The top 25 underappreciated straight-to-DVD films

Odd List Wil Jones
8 Sep 2014 - 06:17

Revenge thrillers, action sequels and flying kicks from Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White. It's 25 straight-to-DVD movies worth your time.

Are you tired of big summer blockbusters ultimately just being an advert for the next instalment in the franchise? Are you fed up with incomprehensible CGI action scenes and two hour plus runtimes? Do you miss the days when a muscle-bound kickboxer with a strange European accent was a bigger box office draw than Iron Man?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, I implore you to check the murky world of straight to video action films. While features going straight to home entertainment have been a fixture since the earliest days of VHS, the rise of DVD in the early 2000s brought a new era to non-theatrical action films. 

As opposed to the virtually home-made productions of the 80s, contemporary DVD premieres have budgets in the low millions  and feature recognisable names.

In particular, they’ve become a haven for action stars in the old school mode, whether they are aging heroes of yesteryear (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal), a new generation (Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White) or wrestlers and MMA stars trying to muscle in on the acting world. The DTV market has really become like the grindhouse of old, the sort of arena Roger Corman used to excel in, where profitability is takes precedent over everything – if you can put explosions and Dolph Lundgren’s face on the DVD cover, it doesn’t really mater what the film itself is actually like.

And just like the grindhouses of the 70s, this leads to a lot of dross, but also some genuinely wonderful unique work from filmmakers who can’t get a shot elsewhere and grab the opportunity with both hands, as well as the sort of weird and wacky “what they hell were they thinking?” films that come from limited budgets and apathetic producers.

Here are 25 DTV films worth tracking down.

25. SUBMERGED (2005)

This one is generally not that well regarded by DTV fans, but it’s a personal favourite of mine, which is why I’m including it here. It’s a sloppily-made, crazy mess, but it’s also the sort of insane fascinating mess that you can only get from cheap DTV action flicks. Where else can you see Steve Seagal, Vinnie Jones and Carla Connor from Coronation Street all in the same film?

The DVD cover has a big submarine across it, and both the title and synopsis on the back of the box seem to imply it’s some sort Hunt For Red October derivative, yet the sub itself is only in the film for about 15 minutes. Most of the action concerns a violent revolution in Uruguay - an inaccurate depiction that irked the Uruguayan Education and Culture department so much that they considered legal action. DTV movies can be an acquired taste, and Submerged might be the most acquired of all, but I definitely enjoy it.

24. COMMAND PERFORMANCE (2009)

A Die Hard rip-off where Dolph Lundgren plays a drummer who battles terrorists who take over the stadium his band are playing in. Need we say more?

23. LIBERTY STANDS STILL (2002)

It might be because he was preoccupied with his legal troubles, but Wesley Snipes’ straight to video films have been far less interesting that those of other faded action stars. His first film to skip cinemas (clearly intended for a theatrical release) is a really solid high-concept thriller though. In what is mostly a two hander, Snipes plays a sniper who targets gun company VP Linda Fiorentino, trapping her in his sights and handcuffing her to a hot dog cart while an elaborate revenge plot plays out.

Coming out the same year as the Colin Farrell-starring Phone Booth, it was one of those Deep Impact-Armageddon situations where two films with the same premise serendipitously come out very close together. Unfortunately, Liberty Stands Still was the clear loser financially (maybe they should have renamed it Hot Dog Cart?), but it’s worth seeing with a strong performance from Snipes and a worthy anti-gun message.

22. DRAGON EYES (2012)

A starring vehicle for Vietnamese-American MMA fighter Cung Le, helmed by John Hyams of the amazing Universal Soldier sequels. It’s a loose take on the old Yojimbo/ A Fistful Of Dollars scenario, with Cung Le arriving in a small town full of gangsters and then proceeding to beat the crap out of all of them. The plot gets a bit complicated and the fights are a touch over-edited, but Le is a snarling ball of rage that holds the whole thing together. Plus Peter Weller plays the bad guy. Jean Claude Van Damme is given equal billing to Le, but in truth he only has a ten minute cameo towards the end. He does get one pretty great fight scene though, and he has the haggard hangdog face that makes the best late-period JCVD so good.

