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]yahoo.com. I'd love to check out what you got. And check out my book, Chad in Accounting, over on Amazon.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Asian Connection (2016)

This was another Seagal flick among the many he did while I was on hiatus that I needed to get caught up on.  Most of them are like this, available on either Prime, Tubi, Netflix, or another streaming site, so it'll just be a matter of knocking them off the list and moving on to the next one.  Let's see how this one did.

The Asian Connection (or just Asian Connection on the cover) has Seagal as a drug lord in Thailand, whose money in Cambodian bank accounts keeps getting stolen by a couple hipsters.  Turns out his henchman who suggested putting his money in the Cambodian banks is tipping off the hipsters.  Inexplicably it takes Seagal most of the movie to figure this out, and in the meantime we follow the exploits of Jack, one of the hipsters, who is doing all of this to make money for his girlfriend Avalon.  After Jack's partner dies in a botched robbery, the Seagal henchman wants him to do one last job.  Will he survive, or will Seagal finally get wise and get his revenge?



And frankly, do you even care?  All right, maybe it's not that bad, it just had some issues.  One, Seagal has no one to fight after he fights a rival drug lord in the film's opening twenty minutes.  We needed more of that, even if it was only a couple more times.  Two, instead of Seagal fighting more people, we follow the exploits of the Jack character, who, as I mentioned, was a hipster who called his friends "man" and "dude;" and his girlfriend "babe," while wearing his hair poofed up and his tan leather jackets slim-fit.  Am I rooting for him?  If not, why am I spending so much time on him?  Finally, the film's biggest issue: Seagal knows what his henchman is up to, and has no other reason to delay stopping him other than the film spinning its wheels to get to 90 minutes.  I think that's always a film's fatal flaw, if the only reason characters aren't doing something is to pad the story, it's hard to stay committed.

The thing is, I kind of liked Seagal in this, but when it's him, I don't know if the lack of him--and the lack of him having more good fight scenes--is by his request, and the filmmakers had to make do, or if the filmmakers actually made the conscious choice.  That's one of the problems with streaming movies as opposed to having the DVD with a commentary track, we have to guess more on things like this--though if there were a commentary track, would the filmmakers have said anything to disparage anyone in the movie?  Probably not, right?  So we're left guessing why most of the Seagal in this film was him in a robe speaking with a Cajun accent and complaining about losing his money instead of having a couple more fight scenes.



We've seen John Edward Lee, who played Jack, on the DTVC before.  He was the guy in The Lazarus Papers that had a Creepy White Guy relationship with the young trafficked Thai woman.  To some extent he reprises that role here, the only difference is he's saving his girlfriend from selling cigars to other Creepy White Guys at a cafe, instead of from sex slavery.  Either way, the issue again is, why am I rooting for him?  From a movie standpoint, I need to know why I want him to prevail when I have a Seagal who is making me like him.  I think the problem they ran into was, they tried to mitigate this concern by having us really root for his girlfriend, played by Pim Bubear, but if we focus the film on her, we lose the action of him and his buddy robbing the banks; so they tried to split that difference by then making this partially something of a bildungsroman where we watch the Jack character grow and become more sure of himself as he commits more robberies.  As I think about it, I don't know how I would have mitigated all of these issues myself, and maybe what we got here was a best attempt to make it all work.

The story for this movie was co-written by Tom Sizemore (yes, that Tom Sizemore) along with director Daniel Zirilli, and then the screenplay was written by D. Glase Lomond.  That might explain a lot of the issues here: with each new writer/contributor to the story, things can become that much more uneven.  I'd be curious to know what the original story was like, but I have a hunch it was probably set in LA, maybe more of a throwback to a 90s indie crime drama, but when it needed to be shot in Thailand with Steven Seagal changes needed to be made, and that's where we start to run into issues.  On the other hand, the story of the hipster boyfriend who needs to do anything he can to make money for the younger girlfriend he worships is a tired anyway, so it may not have been fixable in any scenario.



Not mentioned above, Michael Jai White has a small cameo in this as a gun dealer in Thailand.  To me White was an underutilized asset the film had that could have beefed up the film in a more organic and exciting way.  Maybe he's in cahoots with Seagal's henchman.  Maybe the henchman uses White's character as a patsy to pin the robberies on.  Maybe White and Seagal are buddies who spar together.  Whatever it is, they needed a fight scene to flesh out some of this spinning of the wheels; but beyond that, White is someone who's accomplished as an actor, an expert fighter, and a great screen presence, all of which this film needed more of.  (Note, soon after I wrote this, I discovered somewhere else online that Seagal doesn't like Michael Jai White, and that may explain why they didn't have scenes together.  If that's true, then we all missed out on something that could have really enhanced this movie and made it better.)

