May 8, 2012

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This is Part 2 of 3 in my series on direct-to-video action movies.

In last week’s post, direct-to-video action expert Outlaw Vern modestly proclaimed that, “for the time being I think Stone Cold Steve Austin is the most prolific star with a good track record [in DTV].” In Part 2 of my industry shaking series on DTV fight films, I exhaustively investigate this claim. Steve Austin (born Steve Anderson) was the biggest star in professional wrestling for most of the past 15 years, perfecting the persona of a blue-collar hellraiser with a rabid anti-authoritarian streak. A series of injuries to his neck and back forced him to retire from the ring, and he’s been churning out DTV bare-knuckle brawlers  since 2009, after his one big bid for the theatrical market, The Condemned (2007), failed at the box office. While he hasn’t matched the insanely successful screen career of frequent WWE foe Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Austin is forging a worthy one of his own, albeit on the fringes of the movie business.

Steve Anderson was born in Austin, Texas on December 18th, 1964. His biological father James abandoned the family when he was barely a year old, leaving his mother Beverly to raise Steve and his two brothers. They moved around the state, first to Victoria, then to Edna, each town smaller than the last. In his autobiography The Stone Cold Truth, Austin writes that Eden, “had three or four red lights and a Dairy Queen.” Beverly re-married to a “wonderful man” named Ken Williams: a rancher, country singer and insurance salesman. Ken was also a football player who received a scholarship to Rice University. Steve followed in his step-dad’s footsteps, playing defensive end at North Texas State while nursing a dream to become a pro wrestler. After graduation, he enrolled in Gentleman Chris Adams’ wrestling school, which he attended on his off hours from unloading freight at the docks in Dallas.

A strikingly handsome blonde-haired blue-eyed physical specimen, he was hired by the USWA (United States Wrestling Association). Since there was already a Steve Williams in the territory (one Dr. Death), he had to change his name. Local booker Dutch Mantell suggested “Steve Austin” fifteen minutes before his first match, and it stuck. Initially starting out as a pretty-boy villain (or heel, in wrestling parlance), he rose to be hired by the nationally broadcast WCW (World Championship Wrestling) in 1991, where his narcissistic “Stunning Steve Austin” character failed to create much heat. He was fired after four years.

It was not until 1996, a year into his contract with the then-WWF, that the “Stone Cold” character fully emerged. Drawing on the real-life bitterness from his failed run at WCW, Austin developed a character that embodied a kind of redneck class warfare, a hard-drinking, hard-fighting SOB who would undermine the boss at every available opportunity. His feud with WWF CEO Vince McMahon brought the company record ratings and media exposure, and plenty of opportunity for hilariously over the top subversions – like pouring cement into Vince’s sports car or swatting him over the head with a bedpan. While Austin’s fame also came from his incredible work rate and storytelling ability inside the ring, his ability to tap into underclass rage was the driving ratings force. How could he embarrass the CEO this week?

As the now-WWE (after a tussle with the World Wildlife Fund) expanded their reach, they formed their own production company, WWE Studios. The Rock was the centerpiece of their efforts, as early on it was clear he was eager to expand his brand. They produced or co-produced The Scorpion King (2002), The Rundown (2003), and Walking Tall (2004) before The Rock moved on to bigger things. While The Rock was becoming Dwayne Johnson, movie star, Austin was bickering with WWE’s bookers, and he left the company in 2002 due to a combination of exhaustion and creative differences. By the time they reconciled and he received his one-and-only starring role in a WWE production, in 2007′s The Condemned, he was no longer a cultural phenomenon, but merely wrestling-famous. The Most Dangerous Games-style fight-or-die movie  croaked at the box office, taking in $7 million.

With WWE no longer interested in producing his films, Austin turned to DTV. Joseph Nasser was a prolific producer of trashy TV movies, executive producing such gems as Paparazzi Princess: The Paris Hilton Story (2008) and Anna Nicole (2007), before he started investing in Stone Cold, with whom he has made five fist ballets since 2009. Clearly a canny opportunist, he’s also produced the inspirational religious dramas What Would Jesus Do? (2010) and the Thomas Kinkade-branded Christmas Lodge (2011)). But all we care about here is Austin 3:16, the gospel of which Nasser thought could still make him some quick cash.

The first Nasser-Austin collaboration is Damage (2009) which is also their most ambitious. Austin already has his film persona in place here, which retains the working class resentments of “Stone Cold”, but removes the venomous verbosity. In its place is a bemused, solitary stoicism, a fiercely moral version of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a wise cracking anti-hero haunted by the past, who values family above all (but never gets the girl). In Damage this character is called John Brickner, an ex-con out on parole from a manslaughter charge in Seattle (shot in Vancouver, as always), drifting from low-paying construction jobs to lower paying bouncer gigs. He’s drawn to an underground fighting ring to make some quick cash, and teams up with slimy promoter Reno (Justified’s Walton Goggins) and his gal Frankie (Laura Vandevoort).

