The Direct to Video Connoisseur

I'm a huge fan of action, horror, sci-fi, and comedy, especially of the Direct to Video variety. In this blog I review some of my favorites and not so favorites, and encourage people to comment and add to the discussion. For announcements and updates, don't forget to Follow us on Twitter and Like our Facebook page. If you're the director, producer, distributor, etc. of a low-budget feature length film and you'd like to send me a copy to review, you can contact me at dtvconnoisseur[at] I'd love to check out what you got. And check out my book, Chad in Accounting, over on Amazon.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Showdown in Manila (2016)

Getting back into things after that long hiatus, I wanted to see what some of the Hall of Famers have been up to, and this one has three: Cynthia Rothrock, Don "The Dragon" Wilson, and Olivier Gruner.  In addition, it has DTVC favorites Casper Van Dien, Mark Dacascos, Tia Carrere, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, and Matthias Hues.  I couldn't not review this, right?

Showdown in Manila is about a cop, Alexander Nevsky, who gets his team killed when a bust goes bad.  He starts a PI firm with former LA cop Casper Van Dien, and gets a case dumped in his lap that may get him the revenge on the baddies, Cary Tagawa and Matthias Hues, who killed his team, when Tia Carrere hires them to find the same men who killed her husband, Mark Dacascos.  If Nevsky and Van Dien are going to pull this off, they'll need to call in some DTVC Hall of Famers.

This one was missing something, and I think the problem was there was too much shooting and too little anything else.  And it was that kind of shooting where you see one person firing a weapon in one shot, and then someone else in an entirely different shot getting hit.  The other thing is, when you have the names this had, you need more than just one Mark Dacascos fight and one Cynthia Rothrock fight for that to pay off.  I don't need Olivier Gruner and Don "The Dragon" Wilson to just fire weapons, anyone can do that, I need to see them take out a few guys at once with their martial arts.  I feel bad, because I think I'm judging the movie more on what it could have been as opposed to what it was based on the cast, but the trailer was selling me that too, and in my mind it just didn't quite deliver.

Another issue the film had was, it really was supposed to be Nevsky's, but Casper Van Dien was stealing every scene they were in together.  It made me want more of him, and the scenes that were Nevsky-focused had me waiting for when Van Dien would be back.  Then, as Van Dien is shining in every scene the way he was, I starting thinking "why isn't his character the one this is centered around?  He's more compelling."  That's a situation you never want to be in.  If you look at another "showdown" movie, Showdown in Little Tokyo, Brandon Lee was fantastic, but Dolph could carry it so well that they played off each other and the whole thing worked.  The other thing is I think Dolph had had more acting credits at that point than Brandon Lee, whereas Casper Van Dien has been around much more than Nevsky, and it showed in their scenes together.

Alexander Nevsky has made a few films over the past five years, and I think he could, with the right material, be one of those actors after Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White who could carry the torch after some of the old guard have retired--and to some extent, I think this movie was a bit of a passing of the torch with the names who were supporting him.  The problem Nevsky faces was staring at him in the person of Matthias Hues: the bad guy is usually the hulking Eastern European, and a lot of the stars working with him in this picture made their money taking down their share of Alexander Nevskys in their careers.  What that means is he's working uphill versus the high-octane martial arts of Adkins and White that make more sense to us as action fans.  I would add a Tony Jaa to that list.  I'm not saying I don't think Nevsky can have a career in DTV action, I personally would love to see him make it, I just think he needs the right material as he gets his feet under him, and I don't know that this film was it.

