Monday, August 31, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: SKIN TRADE (2015) and EJECTA (2015)

(Thailand/US - 2015)

The globetrotting actioner SKIN TRADE is a bloody, bone-crushingly entertaining throwback to the mismatched buddy/cop movies of the late '80s and early '90s. It occasionally suffers from budget limitations and has more plot and extraneous characters than it really needs, but it delivers the goods where it matters, and has its heart in the right place with an obviously sincere concern for human trafficking on the part of producer/co-writer/star Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren is Nick Cassidy, a plays-by-his-own-rules Newark cop obsessed with nailing Serbian crime lord Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman) who, with his four sons, oversees a global operation involving the trafficking of drugs, young women and teenage girls. Meanwhile, Bangkok detective Tony Vitayakul (ONG BAK's Tony Jaa) has lost contact with his girlfriend/informant Min (Celina Jade), who went undercover to be abducted by the Cambodia wing of Dragovic's operation. Back in Newark, Cassidy nabs Dragovic at a shipyard after a shootout results in the death of one of the criminal's sons, but Dragovic jumps bail to Cambodia after his goons blow up Cassidy's house with a rocket launcher, killing his wife and daughter. Clinging to life and without the knowledge of his boss Costello (Peter Weller) and FBI agent Reed (BLACK DYNAMITE's Michael Jai White), Cassidy flees both the hospital and the country, heading to Southeast Asia to exact revenge on Dragovic and bring down his operation. The Feds are in hot pursuit, and through a convoluted set of circumstances, Vitayakul spends a good chunk of time thinking Cassidy killed his partner, but eventually they team up to take out Dragovic...if they don't kill each other first!

A DTV-level film that somehow made it into some theaters, SKIN TRADE suffers from some dubious-looking greenscreen and digital work, though only Lundgren can convincingly pull off looking cool as he walks away from a CGI explosion. A weathered and craggy-looking Lundgren, augmented by some facial scarring makeup, is an engagingly gritty hero and convincingly sells Cassidy's obsessive rage (Lundgren is a better actor than people think). He works well with Jaa, especially in a pair of extensive fight scenes, but it's nearly an hour into the film before they even pair up, as the script works through a lot of backstory and characters. One wishes White had a little more to do--one pivotal plot point hinges on his character, but because he's such an engaging screen presence in action films (and a solid actor as well) that it does seem like he's getting table scraps here with an overall minor supporting role. Perlman chews the scenery with a thick Eastern European accent, and Weller gets a couple of dyspeptic outbursts as Cassidy's pissed-off lieutenant (disappointingly, the filmmakers deprive Weller of the chance to demand Cassidy's gun and shield to stash away in the top drawer of his desk). Director Ekachai Uekrongtham previously helmed the 2004 Muay Thai boxing drama BEAUTIFUL BOXER, but otherwise has little experience is this genre, with most of his work being straight drama aside from the 2008 horror film THE COFFIN. He does a good job with the actors, but one suspects Lundgren and Jaa--both experienced directors themselves--had significant input in the staging of the action. SKIN TRADE doesn't really offer anything new, but it does enthusiastically deliver exactly what it promises. (R, 96 mins)

(Canada - 2015)

Fans of the linguistic viral zombie outbreak cult classic PONTYPOOL (2008) will be interested in EJECTA, as both were scripted by Tony Burgess and feature Lisa Houle (PONTYPOOL's radio station manager Sydney Briar) in a key role. Much the way PONTYPOOL offered a rare lead for a familiar and constantly jobbing familiar face (Stephen McHattie), EJECTA does the same for veteran Canadian character actor Julian Richings. Richings is William Cassidy, a loner still haunted by an alien abduction he experienced 39 years earlier. Cassidy also blogs about UFO sightings, alien encounters, and government conspiracies under the name "Spider Nevi," and he reaches out to young documentary filmmaker and Spider Nevi superfan Joe Sullivan (Adam Seybold) about an upcoming Carrington Event or "mass ejection," a solar flare that may throw Earth off its orbit. Instead, they encounter an alien running rampant through the woods, and something--exactly what doesn't become clear until much later--happens that lands Cassidy in a Guantanamo-like bunker where he's interrogated and tortured by the sadistic Dr. Tobin (Houle, in a quite a menacing contrast to her PONTYPOOL character), an operative for a mysterious shadow wing of the government who doesn't hesitate to shoot military personnel in the head if she doesn't like the answers they give or if they fail to respond to her requests with appropriate speed.

Burgess and directors Matt Wiele and Chad Archibald juggle three overlapping stories: Cassidy and Sullivan encountering an alien in the woods; Tobin's soldiers looking for the missing Sullivan; and the psychological and physical torture of Cassidy by Tobin. It's the Cassidy-Tobin dynamic that's the most interesting element of EJECTA, so of course it takes a back seat until late in the game as the directors instead focus more on the other two storylines, which seem to exist simply to pander to the found-footage and hand-held crowd, whether it's Sullivan's documentary about "Spider Nevi" or the military search, which plays out entirely in green night-vision. There's some thought-provoking ideas in the Cassidy-Tobin sections of the film, particularly in the way Cassidy withstands every brutality Tobin has inflicted on him because after what he experienced 39 years ago, nothing can terrify or hurt him, and in fact, her abuse only makes him stronger. In the end, despite some unexpected elements in the home stretch--including some unabashed KEEP-worship in some of the music and visuals--and a pair of terrific performances by Richings and Houle, EJECTA isn't much more than yet another shaky-cam, faux-doc, found footage alien invasion movie with some pretty dodgy visual effects. Fans of PONTYPOOL--one of the best horror films of the last decade--will find it frustrating because, like that film, EJECTA could've brought something new to a played-out subgenre. It's still better than any SKYLINE or AREA 51 or most of its type. Despite its many problems, it's worth one watch for the work of Richings and Houle, and I have to admit that the shout-out to THE KEEP was a pleasant surprise that won some points in its favor. (Unrated, 82 mins)

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