Friday, May 25, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: U.S. SEALS II (2001)

(US, 2001)

Directed by Isaac Florentine.  Written by Michael Weiss.  Cast: Michael Worth, Damian Chapa, Karen Kim, Marshall Teague, Kate Connor, Sophia Crawford, Andy Cheng, Hakim Alston, Plamen Zahov, Daniel Southworth, George Cheung, Burnell Tucker, Velizar Binev. (R, 95 mins)


Anyone who's seen the deliriously insane U.S. SEALS II knows the significance of that sound.  Like its predecessor a year earlier, U.S. SEALS II went straight to video and only features two minor supporting characters held over from the first film, so knowing the events of U.S. SEALS is utterly unnecessary.  As the audaciously batshit PUNISHER: WAR ZONE was to the disappointing THE PUNISHER, U.S. SEALS II is a different beast altogether, almost completely abandoning the stale, cliched military plot and instead delivering a cartoonishly balls-out martial-arts orgy that exists on no known level of reality.  This complete shift in tone comes courtesy of director Isaac Florentine, an Israeli-born martial-arts expert who got his start as a stunt coordinator and then a director on the MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS TV series.  Over the last decade or so, Florentine has become a major cult figure in the world of straight-to-DVD action films, based largely on U.S. SEALS II, but also BRIDGE OF DRAGONS (1999), and his two sequels to Walter Hill's 2002 film UNDISPUTED:  UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING (2006) and UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION (2010).  Florentine's films have a kinetic, unique ferocity all their own, and I'm surprised he hasn't yet graduated to A-list fare.  Usually working with the folks at NuImage, it's possible that he enjoys the relative freedom they give him to do what he wants, especially since he wasn't pleased with the outcome of his one recent film done for others (the 2009 Van Damme actioner THE SHEPHERD: BORDER PATROL).  Sure, a lot of U.S. SEALS II is ridiculous and stupid, but it's so incredibly ridiculous and stupid that surely some of it is meant to be comedic.  Or at the very least, winking.

Michael Worth as Lt. Casey Sheppard
A SEAL raid on a terrorist compound--featuring random backflips and bazookas appearing out of nowhere--goes bad when leader Frank Ratliff (Damian Chapa) disobeys orders and kills the man they needed to keep alive.  Stationed in Okinawa, Ratliff senselessly kills Nikki (Karen Kim), the party-girl daughter of the Sensei (George Cheung) of the dojo where he and best friend Lt. Casey Sheppard (Michael Worth) study martial arts.  Disgraced, the Sensei commits seppuku and his other daughter, Nikki's twin Kimiko (also Kim) turns her back on Casey's attempt to get to the bottom of Nikki's murder.  Three years later, a despondent Casey has left military service and is living in peaceful exile when he's called back into action by Major Donner (Marshall Teague) after Ratliff, also out of the service and now a nefarious arms dealer, and some cohorts (including Sophia Crawford as a lethal femme fatale and second-unit director/stunt coordinator Andy Cheng) kidnap rocket scientist Dr. Jane Burrows (Kate Connor) and take her to an island compound where he needs her to launch two nuclear warheads.  That is, unless the US government pays him $1 billion.  Donner and Admiral Patterson (Burnell Tucker) allow Casey to assemble his own lethal team of ragtag miscreants and ne'er-do-wells (and a vengeful Kimiko) to launch a raid on Ratliff's stronghold (where there's some kind of constant methane leak, preventing the use of guns or anything that ignites), rescue Dr. Burrows, prevent global destruction, and hope we don't see the story elements pilfered from DIE HARD and UNDER SIEGE. They're...THE ULTIMATE FORCE!

Karen Kim in action
If it feels like this has a Cannon vibe to it, it's because NuImage is essentially the staff members of Cannon not named Menahem Golan or Yoram Globus.  Led by such Cannon alumni as Avi Lerner, Boaz Davidson, and John Thompson, who ran Cannon's Italian studio in the early '80s, NuImage emerged as a prolific supplier of often shoddy straight-to-video titles in the wake of Cannon's early '90s implosion.  As time went on, NuImage set up shop in Sofia, Bulgaria, helping pave the way for much US production activity in Eastern Europe that still goes on today.  Later, NuImage vacillated between that name and their "prestige" moniker Millennium Films when they tried to enter the big leagues with major Hollywood figures like Al Pacino (88 MINUTES), Michael Douglas (KING OF CALIFORNIA), and Brian De Palma (THE BLACK DAHLIA) to name just three, but other than their association with Sylvester Stallone (on RAMBO, and the two EXPENDABLES films), they haven't had a lot of success theatrically.  Some good films, to be sure (BROOKLYN'S FINEST, BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, and the barely-released TRUST), but major flops as well (their remake of CONAN THE BARBARIAN bombed).  Despite Lerner & Co.'s attempts to go A-list, it's still video-store perennials like U.S. SEALS II and the SHARK ATTACK films that many people think of when they hear "NuImage."  And U.S. SEALS II (followed the next year by the unrelated, Florentine-less, back-to-basics follow-up U.S. SEALS: DEAD OR ALIVE) has all the hallmarks of vintage NuImage:  the feel of late-period Cannon; cheap sets; most of the over-the-top action taking place in an abandoned Bulgaria factory; ludicrous dialogue ("Just kick some ass!"); terrible dubbing of supporting actors already speaking English in an American production; and really primitive, SyFy-level CGI courtesy of the same Bulgarian VFX team they used throughout most of the decade.

U.S. SEALS II isn't Florentine's best film, but it's probably his most well-known (his two UNDISPUTED sequels are awesome).  It became a word-of-mouth hit among video store employees and bad movie fans with its constant whoosh sound effects whenever someone moves.  I'm not kidding.  Whether someone's aiming a gun, engaged in a martial-arts battle, signaling with their hand, or simply peering around a corner and turning their head, nearly every physical action is accompanied by a whoosh sound.  This fight scene with Kim and Crawford (includes SPOILERS) is a perfect example.  Even flowing hair whooshes. 

(SPOILERS again) But no discussion of U.S. SEALS II would be complete without addressing the unforgettable demise of Chapa's venal, smirking Ratliff.  Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot's Marty McKee has called it one of the top five villain deaths in all of cinema.  That's really not an exaggeration.  The main issue with its presentation is that its ambitions like beyond any budget or VFX capability that NuImage was willing or able to provide.  The CGI is wonky, but as McKee has said, it works based on sheer intent and outrageousness.  The sequence below is part of a larger one, intercut with Kim fighting Crawford and Andy Cheng, but the YouTube user edited it to just focus on Worth and Chapa, which explains why it's choppy.  But the fight choreography and the action are top-notch and often brilliantly inventive in their presentation.  Florentine is one of the best action directors in movies today.  Why isn't he directing THE EXPENDABLES 2?

Yeah!  You just saw that shit!  And did you hear it at the very end?  Go back and listen again. At 4:09 into the clip.  One final, subtle, beautiful...whoosh.

Bravo, Maestro Florentine.  Bravo.


  1. At the end of the day, SPECIAL FORCES is still my favorite, but that may just be because I had no idea who Isaac Florentine was when I watched it and was shocked at how well put-together it was.

    No matter, as US SEALS 2 is still a blast -- the "no guns" plot device alone is so ridiculous it's borderline genius!

  2. Yeah, I wasn't really aware of Florentine until UNDISPUTED II, when I recognized him as the guy behind U.S. SEALS II. I need to see SPECIAL FORCES.