Director: Mark Dacascos
Cast: Alexander Nevsky, Casper Van Dien, Matthias Hues, Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Olivier Gruner, Mark Dacascos, Tia Carrera, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, Jake Macapagal, Moises Magisa, Monsour Del Rosario, Dmitriy Dyuzhev
Running Time: 86 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Russian bodybuilder turned fledging action hero Alexander Nevsky, the Tommy Wiseau of the action genre, returned to screens in 2016 with Showdown in Manila, which marks the directorial debut of Mark Dacascos. Much like Nevsky’s last movie to get a release stateside, Black Rose, so his latest effort has also spent a couple of years sat on a shelf unreleased. It was ITN Distribution that plucked Black Rose out of obscurity, providing Nevsky’s 2014 directorial debut with a limited theatrical run in the States during April 2017, and the same distributors have saved Showdown in Manila from the edge of limbo. Completed in 2015, while Showdown in Manila screened in Russia, it wasn’t until early 2018 that it eventually turned up on American shores.
If you’re anything like me, you’re likely asking what it is about Nevsky’s movies that prevents them from flying off the shelf as soon as they’re put on the market, however after watching just a couple of minutes of Showdown in Manila, the answer becomes blatantly obvious. They’re pretty bad. I don’t know what it is about these former USSR countries, and their ability to make action movies with casts that read like a who’s who of 90’s American B-movies, but just like Beyond the Game and Diamond Cartel, Showdown in Manila crams them in. Matthias Hues, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Olivier Gruner, Mark Dacascos, Tia Carrera, and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa all turn up for varying amounts of screentime. Dacascos appears in his own movie for less than 2 minutes, while Hiroyuki-Tagawa looks catatonic whenever he’s onscreen. It’s certainly never dull.
The plot involves Nevsky as a former New York cop who, after an operation gone wrong, is now running a private detective agency in Manila. A docile looking man mountain with zero screen charisma, and who sometimes sounds like he’s trying to imitate his idol Arnold Schwarzenegger (yes, a Russian trying to imitate an Austrian’s English accent, it’s not pretty), we learn that Nevsky is capable of crushing knee caps with his bare hands, and has an affinity for denim waistcoats. He runs the agency with Casper Van Dien, playing a former L.A. cop who’s a recovering sex addict, that escaped to Manila after being caught with his sergeant’s wife. It’s as dumb as it sounds. Van Dien, who randomly shows up after 20 minutes as the co-star with zero explanation, brings the most energy to Showdown in Manila, desperately attempting to breathe life into a horrendously clunky script.
Nevsky and Van Dien are hired by Tia Carrera (looking like her face has had a showdown with Botox), who it’s explained is a police sketch artist vacationing in the Philippines, when her FBI agent husband, played by Dacascos, is murdered in broad daylight by dialling-it-in bad guys Hiroyuki-Tagawa and Matthias Hues. I confess there’s something poetic in the way Dacascos chose to show up in his own movie for the sole purpose of being killed. Perhaps it reflects his attitude towards the whole experience of directing. In an interview I conducted with the 2nd unit director Sonny Sison in July 2017, he explained that it was Nevsky that approached Dacascos to direct, so exactly how much influence Dacascos had in the director’s chair is open to debate (and I’m sure it wasn’t his decision to include a cameo from a Russian pop star). However regardless of the truth, I feel confident in saying this will likely be the first and last time we see Dacascos the director.
He has worked with the writer of Showdown in Manila before though, Craig Hamann, when he took the lead role in Hamann’s directorial debut, with 1998’s Boogie Boy. What’s interesting is that, based on the details found on IMDB, it would appear that writing the script for Showdown in Manila is Hamann’s first significant credit since Boogie Boy, which would likely explain why the dialogue seems so rusty and lacking spark. Of course the fact the Nevsky and Van Dien have zero chemistry together also plays a factor, but with a better script, perhaps it could have been slightly less painful.
One person that Dacascos definitely has worked with before, albeit not in the film industry, is his father Al Dacascos. A Black Belt Hall of Famer, Dacascos Sr. is a highly respected American martial arts practitioner, and the founder of the hybrid style Wun Hop Kuen Do. It’s understandable that he be brought on board as the fight choreographer for Showdown in Manila, however there really isn’t enough martial arts action on show, to judge if he’s capable of transferring the realism of his style to a screen fighting aesthetic. Sison mentioned in our interview that Dacascos Sr. would usually come up with the moves, and then he’d interpret them to appeal to the camera. This is only really noticeable in a brief burst of action that Cynthia Rothrock busts out, when she takes on multiple attackers using Escrima, but outside of these few seconds there’s nothing of note.
Speaking of Rothrock and Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, who seem to come as a package deal recently following appearances together in The Martial Arts Kid and Death Fighter, their appearance here is as incomprehensible as everything else. When proceedings shift to the jungle for the finale, a change in location which is fuzzily explained at best, Nevsky and Van Dien are met on a riverbank by a pair of Nevsky’s former comrades, played by Olivier Gruner and fellow Russian Dmitriy Dyuzhev. Gruner introduces Rothrock and Wilson to Nevsky as people that can help them in their mission to take down Hiroyuki-Tagawa and Hues, to which Nevsky responds “I’ve seen a few of their films.” I’m not sure if it was supposed to be a moment of meta-humor, but considering Nevsky’s monotone delivery of his lines, it’s difficult to tell. Either way, it felt like a face palm moment.
Not content with simply being an unremarkable action B-movie, unfortunately Showdown in Manila makes the ill-advised decision to open with a setup identical to The Raid. The influence of Gareth Evans’s 2011 classic can be seen in several movies in the years since, from Hong Kong’s Zombie Fight Club, to Bollywood’s Rocky Handsome, to Cambodia’s Jailbreak. However while those movies aimed to match the visceral thrill that The Raid provided, Showdown in Manila settles for delivering a rather dull and lifeless raid on a compound by the Violent Crime Unit Strike Force, culminating in a yawn inducing gun fight. It’s the very definition of a by-the-numbers action scene, and when Nevsky takes a bullet in the scenes finale, the fact that he doesn’t seem to have taken any stunt-fall training is equally painful to watch, as he carefully falls to the ground.
Despite Nevsky’s unremarkable track record as an action star, there’s something morbidly admirable about his can-do attitude. He’s already prepping Black Rose 2 during 2018, and is the star of Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave director Andrzej Bartkowiak’s (who serves as executive producer here) next feature Maximum Impact, which will also feature Mark Dacascos and Matthias Hues. However rather than the talent he surrounds himself elevating his performance to their level, it seems the case that those who appear in Nevsky’s vanity projects end up being dragged down to his level. He may have lofty ambitions and dreams, but you need to have the talent to back it up. With stiff acting, lifeless line delivery, and a distinct absence of screen presence, at this point even if he got Donnie Yen to appear in his next title, I’d likely give it a pass.
Showdown in Manila may be a bad movie, however I admit seeing so many familiar faces show up to embarrass themselves did keep it mildly entertaining. Even respectable Filipino actors, such as Jake Macapagal and Moises Magisa from Metro Manila show up, along with vintage action star Monsour Del Rosario in a blink and you’ll miss it appearance (albeit one that provides a reunion with Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, as Del Rosario played a fighter in Wilson’s 1990 sequel Bloodfist II). Towards the end of Showdown in Manila’s mercifully short 85 minute runtime, Wilson declares “Enough of this, let’s kick some ass.” If only he’d said it at the beginning, maybe it would have been less of a chore to get through. Maybe, but not likely.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 2/10