As we discussed, there are three DTVC Hall of Famers, and all three of them come in for the jungle scenes in the last half-hour or so.  Part of the reason why all three of them are Hall of Famers is we're used to them leading their own films--Gruner has 20 films on the DTVC, Rothrock 28, and Wilson 30.  You could also add Dacascos and his 16 films to that list, but seeing that he was also directing, his smaller role was more understandable.  The point I'm making is, adding headliners to this movie without giving them headliner roles I think brings us back to the idea that this film feels like it could have been more.  For example, Cynthia Rotherock had a good fight scene where she took out a bunch of henchmen, but that's the kind of scene an up-and-comer should get to show us what she's got, not someone who has helmed 5 DTV action franchises: China O'Brien, Rage and Honor, Martial Law, Lady Dragon, and Tiger Claws.  She's one of the biggest reasons why I got into DTV action, and to see her in this small role supporting Nevsky didn't feel right.  Same could be said of Don "The Dragon" Wilson and Olivier Gruner.  We may see more of this kind of thing going forward, where DTVC Hall of Famers take smaller supporting roles, and I don't know how we mitigate this issue of how much we're used to them being the lead, unless you only have them be baddies.  I'm not saying I need them in roles where they do a fight scene every 10-15 minutes--they've already done plenty of those for us, and plenty of great ones at that--, but I think you have to give the audience something they can really sink their teeth into so they leave feeling satisfied.

I wanted to discuss the very end of the movie, so if you don't want to know what happens, don't read this paragraph.  The way the film ends, the guys capture Tagawa, and take him back to Manila, where Matthias Hues has been lying in the trunk of their car.  They have the guys in handcuffs sitting in chairs in their office, when Tia Carrere's character comes in, and shoots them both in cold blood.  I don't want to get into the idea of victim's rights in real life, and whether or not a victim's family should have the right to get revenge like this.  Real life is one thing, but a movie is different, and it seems off when the heroes do it.  Again, this isn't real life, Mark Dacascos didn't really die, so in the construct of a movie, I think you have to have the baddie go for a gun or do something threatening to justify killing them.  They can't be restrained and defenseless, it just doesn't play well, at least to me.

For me, I unfortunately can't fully recommend this.  It had its moments, but I feel like the bigger cast made me wish they had done more.  I like Nevsky, and think he could have a big future, but there were a lot of names that overshadowed him.  In fact, many of the big names made their careers in films where they defeated Nevsky-types, and I think that undermined what they were going for.  You can find this on Amazon Prime, so if you're a Prime subscriber, this won't cost you anything more.

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Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Debt Collector (2018)

It was about time we got some Scott Adkins up on the blog now that we're back, and he certainly has a lot to choose from.  I saw that this one has a sequel in post production, so I figured it would be the one to do.  Let's see how it went.

The Debt Collector has Adkins as a guy who runs a dojo that is short on funds.  His buddy, Michael Paré, gets him a job as a debt collector for an organized crime boss.  For orientation, he shadows one of the Mandylor brothers, Louis.  Things get crazy though when they take a job from Tony Todd that may not be what it seems.  Can the guys do the right thing, or will they carry out their job no matter what?

I don't know what to think of this one.  It had action, but was it the best action?  It had a nice 95-minute runtime, and I don't know that it moved slowly, but the earlier construct of the guys just doing jobs felt a little repetitive.  How many times do I need to see them go to collect money, Scott Adkins get thrown through a wall, then win the fight and the guys get the cash, before I get the idea?  I think the movie understood that too, because at the point where I might have said "this movie is just spinning its wheels," they interject the Tony Todd element into the story.  The problem was, beyond the dilemma the characters had in whether or not they go against orders, they were really just going from going place to place to collect money, to going place to place to get information.  I don't know how you mitigate that, other than maybe having less of that construct, moving up the dilemma to earlier in the story, and then changing the paradigm to something that's more cat-and-mouse or two guys trying to stay alive and clear their names.

This movie got Scott Adkins half-right.  The half they got right was keeping his native English accent, and not forcing him to affect an American one.  I know for me, I would rather have Scott Adkins as a Brit living in LA with no explanation on how he got there, than him affecting an American accent.  The half they got wrong was in the fight scenes.  They were too knock-down-drag-em-out, which to me wastes what makes Adkins so great: full-throttle martial arts action.  I want lightning fast kicks and chops, taking out three guys at a time, maybe throwing in a few jump kicks; not trading punch with big guys who pick him up and throw him through plaster walls before Louis Mandylor swoops in and smashes a vase on the big guy's head.  This might be the first Adkins movie I've seen where his non-fight scenes outshone the ones where he fought.

