Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Producer: Craig Baumgarten, Dolph Lundgren, Mike Selby
Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, Ron Perlman, Michael Jai White, Celina Jade, Peter Weller, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Conan Stevens, Mike Dopud, Tasya Teles, Leo Rano
Running Time: 95 min.
Like many action stars of the Eighties, Dolph Lundgren has spent the last fifteen years starring in a reliable stream of direct-to-video titles. Except for a welcome appearance in The Expendables films, your best chance at catching Dolph in action as of late has been movies like The Killing Machine and Command Performance. Although Dolph frequently steps behind the camera himself for these projects, for the most part they’ve been rote thrillers with little to distinguish them besides Dolph’s natural charm. Thus, the announcement of Skin Trade made martial arts fans stand up and take notice: here was an opportunity to see Dolph Lundgren team up with international sensation Tony Jaa of Ong Bak fame. Cautious optimism aside, martial arts junkies could be forgiven for thinking this might be the best team-up since peanut butter met chocolate.
And let us not forget, in many ways Tony Jaa needed Skin Trade to be a success as much as Dolph did. It’s difficult to believe that only ten years after he shot to international stardom with Ong-Bak, Tony Jaa’s career was in a state of disrepair. By 2013, he was as well-known for his disappearing from the set of Ong-Bak 2 and contract disputes as he was his flying kicks. The dismal reception of Tom Yum Goong 2 – the movie that had once been positioned as Jaa’s comeback – served as salt on the wound. Thankfully, moving into 2015 Tony Jaa seems to be in a much better place: his physical talents will be seen by a wider audience than ever thanks to his cameo in Hollywood blockbuster Furious Seven, and Skin Trade is preparing for a Video On Demand rollout from Magnet Releasing.
Magnet themselves have been smart in building the hype for Skin Trade through a steady stream of online marketing, highlighting the star power of its cast: joining Jaa and Lundgren is fan favorite bruiser Michael Jai White (Falcon Rising), as well as character actors Paul Weller (Robocop) and Ron Perlman (Hellyboy). Which begs the question: does Skin Trade actually live up to the hype or is it destined to join the rest of Dolph Lundgren’s post-millennial career on the racks of America’s now non-existent video stores?
Perhaps befitting a film that seeks to unite two of the biggest action stars from opposite sides of the globe, Skin Trade itself seems to exhibit something of a split personality. The first half hour of the film plays out like you would expect a by-the-numbers Dolph Lundgren actioner to unfold, with Dolph on the hunt for a vicious Serbian gangster (played by Ron Perlman) who traffics women to be sold as slaves in Asia. It’s unclear just why Dolph has such a vendetta against Perlman, except for the fact that he’s a genuinely nasty piece of work, but when Perlman places a hit on Dolph’s family, it’s safe to say that things have become personal. This is the kind of revenge plot that would be set-up within the first ten minutes of a Steven Seagal flick, but for some reason takes three times as long here.
Fortunately, once Dolph Lundgren wakes up in the hospital seeing red, he hops a plane to Thailand and the real movie begins. In Asia, he crosses paths with Tony Jaa’s Thai detective – but if you were expecting the two of them to put aside their cultural differences and get to stopping Ron Perlman together, then you clearly haven’t read a comic book crossover in which our two heroes must first slug it out with each other before they can team-up. And once it does arrive, the Dolph Lundgren vs. Tony Jaa title match is well worth the wait. These two radically different combatants go at each other in a knock-down, drag-out brawl that thankfully doesn’t suffer from too much of the choppy editing that has ruined many a highly-anticipated bout (anyone remember Jet Li vs. Mark Dacascos in Cradle 2 the Grave?).
If that weren’t enough, their scuffle might just be bested later on when Tony Jaa squares off against Michael Jai White. The fight choreography is frequently captured from a far-off distance, which is a boon in that it allows us to see the athleticism of our combatants; however, it has the adverse side effect of underselling the drama of the fight. Since we never really cut to a close-up, the film fails to sell us on the emotions of the actors. Thus, I often had the impression I was watching two highly trained stunt people hit their marks rather than two characters engaged in a dramatically-charged conflict. It might seem like a small quibble in a direct-to-video flick, but the viewer should have a reason to care about the combat unfolding besides the fact that it features two of their favorite action stars.
Fans of actor Dolph Lundgren may be disappointed to hear he’s frequently outshined by his co-stars. While he is very much the main character, the filmmakers don’t afford him the same kind of jaw-dropping moments that Jaa and White receive. And despite his massive size and legitimate martial arts skills, Dolph has never moved as a graceful performer onscreen. There’s an awkward, lumbering quality to his movements that continues here, and he spends most of the climax of the film mowing down people with an AK-47 rather than employing fisticuffs. Peter Weller chews up the scenery every moment he’s onscreen (wait till you hear the way he pronounces “Asia”) but he unfortunately disappears from Skin Trade after the first act. Meanwhile, Ron Perlman seems to be doing a variation on his character from Drive, only this time with an Eastern European accent.
Skin Trade is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination – for one thing, it seeks to shed a spotlight on the real world horrors of sex trafficking, while at the same time shamelessly exploiting the few female characters in the cast. Regardless, Skin Trade certainly continues the trend of direct-to-video action movies stepping up their game: the movie harkens back to the kind of old-school, minimal-CG stunts and fight scenes that mainstream Hollywood seems to have turned their back on. There was a time when skipping a theatrical release and arriving via VOD was something of a kiss of death, but movies like Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Ninja II have proved that’s quickly changing. With its fast pace and copious amounts of bloody violence, this is clearly a film that knows its audience. As such, it’s hard to imagine that fans of the central performers won’t come away from Skin Trade thoroughly entertained.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 6/10