21. DAMAGE (2009)

Damage is as generic an underground fighting movie as you could imagine, but it’s carried by WWE Hall Of Famer Stone Cold Steve Austin in the lead role, whose general likability makes it worth seeing. Austin plays a convict released on parole when the wife of the man he killed appeals to the parole board. It turns out she had ulterior motive, however – her daughter is seriously ill and she guilt trips him into raising the money for her life-saving transplant.

So it’s a film where Stone Cold Steve Austin has to bare-knuckle box to get a new heart for a sick little girl. It’s as schmaltzy as hell – it reminds me of Stallone’s heart-warming arm-wrestling movie Over The Top – but somehow it works. It’s strange, Austin’s wrestling persona was always that of a rowdy hell-raiser, but here he carries the film by playing essentially a well-meaning man trying to avoid violence and make amends for his previous sins. Backing him up in the obligatory ‘character actor here for a paycheck’ role is Justified and Django Unchained’s Walton Goggins.

20. EL GRINGO (2012)

The first of several appearances on this list of Midlands-born martial artist Scott Adkins. You might have seen him in The Expendables 2 or Zero Dark Thirty, but he’s started in a load of incredible made for DVD films that blow away most of the action films released in cinemas. He’s got a likable persona and an incredible acrobatic and brutal fighting style, and if it was the 80s he’d be a megastar, but in the present day he’s only able to make a solid living off DTV work.

El Gringo is a pretty blatant copy of Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi/Desperado movies. The action focuses more on Adkins shooting and running around instead of doing jaw-dropping flying kicks, but it’s still a really pacy and exciting and rarely slows down for minute. It also features a Christian Slater cameo, a dog sidekick for Adkins and theme song from cheesy heavy metal band Manowar, all of which I highly approve of.

19. BELLY OF THE BEAST (2003)

A lot of Steve Seagal’s straight to DVD efforts, with a few notable exceptions, are tired, boring films, shot in grey Eastern European locations, with muddled plotting and lots of ADR. Occasionally you got some inspired lunacy out of it – like Out For A Kill or Flight Of Fury (where he fought sexy lesbian Taliban members over an invisible plane), but mostly they are a slog to watch.

Breaking the mould however is 2003’s Belly Of The Beast, directed by Ching Siu-tung. Ching made his name with classics 80s Hong Kong action cinema like the Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman series, and manages to briefly reinvigorate Seagal with some of those films’ manic energy. It’s much brighter than the typical drab DTV production, and brings proper supernatural elements to a Seagal film for the first time.

18. SPECIAL FORCES (2003)

The film that first united the team of Scott Adkins and director Isaac Florentine, who would be responsible for some of the real gems of the new DTV golden age. Special Forces doesn’t hit the high points of the Undisputed films or Ninja 2, but it’s still a gleefully silly action romp. Part of a series of patriotic action films that Nu Image made celebrating different branches of the US military, the OTT patriotism might be the most fun thing about it. It even ends with Adkins asking the gruff team leader why they keep on doing what they do, and the camera just pans over to an American flag on the wall and zooms in.

17. IN HELL (2003)

One of the big appeals of the current crop of straight to DVD action films is that it’s really let a few aging action stars do a few more interesting things that their 80s and 90s heyday wouldn’t have accommodated. Dolph Lundgren started directing, and also built a nice sideline in weirder comedy parts. Steven Seagal worked on expanding his waistline.

But it’s Jean-Claude Van Damme who has taken the most advantage of the freedom from being away from the mainstream. Originally making his way into films as a karate champion who could (sort of) speak coherently, in the last decade or so he’s really grown as an interesting actor. 21st century Van Damme now has a haggard emotive face that really looks like he’s been through some tough times (and he has in real life, including drugs, divorces and depression). In In Hell, he plays an American trapped in a Russian prison, and while his best performances would come later in JCVD and the Universal Soldier sequels, it’s an important landmark in his development as an actor.