As I mentioned above, this has one of the Mandylor brothers, Louis, as the old veteran debt collector showing Adkins the ropes.  I would say between the two of them, he may have made more sense in this than Adkins.  I think you could have made a compelling, mid-to-late 90s independent flick about a debt collector with a tough past who found his way into this sordid life and now is trying to cope.  Dial down the action a bit, add in some quirky supporting characters, and we could have had something really compelling.  I think that might have been another problem, this movie didn't know what it wanted to be, hard-hitting action flick or 90s throwback indie character study, and I think if it had picked one or the other and stuck with it, we could have something really great.

Tony Todd's character felt like another miss, as it really could have been that offbeat yet very evil organized crime boss that a lot of 90s indie flicks, especially post-Pulp Fiction, featured.  The way that whole plot  comes into the film, with his character wanting them to track someone down, it didn't feel fully fleshed out, almost like it was there to mitigate that issue I described where the paradigm of them going to collect money started spinning its wheels.  I wonder if the better way wasn't to mix some of those earlier debt collections into a montage, then have this Tony Todd thing be a bigger part.  Again, it was just something about the film that felt like it didn't know what it wanted to be.

Michael Paré is looking to outdo Eric Roberts for most movies coming out.  If you look at his imdb, he's been doing like 4 or 5 movies a year for over a decade now, and he's not showing any signs of slowing up.  I remember imdb used to have this thing where you could look at two actors and see how many times they've worked together.  It would be interesting to see how many times Paré has been with Roberts.  I think those two would make for a great buddy cop movie, the problem is, neither of them would have time to be the leads if they're appearing in five other movies each a year.

I think you could have some fun with this one.  For me, it just felt like it had too much that wasn't fully fleshed out, plus, I personally prefer high-octane martial arts action as opposed to "I hit you, you hit me, then throw me through a wall, and then my partner will smash a vase over your head" kind of action.  At the very least, Scott Adkins keeps his natural accent, which for me is always a plus.

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Saturday, November 16, 2019

White Ghost (1988)

For the first time in I don't know how long, we're inducting a new member to the DTVC Hall of Fame!  No, it's not William Katt, it's Reb Brown!  Yes, I probably should have picked a more Reb-centric flick to do for his induction celebration, but I didn't realize he was in this as little as he was.  Well, we're already knee-deep, so we might as well get after it.  Also, our friends at have looked at this, and they joined me for the podcast we did in discussing Reb Brown and his work.

White Ghost has William Katt as our eponymous hero, a former Vietnam War vet who stayed behind after and lived in the jungle while collecting weapons and marrying Rosalind Chao.  Reb Brown, back in DC, suspects that Katt might still be out there as the mythical White Ghost that locals in the jungle think has been haunting them.  Brown gathers a team of special ops guys to bring him in, led by his former commander, Walker.  They're on a collision course to wackiness!

I don't know that this was horrible, but it had some horrible moments, like when Rosalind Chao is captured and has bamboo shoots shoved under her fingernails.  That's a bit much for me.  Beyond that, it has a heavy body count and lots of explosions.  I think for these kinds of DTV 80s jungle actioners, we've seen worse, but we've also seen better.  I think what usually carries it is the stars, and beyond Katt, Brown, and Chao, we had an interesting cast.  Katt's old CO was played by Wayne Crawford, Karl Johnson was Crawford's right-hand man, and in his crew he had John Barrett (uncredited) and Graham Clark (who starred with Brown in Space Mutiny).  I don't know that that's enough of a cast to carry this, especially if you're putting Reb Brown on the bench for all but the last few minutes.

