins the first paragraph of my Contract to Kill review. It’s a legitimate gripe.
Cartels, as if to set expectations from the word go, opens with an abysmally thought out title sequence. After some pretentious onscreen text about how feared Salazar is and the usual mumbo jumbo, the names of the cast play over various characters that appear onscreen. The issue is, for some reason onscreen text also appears mixed in with this sequence, telling us the name of who the character is we’re looking at. The result is, we have a sequence which reads – Martine Argent. U.S. Marshal Tom Jensen. Darren E. Scott. Figuring out which names are the actual actors, and which names are characters in the movie, makes for a fun game, and while it doesn’t take a genius, the fact is that it’s a sloppily constructed sequence.
Soon we’re introduced to Seagal, adorned in his usual orange tinted shades, continuing with his current flavour of the month were he plays a kind of Special Ops agent. I confess part of my enjoyment of watching Seagal movies is waiting for the part in the script when his character (and therefore, himself) will be described as some kind of legendary operative/agent/military man etc. If I could pinpoint it, I’d say it started with Under Siege, when Gary Busey first discovers who Casey Ryback really is, and built to a climatic epiphany of sorts with Michael Caine’s speech in On Deadly Ground. However in 2016 he’s still going strong, and Cartels has Seagal delivering plenty of self-praise. At one point he declares himself as “the guy they should have brought in when sh*t went sideways.” In another he makes a series of unintentionally hilarious clarifications, my favorite of which was “I was not born in night, I was born on a bright f*cking sunny day man.”
For what it’s worth, Seagal spends almost the whole of Cartels sat down. In terms of the energy he exerts, it surprisingly doesn’t feel a whole lot different to the movies where he’s more upwardly mobile. Cartels is structured in such a way that has Seagal interrogating a Major, played by Luke Goss, as the story plays out through flashbacks as to how Salazar managed to escape their grasp. In this regard you can say that Goss is actually the star of the show, and he brings a welcome presence to proceedings in terms of both his physicality, and his charisma. Goss was a member of a boyband in the UK during the 80’s with his twin, Matt Goss, and re-invented himself as an actor during the oughts. While he’s never made the A-list (probably an obvious statement considering he’s in Cartels), he has built an impressive body of work as an action star, with notable roles in the likes of Blade II, Silver Hawk, and Tekken.
The reason behind the interrogation is because Goss and a group of his military colleagues are assigned to transport Salazar, an infamous drug lord, from Romania to the U.S., in which he’ll be the star witness in a trial against various cartels. However they soon find themselves holed up in a hotel, as various enemies of Salazar look to seize their opportunity to take him out for good, all of which leads to his mysterious disappearance. Events lead to Goss being separated from the rest of the group, which gives proceedings a kind of ‘Die Hard in Romania’ vibe, and his separation results in suspicions being raised into how much he actually knows about what went down. This is the sideways sh*t that Seagal was referring to, and is why he’s brought in.
As per so many of Seagal’s direct-to-DVD movies, Cartels is shot on location in Romania. At this point in his career you could probably take the majority of his post-2000 work, and make a tourist video for Eastern Europe out of them. Cartels fits in nicely with this theory, as while the majority of shots focus on the World Trade Center signage on top of the hotel they’re holed up in, one shot (I’m sure unintentionally) allows us to see that it is in fact the Bucharest branch of the Pullman Hotels chain. Salazar himself is played by Romanian actor Florin Piersic Jr., and he does a good job of hamming up his role as the drug lord everyone has to reluctantly protect, laying on a thick Russian accent. The real villain of the piece though comes in the form of former UFC star George St-Pierre, and after minor appearances in the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Kickboxer: Vengeance, Cartels provides him with a decent amount of screen time.
Admittedly all he has to do is look intimidating and pull off some of his trademark MMA moves, but he brings a level of intensity to the role that, potentially, indicates he could well make a worthy transition to the world of filmmaking. The rest of the cast bring an equal amount of action talent to the table, consisting almost entirely of stuntmen or martial artists. The leader of the military unit assigned to protect Salazar is played by Darren E. Scott, a black belt in Goju-Ryu Karate who can also be seen facing off against Philip Ng in Birth of the Dragon. He’s joined by the likes of Lauro Chartrand, who aside from acting as the movies action coordinator, also directed the Seagal vehicle Driven to Kill. Other roles are filled by such respected members of the stunt community as Bruce Crawford, Howard Dell, and Sharlene Royer.
No doubt because of the involvement of such experienced professionals, and a lack of Seagal, the action in Cartels is surprisingly enjoyable. It doesn’t break any new ground, but for a direct-to-DVD U.S. production, there’s certainly a lot worse out there. Apart from some worthy pyrotechnics, we also get Goss facing off against a pair of motorbike riding assailants, and a one-on-one against Howard Dell (that pays its dues to The Raid 2’s Hammer Girl), plus Darren E. Scott also gets a one-on-one against St-Pierre. For those that like their dose of butt kicking females, Martine Argent and Sharlene Royer also have a chance to go at it, which deserves special mention for the fact it quickly becomes apparent Argent forgot to use an antiperspirant that morning. However sure enough, Seagal comes dawdling in for the finale, and naturally gets his own one-on-one against St-Pierre.
As per standard for Seagal’s recent fight scenes, he just kind of stands there, and is able to throw St-Pierre everywhere by doing little more than uncomfortably shuffling on the spot. The fight is unique in that St-Pierre does actually get a few licks in, a rare sight hardly seen since Seagal received a double nose bleed in The Glimmer Man. Although technically, the person that St-Pierre hits is actually Seagal’s double, visibly slimmer and filmed from the back. I have a theory that Seagal was probably kept in the dark regarding the fact his character was going to take a hit, so I daresay the scenes with the double were probably filmed without him knowing. Because heaven forbid the idea that someone is able to penetrate the man’s mighty girth and get a punch in.
With a lean 90 minutes runtime, Cartels certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the closing scene even throws in a twist, which in a smart piece of scriptwriting gives significance to a throwaway line that’s spoken earlier. It’s also a twist which could potentially mean we get a Cartels 2, so let’s see if it emerges from the 20 or so movies Seagal will likely release over the next few years. As it stands though, while fans of Seagal may not appreciate his supporting role, he’s still around enough to deliver all his usual trademarks – the self-glorification, the ability to speak every language under the sun with no explanation, and incomprehensibly edited fight scenes. For everyone else, Cartels is a modestly budgeted action flick starring Luke Goss and George St-Pierre, one that happens to also be modestly entertaining for most of the right reasons.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6/10