16. GREEN STREET 3: NEVER BACK DOWN (2013)

Yes, before you ask, there was a Green Street 2, and it is absolutely terrible. The second sequel to the Elijah Wood football hooligan film sees Scott Adkins take the lead role, and the series take a rather left-field but highly entertaining turn. So instead of just fighting outside the stadiums, the hooligans now fight in a properly organised national league of five-on-five  fights – a bit like UFC meets WWE Survivor Series. It’s kind of insane.

Adkins’ character returns to London from exile in Scotland when his brother is killed, and ends up taking over the West Ham hooligan team. Unfortunately, they are all out of shape, so a lot of the film is Adkins dragging them through Rocky-style training montages. It’s basically The Mighty Ducks, but with MMA football hooligans. Directed by Tower Block’s James Nunn, it looks fantastic and has a great 80s synth score that’s easily the best music I’ve ever heard in a DTV film. Plus there’s a completely ludicrous twist at the end.

15. OUT FOR A KILL (2003)

Not only is this the worst film on this list, it’s likely to be one of the worst film you'll ever watch. But there’s something kind of wonderful about it - it’s such a bizarre experience. In a lot of ways Out For A Kill sums up what can be wonderful about straight to video action. Having a name action star on the cover means that it doesn’t really matter what’s actually on the disc, it’ll shift copies in Tesco. Out For A Kill is truly in the spirit of something like Manos The Hands Of Fate or Troll 2: the perfect, beguiling combination of complete incompetence and a quick cash-grab.

Seagal stars as a Harvard professor (?) who ends up in a Chinese prison with a member of the So Solid Crew. The adventure continues across three continents, despite the fact it all appears to be filmed on the same soundstage. There’s rampant use of green screens and stock footage, and scenes fade out midway though dialogue. At one point Segal goes to Chinatown and battles a guy who has the supernatural ability to run up walls, but after that superpowers are never mentioned again.

14. THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT (2008)

You might recognise Rick Yune from being a bad guy in Die Another Day, or The Fast And The Furious, or Olympus Has Fallen. Having never really been given a leading role, because Hollywood doesn’t really have the confidence to let an Asian-American actor carry a film, he went out and wrote and produced The Fifth Commandment as the starring vehicle no one would give him. Yune stars as a hired killer who ends up having to protect a Rihanna-like pop star from assassins in Bangkok. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but there are enough interesting touches to make it worth watching, including a nice 70s martial arts/ Blaxploitation-tinged opening flashback, an awesome husband-and-wife team of bad guy assassins, and the great Keith David in a supporting role.   

13. THE HIT LIST (2011)

Drowning his sorrows after an especially bad day, Cole Hauser meets Cuba Gooding Jr in a bar, who claims to be an assassin. Gooding asks him if he could have five people killed, who would they be. Cole drunkenly plays along and thinks nothing of it. He wakes up the next morning hungover, only to discover the names on his list are being bumped off one by one… It’s a great little concept, kind of like Strangers On A train meets Falling Down.

12. THE MARINE 2 (2009)

WWE Studios, the film production arm of World Wrestling Entertainment, has become a major player in the world of DTV action over the last few years. Wrestlers have been moonlighting as action heroes ever since Rowdy Roddy Piper first kicked ass and chewed bubblegum in They Live, but the WWE Studios productions have really excelled, realising that the fans just want simple genre stuff with big muscly dudes they recognise in them. Unlike The Asylum’s faux-knowing, attention-seeking antics, WWE Studios more than anyone feel like the continuation of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, churning out lean, surprisingly decent films that make money.

The sequel to their earlier theatrical release, The Marine 2 replaces original star John Cena with a lower tier wrestler, Ted DiBiase Jr (son of the original ‘Million Dollar Man’ Ted DiBiase), as a marine on leave at Thailand holiday resort that gets invaded by terrorists. It takes its time to get going, but in the second half of the film DiBiase goes full John McClane, turning it into Die Hard in paradise. It’s genuinely exciting. Plus Michael Rooker is in it, and everything is better with Michael Rooker.

