DTV ACTION ITEMS (PART 1): AN INTERVIEW WITH OUTLAW VERN

May 1, 2012

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The summer movie season is obnoxiously approaching, with long-form toy commercial  The Avengers opening on Friday.  While estimable writer-director Joss Whedon is sure to provide a witty quip or two, this is still a 142 minute movie about a gang of men (and a token woman) who wear molded plastic underwear. This 3D “spectacular” will cost upwards of $20, so I submit that your movie dollar is better spent on the humble direct-to-video action movie. With no budget for CG, these cheap-o brawlers resort to showing actual humans moving in real spaces, often with jaw-dropping athleticism. And if not, they are over in 90 minutes or less.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be discussing DTV action movies, in the hopes of bringing more appreciative eyes to this last bastion of  the B-movie spirit. This week, I chat with Outlaw Vern about the general state of DTV movies today, from its studios to its stars. Vern has been a vocal (and very funny) supporter of the genre for years at Ain’t It Cool News and his own popular review site, sparking my own interest in them with his polemical call-to-arms in his write-up of The Marine 2““Some of us are starting to suspect that there’s been a switcheroo, that the DTV format – once designated as a 100% crap zone – has become the more reliable place to find good [English language] action movies.” The more I watch, the more I agree with him.

The interview was conducted over e-mail. Vern writes in very slangy prose, so words like “websight” are not typos, but are his own invention. You can order his book on Steven Seagal, SEAGALOGY, here.

For some background, what year did you start reviewing movies? Could you talk about what led you to start up your site?

I started in ’99. Back then there was this thing on the internet called “newsgroups” which was sort of like bulletin boards, and I would write crappy little movie reviews on the one called rec.arts.movies.current-films. Some of the people there thought what I was writing was funny and sort of sarcastically suggested starting a websight, so I did. After doing it for a long time I got better.

Did you cover DTV movies right from the start, or was there a particular film (or actor) that made you pay closer attention to them?

It started because I had a friend who was hooking me up with screeners from a video store, these were VHS tapes that the studios sent out to promote upcoming movies. Since they were movies that hadn’t come out yet I would write about them and send it in to Ain’t It Cool News. Back then a lot of them were sequels to Wild ThingsCruel IntentionsThe Skulls, stuff like that. I also got some of the DTV Steven Seagal movies and I was really interested in him because of On Deadly Ground so I really took to those and that obsession led to me writing my book Seagalogy.

Unlike the majority of movie writers, you focus a lot on the way action scenes are shot. What do you think are the key ingredients to making a good action/fight sequence? Of those, what do you think DTV movies do particularly well?

There’s no one way to do an action scene but I’m very big on them having a clear sense of where the characters are standing and what they’re doing. That used to be a minimum standard of competence but now it’s kind of rare. A decade ago I was really bothered by fast edits starting with Armageddon, and then started worrying about bad framing after Gladiator, and of course since then you can usually assume that a theatrically released action movie is gonna have most of the scenes shot very close up with a handheld camera so you get confused and aren’t sure if anything cool happened or not. When the director actually makes an attempt to plan out the shots and clearly show people fighting it becomes a major promotional point, like in Hanna and Haywire.

For a long time actually the action was usually crappy in DTV movies. For example Seagal’s action scenes showed way less effort and craftsmanship than his earlier movies. Belly of the Beast and Urban Justice are two exceptions. But in recent years as most of the studio action movies have turned into shakycam bullshit with actors pretending to be fighters instead of the other way around, DTV became sort of the last refuge for American fight movies with the spirit of what we used to love in the ’80s.

Could you give a general DTV lay of the land for newcomers? Who are the major studios, directors and actors?

Millennium Films is mostly theatrical now (they did The Expendables and the Conan the Barbarian remake) but they were sort of the Cannon Films of the early 2000s, pumping out lots of the DTV movies starring Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Wesley Snipes. Those guys, Dolph Lundgren and Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. are the primary marquee names doing DTV vehicles, but of course Wesley’s in jail now and Seagal has slowed down a little to do TV shows. For the time being I think Stone Cold Steve Austin is the most prolific star with a good track record. Most of his DTV movies, especially Damage, are way better than his one theatrical starring role, The Condemned.

WWE Studios (or “the prestigious WWE Studios” as I always call them) made The Condemned but I think they’ve become much more trustworthy in the DTV market. I really enjoyed The Marine 2starring the son of a wrestler I used to watch in the ’80s, and a quirky crime drama called Inside Out where the wrestler Triple-H is reunited with his Blade 3 co-star Parker Posey to play an ex-con who gets mixed up in his friend’s untaxed cigarette scam, but just wants to make pickles [this actually received a limited theatrical release last year -RES].