That bit at the end though was pure classic Reb Brown.  He's in front of a helicopter, two-fisting machine guns, and screaming while he mows down Vietnamese soldiers.  Even if this weren't the movie we were reviewing to induct Brown into the Hall of Fame, that still wouldn't be enough.  Reb Brown was made for these jungle warfare romps.  Get him a tank top, head band, and a cache of weapons, and let him loose on the movie.  Even if this was supposed to be a Katt vehicle, it needed more Reb Brown.

Reb Brown enters the Hall of Fame with one of the lower tag counts (this will be his ninth, which is lower than a lot of non-Hall of Famers), but I think why he gets in is his spirit, similar to a Klaus Kinski--but in a totally different way--embodies what DTV is all about.  Also, his films tended to be on the lower end, especially the Philippine jungle ones, but there was never a sense in any movie he did that he mailed it in, and that I think matters more than anything for us as a viewer.  I never thought when I first saw him in Space Mutiny almost 20 years ago that I would have a blog, and on that blog be inducting him into our Hall of Fame, but here we are; and here's to you Reb Brown, you're one of the good ones.

William Katt was an interesting choice for the lead.  The better movie might have been with Brown in Katt's role, and Katt in Brown's, but that's one of the problems with DTV: the bigger name gets the bigger role, unless it's a bait-and-switch.  If you're going to pay Katt that much, you might as well use him.  The other thing too is, in 1988, he was only two years removed from The Greatest American Hero, and was still doing Perry Mason TV movies as a reoccurring character.  It makes me wonder if maybe this was slated for a theatrical release, and then something derailed it, and it ended up DTV.

I think sometimes with these action movies we need to suspend belief when it comes to the amount of weaponry and ammunition they have, but this film actually deals with that in a pretty realistic way.  Katt character collects it off of fallen soldiers and from various abandoned storage locales.  With the way the US funds its conflicts, it's not inconceivable that he could find a lot of that stuff left behind.  It would have been cooler though if he found some other things, like MREs.  Sure, we're action fans, but it doesn't always have to be about shooting and explosions, does it?  Okay, maybe it does.

It's time to wrap it up.  For me, this may be for 80s Jungle Flick completists, but I don't know if I can recommend it beyond that.  After Brown's great screaming action near the very end, there isn't much that I found to distinguish it from a lot of the others out there.  You can get this on Prime, or stream it on YouTube.  I think as far as our DTVC Hall of Famer, Strike Commando and Robowar are two better ones for him, plus Space Mutiny, all of which are also on Prime.

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Saturday, November 9, 2019

China Salesman (2017)

I saw this listed on imdb when I was looking up Seagal for the Perfect Weapon review.  The trailer showed this too-sweet fight between him and Mike Tyson, and I thought, man, I gotta make this happen.  I did notice that the runtime was closing in on two hours though, and I've been at this game long enough to know that that's a red flag that seldom doesn't fulfill the promise of the doom it portends.

China Salesman is a Chinese production staring Dong-Xue Li as an engineer for a Chinese telecom company that's looking to win a contract to be the cell service provider for a burgeoning African nation.  Unfortunately those pesky Westerners are at their old tricks: the competing European telecom company is actually represented by a French spy who's using the telecom bidding as a front for his attempt to foment civil war in the country in order to exploit their natural resources.  Now not only does Dong-Xue need to overcome the Westerner's sneakiness in trying to win the contract, but he also needs to save this nation from another civil war.

In the opening credits, the production company "Golden God" is written as "Gloden God."  Red flag number 2, right?  And it turns out I was right to be concerned with red flag number 1, the runtime. At about the 1:15-1:20 mark, the film hits a natural end point: Dong-Xue saves the country, wins the contract, and it looks like everyone but the baddies will live happily ever after.  Not so fast cowboy.  Instead there's this whole other storyline about how the European telecom is now suing the Chinese one, led by the nefarious French spy, and this drags on for another half-hour that we didn't need.  I don't know that I would have said this was a great movie at the shorter runtime, because it still had its "Gloden God" flaws, but at the very least, it couldn't afford that tacked-on extra thirty minutes, which was unfortunate.

