September 6, 2011
Under the cover of disrespectability, direct-to-video (DTV) action movies are quietly throttling their theatrical brethren. Despite having budgets one-tenth of studio spectacles, these DTV scrappers excel where it matters most: the craft of shooting a fight scene. As the enigmatic film critic/ex-con Outlaw Vern stated in his review 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.”
Inspired, I watched Assassination Games (2011, on DVD/Blu today), Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Ninja (2009), where tussles are filmed to showcase the athleticism of the leads. The threadbare Bulgarian sets are coherently mapped out in master shots, so the close-ups of fist-to-face never throw off the geography of a scene. The camera generally keeps the combatants’ bodies completely in the frame, emphasizing a physicality generally lost in contemporary Hollywood (Jason Statham excepted), in which fights are reduced to a blur of cuts before a hired goon collapses. David Bordwell has identified this rapidly edited style as “intensified continuity”, an amplification of classical style that he places as starting “after 1960 or thereabouts.” These DTVers still fall in Bordwell’s post-1960s rubric, with shot lengths shorter than the classical era, but they offer a more authentic intensity, returning to feats of athleticism over editing.
The workhorses of DTV these days are Dolph Lundgren, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Christian Slater (who has 8 (!) movies listed as coming out this year), although Jean-Claude Van Damme is ramping up his schedule after his flirtation with respectability in JCVD (Lundgren and Van Damme will also cash a check for Expendables 2). The only consistent indicator of quality, however, has been the presence of English actor Scott Adkins and Israeli director (and Power Rangers auteur) Isaac Florentine. Both are trained martial artists, and their work together prizes lucidity of motion above all else (including the plot). In Undisputed II & III, which I enthused about last year, Florentine used high-speed cameras to isolate Adkins’ attacks and reversals in an MMA-inspired fight tournament. Ninja, which was made between the two, brings their analytic fighting aesthetic to an urban setting (Sofia, Bulgaria rather unconvincingly standing in for NYC). They ditch the super-slo-mo, but keep the clean lines and camera distance, keeping Adkins’ body whole in the frame, like Fred Astaire demanded of his directors.
Adkins plays Casey, a military brat orphan raised in a Dojo in Japan. His nemesis is Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara), another prized student with daddy issues. Desperate to knock off Casey to impress their Sensei (Togo Igawa), Masazuka breaches the Dojo’s code of conduct and is expelled. Naturally, he dons a vulcanized ninja outfit and becomes a top assassin for an evil corporation (who also operate a cheesy death cult of some sort). These B-DTV trappings are mere action scene delivery systems, and it’s best not to let Adkins emote too much (the most he can muster is a frown of mild indigestion), but once the flesh starts flaying, Ninja satisfies. Take, for instance, the first battle between Casey and Masazuka, at the Dojo. It begins in long shot, with the full width of the house visible behind them. Florentine maintains the distance as the fight with wooden training swords commences. He only cuts in closer when Masazuka lands a couple of blows, a punch and a slice that shatters Casey’s fake blade. After each of these accents Florentine returns to the long shot, re-orienting viewers to the space. It is a quick but effective sequence, representative of their work.
This can be seen more spectacularly in a brawl in a subway car (caught at the mythical “Noble St.” stop), into which Casey and lady friend Namiko are chased by the evil corporation’s thugs. Here a long shot is impossible, so Florentine opts for measured pans up and down, and a more-frequent use of slow-motion. Every element is isolated and accounted for – you see every gun kicked away and every blow landed. Low angles predominate, in which the ceiling offers another claustrophobic foe. In one sequence a mirthless baddie tosses a civilian towards Casey, and he leaps to avoid her. Cut to him continuing the leap up and through a guard rail, a bit of impromptu parkour. He lands and then ducks as the jerk throws a haymaker towards the camera. Cut to a reverse low angle, and after another block Casey is kicked halfway down the aisle, and the camera follows him all the way as it hovers close to the ground. This is a few seconds of screen time and yet it thrills with its logic and effortless flow.
Logic is not something one would associate with the Universal Soldier franchise, but this Regeneration, the third entry (or fifth, depending on whether you count a few TV movies), is as relentlessly rational a movie about half-robotic super soldiers can possibly be. It “stars” Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, although combined they don’t have more than 30 minutes of screen time. MMA fighters Mike Pyle and Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski, as Captain Burke and the robo-monster NGU, respectively, would get the box cover in an honest marketing campaign. But this is DTV, where descending stars cash checks for cameo appearances and top billing.