Years ago it seemed like no DTV directors left a mark on their movies unless it was a mark of suckiness. Now there are a bunch of directors I try to keep an eye on: Isaac Florentine (Undisputed 2 and 3NinjaSpecial ForcesUS Seals II, many others) and John Hyams (Universal Soldier: RegenerationDragon Eyes) are the standouts, but I’m also interested in William Kaufman (The Hit ListSinners and Saints), Roel Reiné (Pistol Whipped, The Marine 2Death Race 2) and Jesse V. Johnson (The ButcherPit Fighter).

Where are most DTV productions shot? And do you know the general budget of most of these productions?

It seems like most of them shoot in Vancouver, but Avi Lerner, founder of Millennium, has a studio in Bulgaria, so a lot of them are shot there. There are a lot of New Orleans productions now too, because of tax incentives they have there. I don’t really know about budgets, but I just looked it up and IMDb estimates Universal Soldier: Regeneration at $14 million, less than a fourteenth what it cost to make Battleship.

What is your opinion of the “mockbusters” that the production company The Asylum  churns out? Most of them look like manufactured kitsch, but is there anything worthwhile or interesting there?

Not that I’ve seen. I mean, I get a laugh from the titles and covers like everybody else, but the parts I’ve seen have been terrible and not in a fun way, so I haven’t had the stomach to venture into that territory too much. People always ask me to review different ones but I’ve never had anyone claim to have found one that was watchable. Actually I thought about watching I Am Omega because it stars Mark Dacascos. That could still happen. My dream is that they’ll start doing rip-offs of Oscar winners. I’d like to see The King’s Peach and The Artiste. The ‘e’ in Artiste would be really small on the cover.

Scott Adkins is a favorite of yours (and now mine). How would you describe his work to someone who hasn’t seen him before? Do you think he’ll ever break through in Hollywood?

Adkins is an agile, high-kicking screen martial artist kind of like a modern Van Damme, but he’s English so he’s more eloquent in our language. But actually I like him best in the Undisputed movies playing a stoic Russian criminal. He has more of a background in straight acting than most action stars, having been on British TV shows like EastEndersand Mile High, but it’s his fighting that has earned him a following. He also kind of looks like Ryan Reynolds, so he was able to stunt double Reynolds in Wolverine.

I don’t know, part of me feels like he’s so talented and likable and has such an impressive body of work that he’s destined to blow up on the big screen, but part of me thinks there’s just not a theatrical market for martial artist stars like that anymore. Jason Statham is probably the closest thing we have to that in the western world.

Of the aging DTV action stars (Seagal, Lundgren, Van Damme and the like), who is making the most interesting stuff? Any recent recommendations?

I think Van Damme is in an interesting place right now, because he turned down The Expendables to do Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which totally paid off because US:R is a way better movie and now he gets a bigger role as the lead villain in Expendables 2. He’s really great in US:R, playing his zombie super soldier character as a burnt out, tragic character yearning for humanity but not able to reach it. Lundgren is also great in that (he’s only in a few scenes because he didn’t turn down Expendables). He’s doing some experimenting now too, he did an indie comedy, he’s got one coming out where he plays a villain, and he’s working with 3 of the directors I listed above, plus doing some directing of his own.

The best recent movie I’ve seen with any of those guys is Dragon Eyes, but Van Damme really just has a glorified cameo as the mentor to Cung Le.

I know you’re an admirer of Isaac Florentine. What makes him in particular such an effective DTV director?

He’s a martial artist himself and also grew up a movie nerd obsessed with Sergio Leone. But my theory is – and I’m not sure anybody else subscribes to this one – that it comes from directing Power Rangers. He did like 60 episodes as a choreographer and directed a lot of those so it just gave him years of practice quickly shooting down and dirty martial arts sequences with very little money. He loves movement and believes in visual storytelling, so he has a very energetic but clear visual style. And at this point he’s done more than a dozen movies but still puts his all into it so he’s gotten really great at taking guys like Van Damme, Lundgren or Michael Jai White and putting them in a story that really emphasizes their badass qualities. Florentine is also the guy that turned Adkins into a DTV icon, first stealing the show in Special Forces, then as the villain in Undisputed 2, who became the protagonist in Undisputed 3.

I think your favorite DTV production is Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Could you say a few words about why DTV doubters should see it?