I think that's a good note to wrap this on.  For me, I feel like this could've been better.  With more compelling characters, and more Seagal and White, we might have had a winner.  Unfortunately that didn't happen, so overall this didn't work; but I did enjoy Seagal's work again, which has been nice to see.

For more info: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3187378

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Navy Seals vs. Zombies (2015)

When I started doing reviews again, I saw that Dudikoff was doing movies again as well, which was exciting, because according to imdb he hadn't made anything since 2002, and we had exhausted his DTV output.  Combine that with the idea of Navy Seals vs. Zombies, and this felt like a no-brainer--and unfortunately, in the DTV world, no-brainer more-often-than-not turns out to be not-so-good.

Navy Seals vs. Zombies follows a Navy Seal unit that is called into Baton Rouge to rescue the vice president, played by former NBA standout Rick Fox.  Turns out the reason they need to rescue him is Baton Rouge has been overrun by zombies.  With all of their elite, tactical training, can the best of the best handle this mindless, relentless, murdering menace?



So maybe Ed Quinn isn't hanging his head in shame, but anyone watching this could be forgiven for feeling exasperated.  He was hanging his head after one of the most lackluster, afterthought-ish helicopter explosions I've seen--like the post-credits Infinity War helicopter explosion thought the one here was mailed in.  The ultimate issue as I saw it was an identity crisis.  It's meant to be a celebration of the military and what they go through to protect our country, and the sacrifices they make and the bonds that are formed with their comrades.  I could totally get behind that, if they weren't fighting ZOMBIES!!  You can't be The Hurt Locker if you're fighting zombies!  It doesn't get more sauteed in wrong sauce than that.  This needed to be camp on ten, more Charlie Sheen tracking down his repoed vintage car in a high-speed bicycle chase set to Mr. Big's "Strike Like Lightning" than bros strapping on gear and saying things like "copy that" while chuckling at a joke.  From there, I think the helicopter explosion is a metaphor for the rest of the film: it felt perfunctory and repetitive.  I could have gotten what I got from any number of zombie films.  There was nothing "Navy Seals" about our heroes, they didn't show off any special training, didn't do anything special, and got their brains eaten and their carotid arteries chewed apart just like anyone else.  Ultimately this felt more bait-and-switch than the good time its name suggested it would be.

So what would make a Navy Seals vs. Zombies work?  First off, compelling characters like Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn's in Navy Seals.  That iconic scene of Charlie Sheen chasing down his car on a bicycle then jumping on the back of the truck to get it down, again, all set to "Strike Like Lightning" did more in 1:45 to establish who Sheen's character was than any of the characters were established in 90 minutes of this.  When we think of the character that I think was the one we were supposed to root for, we see him with his wife, and know that she's pregnant; and that's how he's established as someone we should be invested in.  Again, the latter is great when we're making The Hurt Locker; the former though is what gets it done in a Navy Seals vs. Zombies scenario.  From there, the action needs to be fun and explosive.  Guys aiming machine guns at zombies, and asking their superior if they should shoot, isn't going to get it done.  Give me a guy who runs out of bullets, and starts taking out zombies with a knife; or maybe like Guile in Street Fighter bicycle kicks a zombie's head off.  Get campy, get fun, and make it awesome, and maybe you have a cult classic.



When we last saw Mr. Dudikoff, we were looking at the Noirish thriller In Her Defense in 2011.  I think the problem here is all he was doing was playing the jerk commanding officer who gives people are hard time and doesn't listen to them, but wants to have the back of his guys in the field.  We all know what we needed in this one, don't we?  All of his men are taken out by the zombies, and he's America's last hope.  He dawns those ninja PJs, loads up on throwing stars and other ninja weaponry, and, sans parachute, jumps into the war zone and takes them all out.  The bonus is, dressed in ninja PJs, you can swap in any number of stunt men to handle any scenes Dudikoff doesn't feel up to anymore.  We needed Dudikoff, as the film's one hall of famer, to get in there and save this thing, and unfortunately it never happened.

The other big star in this for me was Rick Fox, who played in the NBA, most notably for the championship winning Lakers of the early 2000s, but also a member of my Celtics prior to that.  One thing I noticed was his scenes felt really unnatural, and that didn't square with a Hallmark Christmas movie my wife Jen and I saw a month or two ago that had him in it.  I think the difference in the two performances had as much to do with the directors as anything.  The Christmas movie was directed by the great Fred Olen Ray; this was directed by stunt coordinator/stuntman Stanton Barrett, and this was, you guessed it, his first ever work as a director.  In fact, they wrote "(attached)" next to his name on imdb.  He had done some second unit work in four films before this, but I think you can see the difference between how someone with the directorial experience like Fred Olen Ray can get something more out of an actor, even under a tight schedule and tight budget--which is why directors like Ray get hired, either to make a script like this happen in short time for short money; or save something like that after a couple rewrites to get something respectable out there.