This adorable hucksterism aside, Regeneration is a bracingly brutal piece of work, with director John Hyams weaving his tracking shots through the post-Soviet rubble of Chernobyl (again, shot in resourceful Sofia, Bulgaria). Instead of the detail-oriented approach of Florentine, Hyams opts for a kind of dystopic realism, the creation of the dust-choked atmosphere more important than the grace of an individual fighter. There are very few close-ups and a profusion of long, gliding takes. Peter Hyams (2010, Timecop), John’s father, is the cinematographer, and his technical chops and experience no doubt helped in creating these elaborate shots on a budget.
Its sci-fi trappings aside, this a straight-up kidnapping drama. The Russian president’s two children have been nabbed by an insurgent group, who then take over the Chernobyl nuclear plant and threaten to blow it up, along with the kids, if their fellow rebels in prison are not released. As it happens, they also have retained the services of Dr. Colin (a wonderfully neurotic Kerry Shale), who has the tech to produce the eponymous Universal Soldiers. The U.S. military gets involved, because that’s what they do, and create their own UniSols to free the kids. Van Damme is Luc Devereaux, an ex UniSol dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, who now lives in a mental health facility. Devereaux is dragged back into action, and Van Damme plays this broken down hero’s confusion with admirable vulnerability. Of course, once injected with the UniSol drugs, he becomes an insatiable killing machine, which in turn drains the last of the human out of him. It’s a surprisingly sad and despairing film, as much a reflection on Van Damme’s beat-up body as JCVD was.
The action is shot elegantly, never more so than in a minute-long SteadiCam take that opens the final act. Van Damme is blasting his way through the war zone, and sprints right. The camera races along with him. Two masked gunmen blast away in the left foreground, as Van Damme evades their bullets in the background. Then he leaps through a window and disappears. The camera follows the shooters in their confusion, until Van Damme bursts through a door and kills them. It’s surprising that the star is hidden from view in this manner, leaving the audience stranded with two villains, building a mini-drama out of his whereabouts. Instead of cutting to Van Damme’s hiding place, the Hyams clan opt to maintain the tension of the unbroken shot, which then continues. Van Damme pushes forward into building and stalks the hallway. As he inspects an adjacent room to the left, the camera does a 180 and picks him up as he re-enters, swinging right and left to capture the gunfights on either side. Peter Hyams continues these balletic weaves until Van Damme has slaughtered a small village. It is not triumphal but ruthlessly efficient.
Assassination Games teams up Adkins and Van Damme, in a touching DTV passing of the torch. Now, the film received a limited theatrical run in four cities, so it is technically not direct-to-video. However, it was shot in Eastern Europe (Bucharest this time), by DTV hack Ernie Barbarash, so it is at least spiritually direct-to-video, which is all that matters. This is the kitschiest of the DTV films I watched recently, but it still had its pleasures. Adkins plays retired hitman Roland Flint, who gave up his gig after his wife was attacked in the line of duty (she is played, comatose throughout, by Van Damme’s daughter Bianca van Varenberg). When he learns that the perpetrator, Polo (Ivan Kaye), is being released from prison, he re-enters the competitive assassination biz. However! Vincent Brazil (Van Damme) has been hired to kill Polo as well, and sullen stare downs ensue.
Barbarash does not show the visual flair of Florentine and Hyams, with bland, centrally framed (although still intelligible) set-pieces, but he has a playful sense of genre codes that enlivens the proceedings. Brazil is the effete assassin, who hides a secret ultra-modern apartment behind a bookshelf in his grimy Romanian walk-up. He has violins encased in glass, a pet turtle, and is fond of sharpening his knives topless. This is grandly ridiculous, although Van Damme is not one to camp it up. It’s a role that, from the current crop of DTV icons, Val Kilmer could have joyously hammed. Flint is a non-entity in comparison, a guy who loves his wife and not, apparently, much else. And with firearms his weapon of choice, Adkins does not get to display much of his uncanny athleticism, just his impeccable five-o-clock shadow. It’s a bizarre, amiable failure, too reserved to embrace its camp aesthetic, and unable to unleash the kinetic talents of its actors.
Admittedly I’ve only taken a small sample of direct-to-video titles, but there is more visual clarity in this group than in any English-language action movie I’ve seen the last few years (and I like the Luc Besson-produced titles like Taken, Unknown, et al.). The low budgets force producers to return to basics: showcasing the physical gifts of your leads and coming under budget. DTV movies sell based on the actors, so if they want to succeed they need to film them as legibly and forcefully as possible. And with low budgets, directors don’t have the time to shoot all the coverage that Hollywood directors engage in, which gives editors multiple shots and angle to play with in their action scenes. Here they keep film costs low, and give their cutters few options, but grateful viewers like myself far more.