Our man Seagal isn't in this for a huge amount, but the fight scene he has with Tyson is pretty good.  When you think of an extreme, aggressive boxer like Tyson versus an Aikido master like Seagal, it had all of the one redirecting the aggression and momentum of the other.  The problem was they were substituting Seagal with a stunt double, which made it disjointed.  Beyond that, Seagal was this local smuggler character who was, I guess, a good guy, or maybe a guy with no allegiances, but the role was down on the totem pole, and probably didn't warrant him being featured so prominently on the cover.  I read on imdb that casting him was a huge chunk of their budget, so I guess having him on the cover and featured in the trailer was their way of making sure they got their money's worth, but that doesn't mean we did.

While Seagal wasn't in this much, Mike Tyson's character had a pretty sizable role.  He's the representative of a displaced people in Africa looking to take the country back--being manipulated by the French spy to be a baddie of course.  Based on how good his fight scene with Seagal was, I would have liked more of that, as opposed to him in a tank yelling "fire!"  There are some other films he's done recently, like one of the Kickboxer sequels, so I think it'll be good to see him in one of those, as I have a feeling they'll do more with his fighting skills.

I list the hero, Dong-Xue, down here, as opposed to near the top, because this film billed him third, despite the fact that he was the film's hero.  He represented more than simply the protagonist, he also represented China vis-a-vis the Western world, especially when it comes to developing parts of the world like Africa.  There's one scene where he and some of the other characters need to get past a hostile checkpoint so they can fix a cell tower, but they don't have a UN or Red Cross flag to show that they're not a belligerent player.  Dong-Xue finds a Chinese flag and waves it patriotically as their caravan rides past the checkpoint unharmed.  It smacked of our " 'Murica" movies, and in a way was refreshing to see done by another country.  The reality is the West doesn't have a great reputation in Africa in particular, and as a result, China can position themselves as perhaps a more palatable alternative as some of these nations look to develop their infrastructure.  Also, the title, "China Salesman," is a reference to the stereotype that the Chinese people takeover the economies that they move into and are always looking to sell people things.  Dong-Xue having to prove that he's more than just a "China Salesman" is a metaphor for China itself challenging the global economy.  I think the message would have gotten across better with the last 30 minutes dumped, but even so, is a low-budget actioner from "Gloden God" the right vehicle for messages like this anyway? 

Our friend Will over at Exploding Helicopter has been celebrating the helicopter explosion in films for years, and as you can imagine, his work is very extensive.  It's almost like Chekhov's Gun, right?  When we see a helicopter in a movie, it's gotta go down at some point, it's just a matter of how creative the filmmaker will be in doing the job.  China Salesman though strikes a blow for the helicopter here, for the first time ever in any movie I've ever seen.  A UN helicopter appears as our hero is under fire while trying to fix a cell tower.  At the same time, Mike Tyson picks up a rocket launcher and trains it on the whirlybird.  I see this, and I'm thinking "here it comes;" but it didn't, he missed.  Okay, it got lucky, we're just delaying the inevitable, right?  Of course, Iron Mike is loading up for his next shot, now we'll get that exploding helicopter.  But the helicopter did something I'd never seen when faced with a missile flying in its direction: it dodged it.  And then, on top of that, it fired a missile of it's own, blasting Tyson off the ledge he was on and incapacitating him.  It was a amazing, like the Washington Generals finally beating the Harlem Globetrotters.  

Okay, time to wrap this baby up.  You can currently stream China Salesman on Netflix, and I feel like the best bet is to stream it and watch the fight between Seagal and Tyson, because it's pretty good.  (Also if you go to the 70-minute mark to see the helicopter striking a blow for all helicopters.)  Beyond that, I think this movie tried and had a message worth giving, but it ultimately failed in the execution.  Many have suffered the hubris in trying to defeat the 88-minute rule, and this unfortunately was another casualty.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Black Water (2018)

I first found out about this one when it was suggested to me on a streaming site while I was looking for something else.  My bigger question was how I didn't know about this before?  Dolph/Van Damme in a movie together is almost as big as De Niro and Pacino--almost.