One of the other stars in the film was Chad Lail, a professional wrestler who also served in the US Marine Corps.  The film leaned on his military background, which makes sense, but, again, we're dealing with zombies, we should also be focusing on his wrestling career too.  He needs to somehow end up in full wrestling garb, and then start ripping zombies apart and giving them Frankensteiners.  Again, if this is a serious military movie, Chad Lail turning in a sobering performance where the sacrifices and bravery involved in military service are highlighted and celebrated really fits; but when the enemy is zombies, I need a zombie's head smashed with a Tombstone Pile Driver.

Okay, let's wrap this up here.  The idea of a Navy Seals vs. Zombies should work, but this one didn't get the degree of camp we needed to make it work. If the villain weren't zombies, I would get their approach; but zombies are supposed to be campy and fun. Maybe the Walking Dead has given film makers the idea that you can make it a serious drama, but that show is next level, and it's hard to pull that kind of thing off.  When it's Navy Seals vs. Zombies, I think it needs more camp, especially when it's done on a low budget like this.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4511566/

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Street Hunter (1990)


After inducting Reb Brown into the Hall of Fame recently, I decided to do White Ghost for his induction post, but had considered this one too.  Then, when I had Ty and Brett from Comeuppance Reviews on the podcast, they reaffirmed that this was a good one, so I knew I had to make it happen.  Also, they've reviewed this one as well, so you can go to their site to check that one out.

Street Hunter has the late, great Steve James as Logan Blade, a former NYPD detective who left the force and now works as a PI.  At the same time, John Leguizamo is taking over the drug trade by using a skilled mercenary, Reb Brown, to train his men to crush all of their enemies.  After some cops are killed in one of their missions, James makes it his job to take them all down.  Can he overcome this expert military tactician?



This is really fantastic.  It's exactly what you want from a James-Brown actioner (no pun intended).  In particular, I liked that they kept the two separate for most of the film, so when they had their final showdown there was a lot of anticipation, which the fight then lived up to.  In between though, there was no shortage of great scenes, plus Steve James chewing up scenery, and Reb Brown as a crazy colonel quoting former military leaders and screaming things like "Fire at will!"  Plus we had supporting roles by John Leguizamo, the great Richie Havens, and DTVC favorite Frank Vincent.  This is the great late 80s/early 90s action you came for.

Usually we reserve this paragraph for the film's Hall of Famer, but I think it's more apt to use it for Steve James.  I loved him as Curtis Jackson in the American Ninja movies--his "I want fresh meat!" line in part two is still one of my favorites in any movie--, but it was great to see him here as the lead.  He died in 1993 at only 41 (which is the age I'll be in 2020), and one of the great tragedies is that, not only did he die so young, but also, his potential as a lead was never fully realized, which was something this film showed he really deserved.  The reality is, 30 years later, how much better is it for African American leading stars in either DTV or big screen action flicks?  For DTV we have Michael Jai White, and then Wesley Snipes has dipped down to DTV from the big screen; from there there's Will Smith and Denzel Washington in some films, Chadwick Boseman leading the Black Panther franchise, and I really liked Mike Colter as Luke Cage on the Netflix series; but overall, it's still more supporting roles like Steve James had to settle for.  I think at the very least, the DTV sphere needs to fill the gap better--and I as fan can do my part to support them more.  There are Michael Jai White films in my Netflix queue that I haven't reviewed yet, and since I've been back from hiatus, most of my films have been big name white guys like Dolph, Seagal, and Daniels, so I can't blame the industry for not making more if I'm not supporting and reviewing what's out there.



This definitely would have been a better Hall of Fame post for Reb Brown than White Ghost.  I think this was the first time I've seen him as a baddie, but he was great.  He played the crazy military leader really well.  At the end when he's fight Steve James, he's lecturing him on military history, lauding the accomplishments of Benedict Arnold before he turned, and he's screaming "Saratoga!" at James while they're trading punches.  In a modern setting, I would love to see Brown play a similar role where he's the military dictator of a small country, screaming at people and throwing things and firing up random places with a machine gun.  The problem of course is you'd have a Destro Effect, because who would want to see a hero take him down?

The last time we saw one of my all time favorites, the late Frank Vincent, he was in the Lorenzo Lamas Noir-ish yarn Undercurrent.  Here he had a cameo as a mob boss.  Even when he was playing the despicable Phil Leotardo on The Sopranos, he was always great to watch.  I think losing Vincent at 80 was such a blow, because we thought we'd always have him playing characters like these and making any film he was in that much better; I think I almost took for granted that he could be called on to do his thing whenever he was needed.  Here's to you Frank Vincent, you were one of the great ones.