Director Jeff King and writer Frank Hannah are proudly bound to the boxing genre, recalling everything from Gentleman Jim to Body and Soul to Hard Times, with its shady promoters, sympathetic diner waitresses, dangerous pier-side brawls, and just to throw in a side of melodrama, a little girl who needs a heart transplant! All of them are on the take, and all have their reasons, up in their ears in debt and lashing out in desperation. Put across with earnest intensity, it honors its predecessors by playing it straight, which works thanks to the authentically idiosyncratic performances, including the manically weaselly Goggins and extra-crusty Donnelly Rhodes as a fallen priest. The fight scenes are blunt but effective, serving their purpose as expressions of character rather than spectacles-in-themselves.

The Stranger (2010) is the kind of garbled mess that gives DTV a bad name, a paranoid thriller that finds an amnesic Austin racing through Vancouver (posing as Seattle) trying to kick-start his memory. Shot in dilapidated offices and back alleys in what looks like a long inebriated weekend, there’s nothing resembling narrative coherence here, although there is the compensatory pleasure of Austin wearing a big hobo beard. Hunt to Kill (2010) is a welcome return to technical competence and satisfying genre kicks. This one is of the kidnapped-in-the-woods variety. Austin plays a divorced Texas (aka Vancouver) border patrol agent haunted (!) by the death of his deputy (a snickering cameo by Eric Roberts),  who is desperate to insulate his teen daughter from any danger. Of course, they both get kidnapped by raving psychos and go on a forced march through the forest. Strictly abiding by the Rambo playbook, Austin picks off the crazies one-by-one, which director Keoni Waxman (Anna Nicole) and Damage scribe Frank Hannah move along with admirable speed and precision. There is an especially brutal and well-staged fight between Austin and kickboxer Gary Daniels, a drama of reversals and counter-moves that looks like a lead-footed ballet.

There is more light-stepping in Tactical Force (2011), which contains an ingenious B-movie scenario from writer/director Adamo P. Cultraro. This time Austin is the head of an aggressive LAPD swat team that act like a swaggering group of Dirty Harrys, destroying property and criminals’ internal organs with impunity. You can sense Austin cutting loose a bit, channeling some of the absurd humor of his later WWE run, as this character has none of the morality of his other films. Here is a purely destructive force, and is the closest thing to a “Stone Cold” performance in his growing oeuvre.

The SWAT team is suspended after an especially creative outing to a grocery store (in which frozen steaks and BB guns are brandished as weapons), and sent for re-training at a warehouse. Unbeknownst to them, Russian and Italian gangs are there violently negotiating for the rights to a mysterious suitcase (whose contents, as in Pulp Fiction’s McGuffin, are never revealed). Provided only with blanks, the SWAT team is suddenly caught in their crossfire, with little hope for escape. Masking the low budget by filming in one location, and pushing the pace through cross-cutting, this is a resourceful, snarky Tarantino clone aided by the athleticism of its cast. In addition to Austin, the presence of MMA bruiser Keith Jardine and martial artists Michael Jai White and Darren Shahlavi add a bit of physical grace to a film otherwise situated as a snappy dialogue comedy.

My favorite of the Austin DTVers might be Recoil, though, which Nasser just released on DVD and Blu-Ray this past March. Dusting off the Phenix City Story and Walking Tall scenario, Austin is a very haunted vigilante stalking through the Pacific Northwest (read: Vancouver) town of Hope to rid it of the vise-like grip of vice imposed by the biker gang “The Circle”, led by Danny Trejo. After his family was brutally murdered by dirtbags, Austin is eager to return the favor. The film is crisply shot by Terry Miles, whose measured pacing and clear lines make even the smallest of exchanges alive with murderous possibility. It begins with some simple match cuts early on, when he rhymes Austin cleaning the muzzle of his gun with the way he stirs his coffee. Then it builds to deadlier range, when Austin’s first encounter on the street ends with muzzle pointed towards a head. This occurs in a quicksilver although perfectly legible series of movements, emphasizing the quickness and lack of consequences to death in this town.

Later, Miley will match a squeeze of lemon in tea to the local handyman Kirby being forced to squeeze his hand around a knife. The everyday is continually associated with violence, seeped deeply into this town’s being. It culminates in an epic slobberknocker between Austin and Trejo, an operatic brawl which starts as a regular grappling, MMA-style battle and ends with two men taping their hands together,  one single mass of fighter, seemingly beating itself into senselessness. Relentlessly logical in its visual connections, this image of, not one man clapping, but one man brawling, is a rather brilliant way for this movie about a town devouring itself to end.

Unsurprisingly, Outlaw Vern appears to be correct. Steve Austin is a reliable indicator of DTV quality, with four out of his five efforts worthy of attention. With two more films scheduled for release this year, The Package  (co-starring Dolph Lundgren), and Maximum Conviction (with Steven Seagal)it will be interesting to see if he continues to elaborate upon his stoic straight-edge persona, or if  the cocky and logorrheic “Stone Cold” that he flashed in Tactical Force will creep back in to once again strike fear into CEOs the world over.