That movie is the surprise masterpiece I’ve been hoping for ever since I started watching those screeners. It grabs you right from the beginning with this intense kidnapping, car chase and shootout. The cameras are right in the middle of the action but used very intentionally, not shaking all over the place. It takes these silly but fun sci-fi concepts from the original Roland Emmerich movie but treats them much more seriously. The music and sound design seem very influenced by Alien and The Terminator, it creates a really strong, grim atmosphere. The super soldiers are played mostly by MMA fighters so the fight scenes are really brutal. But there’s also something poetic about it, like the scene where Lundgren’s villain has been cloned after being chopped up in the original movie and he knows to fight Van Damme but can’t remember why. It’s this awesome sci-fi action movie but also says something about war taking away our humanity.

From the few I’ve seen, the DTV action movies seem to have a higher level of craft than Hollywood blockbusters because of their low budgets, forcing them to use more analog techniques (like using longer takes with real fighting instead of fx and rapid cutting). Do you think that is true, or am I exaggerating?

It seems that way because you’ve seen the very best ones. I gotta be honest, there’s a lot more crap than there is Undisputed. But I think that’s definitely true in best case scenarios like Hyams and Florentine. I compare them to the standout directors who were taking advantage of the drive-in market to do interesting stuff in the old days.

The standards keep going up for DTV and at the same time the standards for action scenes in theatrical releases are pretty much in the toilet. It’s like you’re not even expected to point the camera at the action anymore. Did you see Warrior? Really good sports drama, but the fighting tournament is literally shot to look like you’re in the audience with shitty seats where you can’t see anything. The fights are choreographed by J.J. Perry, but his work is showcased way better in DTV movies like Undisputed IIThe Tournament and The Shepherd: Border Patrol.

What upcoming DTV movies are you most looking forward to?

I can’t say Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning because that’s hopefully gonna be in theaters. I have some hopes for this one called The Package because it’s Jesse V. Johnson directing Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren, plus lesser known white guy martial artists Darren Shalavi and Jerry Trimble are in the cast. And I’m hoping Maximum Conviction will be fun because it teams Austin with Seagal. It’s all about team-ups right now.

If you had to select five DTV productions to convince someone to take DTV movies seriously, what would they be?

1. Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

2. Blood and Bone (2009): Michael Jai White is a badass motherfucker who gets out of prison, rents a room and enters an underground fighting circuit on a mysterious mission of revenge. He’s every bit as badass as he was in Black Dynamite but in a non-parody context. This reminds me of the best Van Damme movies like Lionheart, mixed with a little blaxploitation swagger. It has an excellent villain, a surprising use of a Wang Chung song, and great little touches like the legendary Bob Wall cameoing as his character from Enter the Dragon.

3. Undisputed II (2006) and III (2010): – I didn’t really like the original Undisputed even though it’s directed by Walter Hill and has a great performance by one of my favorites, Wesley Snipes. But in the sequels Isaac Florentine replaced the boxing with MMA and came up with the brilliant idea of turning the villain George “Iceman” Chambers (originally Ving Rhames, now Michael Jai White) into the protagonist to fight the Russian prison champ Boyka (Scott Adkins). Then in part 3 Boyka has to rebuild himself after defeat and face the great Chilean fighter Marko Zaror (Mandrill). Boyka is a convicted murderer but you find yourself rooting for him to win and escape.

4. Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (1996): I want to honor the rare good-DTV-sequel. Most are half-assed rejected-TV-pilot-esque rehashings with different characters. Darkman III is one of the rare DTV sequels that seems to fit the medium: it’s certainly not worthy of a theatrical release – I mean, Liam Neeson is replaced with Arnold Vosloo from Hard Target and The Mummy – but gives us an idea of some of the fun we might’ve had if more people had paid to see Darkman like we did. It’s from the writers of Face/Off, and they come up with all kinds of clever and funny things to happen to the vigilante master of disguise. My favorite is when he disguises himself as the villain (Jeff Fahey) to break into his house and walks into his surprise birthday party. Later he impersonates the villain again for the good cause of attending his daughter’s school play.

runners up: From Dusk Till Dawn II: Texas Blood Money and Hostel Part III, both directed by Scott Spiegel.

5. Belly of the Beast (2003): I gotta include a Steven Seagal picture on here. Urban Justice is his most hardcore DTV action movie, Out of Reach is maybe his funniest (he plays an animal rescuer/swordsman who has to rescue his orphan pen pal from white slavers) but I think Belly of the Beast is most representative of the DTV yin and yang: quality action mixed with charmingly sloppy filmmaking lunacy that would never make it to theaters. Helmed by the great Ching Siu-Tung (director of A Chinese Ghost Story, choreographer of Hero and Shaolin Soccer), it brings Seagal to Thailand to save his kidnapped daughter from Islamic extremists, a corrupt general, a transvestite and a sorcerer. There’s a great shootout and a fight in a market where a guy slips on a tomato and lands on a meat cleaver.

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