11. PISTOL WHIPPED (2008)

Generally, Steven Seagal’s straight to video work gets progressively worse – lots of overdubbing, convoluted plotting and drab cinematography. But in 2008 he seemed to get his mojo back briefly with Pistol Whipped. Instead of the normally unstoppable ex-CIA killing machine, he plays a far more interesting character, an alcoholic ex-cop estranged from his family and forced to work as a hitman to work off his gambling debts. You can tell Seagal is actually trying again, and a supporting cast that includes Lance Henriksen and Pulp Fiction’s Paul Calderón raise it far above normal DTV standards.

10. ONE IN THE CHAMBER (2012)

Cuba Gooding Jr plays an American hitman in Prague who gets drawn into a violent turf war between Eastern European gangsters. The assassination scenes are sprightly paced and Gooding is a solid lead, but what really makes the film worth watching is Dolph Lugren’s scenery-chewing supporting role. He plays a rival hired killer brought in to deal with Gooding, and he swans around the film in a terrible fedora and Hawaiian shirt combo, and steals people’s dogs. Lundgren was always cast as a big, stoic, monosyllabic guys, but he’s actually really great with comedy, and the weirder arse-end of the DTV market has really given him a chance to show this off.

One In The Chamber was recently covered in our Mystery DVD Club series.

9. 12 ROUNDS 2: RELOADED (2013)

Another WWE Studios production, and again a sequel to a theatrically released film starring John Cena, this time with bad-guy wrestler Randy Orton taking the lead. The plot – unseen madman makes hero jump through various hoops for unrevealed revenge reasons – is exactly the same as the first 12 Rounds, which itself was a complete rip-off of Die Hard With A Vengeance. The set up is much smaller this time around – probably due to budget – but that kind of works in its favour, making the film a bit more grounded and personal. It flies by at a great pace, and Orton (who’s supposedly a spoiled brat in real life) makes a good action hero, and there’s a big sand-based death-trap in there to boot.

8. SHERLOCK HOLMES (2010)

You might notice there are not many appearances from notorious schlock factory The Asylum on this list. That’s because the titles and the covers of their movies are nearly always far more entertaining than the films. Just knowing  that Transmorphers or Snakes On A Train exist is more fun that watching them. It’s going to be hard for Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus to live up to the title, and usually, they don’t even try.

The outlier, however, is the studio's cash-in on the Robert Downey Jr/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes films. Instead of attempting to make a faithful adaptation, they include elements from other, more fantastical Arthur Conan Doyle stories - meaning that we get dinosaurs and steam-punk robots as well as all the old Holmes cliches. If Sherlock Holmes versus dinosaurs doesn’t make you want to watch it, I weep for your soul.

7. UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION (2010)

The second sequel to the Wesley Snipes/Ving Rhames prison boxing movie (more on Part 2 shortly) sees it follow what has become the series’ standard template and has the bad guy from the previous film return as the protagonist. Broken Russian prison fighting champion Boyka (Scott Adkins) is taken out of his modern gulag and finds himself in what is essentially the World Cup of illegal bare knuckle prison fighting. Yes, really.

Okay, it’s a totally ludicrous set up that lacks the pathos of the previous film. Really and truly though, it’s just a set up for Adkins to have a whole host of other fighters to take on, all shot beautiful and clearly, without wire or CGI, by director Isaac Florentine. Most notably, it’s the English language debut of Mark Zaror, a brilliant Chilean martial artist who’d been making a name for himself in films like Mirageman and Kiltro, and was also the best thing in last year’s Machete Kills.

6. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (2009)

Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme reuniting for a straight to video sequel to Universal Soldier in 2009 seemed like a cruel joke. “LOL, look they’re not famous any more!” But somehow, Universal Soldier Regeneration became a touchstone in the golden age of DTV action movies. Ignoring the theatrically released sequel Universal Soldier The Return, director John Hyams starts the film with a bang.

In a hectic car chase where the Ukraine prime minister’s children are kidnapped, the camera stays almost completely within their car, creating a sense of unbearable claustrophobia and confusion without ever making the events onscreen impossible to follow.