One thing I couldn't help noticing though, our hero Logan Blade drove around in a van that, for lack of a better term, seemed like something a predator would drive.  Maybe not a child predator, but it would work just as well for a serial killer.  Why not give him a slick sports car?  Or even a truck?  Something a little less "I could throw you in the back of this and no one would know you're here as I whisk you away to some unknown location and do God knows what."  Or if it's going to be a van, make it like the A-Team van, something fancy with all kinds of bells and whistles.

But that was my only complaint with a film that overall was great.  As I mentioned above, this was the late 80s/early 90s actioner you came for.  They don't make 'em like this anymore, but there's no reason why they shouldn't.

For more info: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100706

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Dead Trigger (2017)

I saw this was on Prime, and listed on Dolph's imdb, and it seemed great.  Two-word title, Dolph blowing up zombies, 90-minute runtime.  How can this be bad, right?

Dead Trigger is based off a first-person shooter game I've never played.  In the near future, a virus has turned a huge portion of the population into zombies--not enough though for there to be enough infrastructure to have an evil corporation that wants to monopolize a possible cure.  To get it, they send Dolph and his rag-tag group of zombie killers into a zone full of zombies to find the scientist who think figured it out.  The only thing worse than dealing with zombies, is evil corporations, but we trust Dolph can handle it.



But can we?  This is extremely low-budget, like Asylum pre-Sharknado, maybe even lower budget than that.  Retrograde might be the closest Dolph film I've seen on this level, and there's something about him being in a movie of this quality that feels off.  There are some other names, like Isiah Washington, Oleg Taktarov, and Autumn Reeser--also Dolph flick mainstay James Chalke--, but they--other than Chalke--feel just as out of place.  From there, I think you run into the classic zombie movie dilemma: how do you keep the "zombies walk in, shoot zombies in the head, someone gets bit, repeat" cycle from becoming redundant?  This movie thought the corporation would do it, but they weren't in it enough.  They also tried to add in characters, but they didn't develop them enough either.  It felt like any scene that didn't have Dolph didn't work, and any scene that had Dolph only worked because of him.  I think this could be a fun Dolph Fest addition, for hardcore fans that haven't seen it before, but beyond that, there is so much more Dolph out there that's worth seeing instead.

This is the 50th tag for Dolph here at the DTVC, but I don't know if we can officially say he's the first member of the 50 Club yet, because one of those 50 tags was the Jean-Claude Van Damme film fest for my 400th post.  That's okay, I have a lot more Dolph in the can after I watched a bunch for My Dolph Lundgren List on Letterboxd (https://letterboxd.com/dtvconnoisseur/list/my-dolph-lundgren-list/), so he'll get to a more official 50 soon.  This one definitely falls in the lower half, just because it is so low-budget, and feels unremarkable.  That 90 minutes was a long 90 minutes, longer than it needed to be for something that could have been fun.



I should clarify here that the fact that it's low-budget alone isn't enough for me to dislike this.  I really enjoyed Clownado, and that probably had a lower budget than this.  But that one felt like everyone was more on the same page.  The other thing is, Todd Sheetz is a veteran director who knows how to manage that budget, whereas here we had two directors who had never done a full length film before.  It would be interesting to see what a Todd Sheetz, or another schlock auteur like Fred Olen Ray or Jim Wynorski could do with this; or Albert Pyun, a fellow member of the 40 Club with Dolph, I think he would've taken this script, made fun, compelling characters, and shot the thing in a way that, yes, we would've known it was still low-budget, but maybe that 90 minutes would've been more entertaining.

This movie also really borrows from Soldier Boyz, the Michael Dudikoff goof fest where he takes a group of juvenile delinquents into a war zone to help him on a mission.  The rag tag group of kids thing is always hard to sell, but I feel like in 2017 one would have to know it didn't work with Soldier Boyz in 1995, and maybe consider a different tract.  If they could've just made one character compelling enough to want to see them in a scene without Dolph, that would've helped.  Maybe make one of them a ninja.  Ninja's always help.  Or Sasquatch.  You could've replaced the whole rag tag group of kids with a ninja and Sasquatch, but played it straight, and it would've been a classic.



As I mentioned above, the zombie as a baddie can be difficult to work, but the genius of George A. Romero was that he made it look easy.  I think this movie though shows how hard it is.  How many times can our characters walk into a room, get attacked by zombies, kill them, and either almost get bitten, or have someone get bitten to thin out the cast?  Romero did other things, like used unique locations, created people we cared about, and set an overall tone that made the whole thing compelling.  I'm not saying I needed Dead Trigger to be that good, just a serviceable fun time, and it unfortunately couldn't even be that.

Time to wrap it up.  I think this is a good one for Dolph completists, but with so much else out there Dolph-wise, there are a lot of other ones to check out first.  It's a shame with such a great title and a nice, compact runtime.

For more info: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5662550