Black Water has Van Damme as Wheeler, a CIA special agent working deep cover to find someone leaking top secret info for money.  Things go bad though, and he finds himself on a submarine that technically doesn't exist, and is used for detaining and interrogating high-risk targets--like Dolph, who's being held there for unknown reasons.  While Van Damme is being interrogated, he's able to escape his cuffs and escape onto the sub with a plucky young CIA recruit, Cass.  Now Cass and Dolph are the only people who can help Van Damme get off the sub and clear his name.

This wasn't horrible, but I think for a movie with these two, "wasn't horrible" isn't exactly what you're looking for.  The movie starts with Van Damme waking up in a cell and trying to figure out where he is, while he talks to Dolpg through their cell walls.  It then takes us about 20 minutes to get us back there as we replay the events to show us what happened before. Why not just start the movie at the beginning then?  There was some nice action in that, but part of that brings me to my other issue with the movie: the submarine set was a bit too claustrophobic.  It's no coincidence that the best action scene in the movie came in that "here's what happened before" act that took place outside.  The other thing was, someone on imdb tagged this as having a Die Hard paradigm, but it really wasn't, it was more like one group against another trying to get control of the sub.  Maybe, had this been an actual Die Hard on a sub model, it would have worked better, but I still think the limitations due to the space would have been hard to overcome.

Usually if a movie has Dolph in it, we start with him, but because this was more of Van Damme's vehicle, I think it's only right to go to him first.  I really liked him in this.  His scenes with Dolph were a lot of fun; and his action sequences, especially with his gun fu and knife fu were great.  He just celebrated his 59th birthday, but based on what we're seeing with guys like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, he could have another ten years of movies like this.  I get the sense though that he wouldn't want that, that by 2029 he'll be doing something different from this, and I'm okay with that, what he's already given us has been fantastic enough.

Dolph is this movie's Chekhov's Gun.  We see him in the opening scene, and we know eventually they're going to use him, it's just a matter of when.  For that reason, I wouldn't call this a bait-and-switch, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't have liked more Dolph in the film.  For me, Dolph isn't your Chekhov's Gun character, he's the co-star, and he and Van Damme should have been taking out guys, bantering back and forth, and chewing up scenery for 90 minutes.  Steve Buscemi is great Chekhov's Gun, or maybe someone like Mike Tyson. 

We had Jasmine Waltz as Cass, the plucky recruit teamed up with Van Damme after he wins her over.  I felt like she was a victim of what I've always seen as a poor device used in action movies: the annoying partner who hampers our hero before he/she redeems themselves and becomes likable.  Why do that?  Why not just make her character likable right from the start?  Instead of having her try to keep Van Damme at gun point, when we've already established that her character is way over her head and couldn't keep him at gun point, why not have her trust her gut and support him right from the start--which, going back to Chekhov's Gun, they established during the interrogation scene that she was already having doubts that Van Damme was a baddie, and then suddenly went away from that and didn't trust him.

We talked about Van Damme's age earlier in the post, but I think I may be getting softer in my old age too (if 40's old), because I really liked the fight scene between Van Damme and his son Kris. I don't think I could do a choreographed fight with my dad, but they definitely pulled it off.  We talk about Scott Adkins or Michael Jai White as guys who could carry the torch from some of these action greats like Dolph and Van Damme, but if they're going to be sticking around another ten years, there might not be a torch to pass before they're in their 50s and 60s too; but Kris Van Damme is only in his early 30s, and with one of the all-time greats in his dad there to possibly train him, I think he's someone that by 2029 could be on the cover of these movies and taking DTV action to that next level.

Overall, as I said, I didn't think this was horrible.  I think if you have 104 minutes to kill, you could do a lot worse than this.  It's available to stream if you have Amazon Prime, or to rent on streaming through Amazon or Redbox.  For a Dolph/Van Damme flick, I expected more, but, again, it wasn't horrible.

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