The terrorist kidnappers hole up in Chernobyl with their hostages, threatening to make things go nuclear if their demands aren’t met, with their own second generation UniSol as defence. So the US offer to bring in the best man they have, Luc Deveraux, aka Jean-Claude Van Damme. It’s nearly 15 minutes before we see Van Damme, and he first appears in a single close-up of his tired, emotionless face.

As well conveying the pains of a resurrected Vietnam soldier trying to reclaim his humanity, it’s also Van Damme the real life person, who threw away his Hollywood stardom through cocaine and hubris, trying to take stock of how far he’s fallen. It’s probably the finest moment of his career, and it doesn’t involve any kicking. What then follows is a lean, brutal action movie as Van Damme is turned back into a monster to take on Dolph Lundgren and Russian MMA star Andrei ‘The Pit Bull’ Arlovski amongst the ruins of Chernobyl.

5. THE MECHANIK (2005)

Dolph Lundgren’s sophomore directorial effort sees the giant Swede play a retired Russian special forces hit man working illegally as a mechanic in LA. He’s approached by a wealthy American woman to track down her daughter, who’s been kidnapped by Russian sex traffickers. Conveniently, the head of the traffickers is a gangster who killed Dolph’s wife and kid back East. So he heads back to Russia to save the girl and get revenge for his family.

The Mechanik is basically Dolph Lundgren does Commando or Taken, and is just as fun as that sounds. It lacks the quirks of those two films, but it’s got the lean nasty edge of the greatest revenge movies like Death Wish or Point Blank. Lundgren is obviously great as an unstoppable badass, and there’s a lot of shoot outs and exciting, non-CGI action. Plus there’s some oddball casting (Ben Cross from Chariots Of Fire and JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, British comedian Olivia Lee), a scene where Dolph fixes an engine with a pair of lady’s stockings and a farmyard-set finale where the bad guys have to dodge cows as well as bullets.

4. UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING (2006)

Remember Undisputed? Prison boxing movie with Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes? Don’t worry, I’ve never seen it either. What matters is that Undisputed 2 is fantastic. The great Michael Jai White plays Ving Rhames’ character, a disgraced boxer who’s basically meant to be Mike Tyson. After being released from prison, White is down on his luck and reduced to filming whiskey adverts in Moscow (it’s basically Lost In Translation with more kicking). But then he gets framed for drug possession and put in a Russian prison – which it turns out is all an elaborate scheme by the prison warden to get White to take part in his lucrative bare-knuckle prison fighting ring, and battle his undefeated champion, played by Scott Adkins.

It’s a brilliantly dumb high concept that basically just allows for loads of scenes of White and Adkins throwing insane kicks at each other. Both leads can do the most incredible acrobatic flying kicks and flips, which director Isaac Florentine shoots in a simple, clean style that lets you just constantly drop your jaw at their moves, without any shaking editing getting in the way. It’s a simple, brutal variant on the standard boxing movie, and fabulously entertaining.

3. NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR (2013)

The DTV dream team of Scott Adkins and director Isaac Florentine reteamed for what in my extra-qualified opinion is the best action movie of last year.

The sequel to Ninja, a previous DTV actioner that both Adkins and Florentine have both admitted to being disappointed with, it barely acknowledges its predecessor and instead starts with Adkins as a badass white guy ninja settled in a dojo in Japan. His wife is murdered and he has to go to Myanmar for revenge. It’s a simple, stripped-back revenge plot, which feels like an old Cannon movie in a lot of ways (Sho Kasugi’s son Kane has a large role), and much like The Raid it uses a very basic set up to hang together the most incredible martial arts displays and set pieces.

Needless to say Adkins is brutal and devastating in every scene. It’s such a perfect, refined vehicle to show off the actor's talent that there’s not actually that much to say about it, other than that it’s incredible, and if you love action films you owe it to yourself to watch it. It also features the psycho cop from Only God Forgives and has a scene where Adkins decapitates a cobra with a samurai sword.

2. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER DAY OF RECKONING (2012)

After the success of Universal Soldier Regeneration, director John Hyams was given free reign on the second DTV sequel, and created one of the most unique genre films of the 21st century so far. Scott Adkins took over the lead role, with Van Damme and Lundgren now leading a cult of rogue UniSols he’s trying to bring down.

A mind-bending, occasionally surreal sci-fi thriller, it includes a terrific first-person, single shot opening sequence where JCVD kills Adkins family in front of him, a deliriously unhinged Dolph Lundgren, headache inducing, Enter The Void-style freak out scenes, clones of Scott Adkins and a truly phenomenal brawl in a sports shop that ends with Adkins decapitating a big Russian guy with a baseball bat. It’s brilliant, and you genuinely will never have seen anything like it.

1. BLOOD AND BONE (2009)

That Michael Jai White isn’t a superstar is one of the world’s great injustices. He has the looks, the charisma, he can kick like a young Jean Claude Van Damme and he’s actually a decent actor to boot. The first black actor to play a major superhero in Spawn, his career kind of fizzled out after that film failed to set the world alight. He played the bad guy in late period Steven Segal and Van Damme movies, he had a great fight scene in Kill Bill Vol 2 left on the cutting room floor and made a memorable cameo in The Dark Knight. He eventually had to write and produce something himself to star in, the fantastic Blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite.

Blood And Bone might just be his masterpiece. An underground fighting movie with starring Michael Jai White kicking the hell out of people should be a simple enough proposition. His flying kicks are incredible, and he seems to be able to defy gravity without breaking a sweat. At one point he manages to kick four guys in the face before he hits the ground, and I’m not even sure how that’s physically possible. White looks so cool doing it, he’s got the swagger of young Bruce Lee or even Mel Gibson about him. Throw in a cast on notable MMA fighters and wrestlers – including Gina Carano, YouTube street brawler Kimbo Slice and The Wrestler’s Ernest ‘The Cat’ Miller – and just watching White destroying dudes for 90 minutes would easily be enough.

Yet what really makes the film so great is that it has one of the most nuanced, interesting bad guys I’ve ever seen in a straight-up genre film. Islington-born Eamon Walker plays the top street fighting promoter that killed Michael Jai White’s mate and who he’s trying to get revenge on. It seems like he’s going to be the big bad who White kills in the final reel. But that’s not how it plays out. Half way through the film, White defeats Walker’s champ – a feat that you’d expect him to achieve at the end, if it was following the standard fight tournament structure.

But instead, Walker takes White under his wing, and reveals that he wants to use him to break into a an elite international underground fighting circuit run by mega-rich white guys. Walker is revealed to be far from a simple 2D bad guy. He’s someone who believes he was born at the bottom of the food chain, and since no one is ever going to help him, it is perfectly acceptable for him to do anything he has to in order to get by. He idolises Genghis Khan and actively tries to distance himself from the average street thug – he prides himself on not drinking, smoking or using profanity, yet thinks nothing of kidnapping White’s dead buddy‘s wife and turning her into a junkie. In one telling scene he looks out at the urban streets and laments,  “All of that is mine... It all so dark and unsophisticated. It is not where I want to be any more.”

It’s a tremendous performance from Walker – a black British actor who much like Idris Elba had to move into American cable television to get his big break (in HBO prison drama Oz).  There’s a particularly brilliant scene late on where Walker sets up a match with his contact in the international fight ring, played by a hammy Julian Sands. Sands is a callous, condescending racist, and Walker is clearly disgusted with him, yet he is still desperate to jump into bed with him. Sands asks him why he’d want to hang around with a load of “stuffy old white guys” – Walker replies that it’s the same reason Sands does, the power and the connections. Instead of storming out when Sands compares African Americans to pitbulls, he swallows his pride and plays up to his stereotypes, because he believes it is more important to get ahead in the game than to win the moral victory. Walker is excellent is this scene, seething with both anger and shame throughout.

So yeah, Blood And Bone is a far more interesting film than you might think, and a great example of the undiscovered gems that lie in the DTV market. Plus it has Michael Jai White destroying Kimbo Slice in a prison brawl at the beginning.

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