The year is 1985 and the world is waking up to the sounds of Foreigner and Jennifer Rush. Kids are playing with their Transformers toys. And cinema screens are introducing a young Russian actor whose height was as memorable as his lines. Yes, this was the year that Ivan Drago killed Apollo Creed and knocked ten bells out of Rocky. This was the year that Dolph Lundgren truly landed.
Since 1985, it’s fair to say that old Dolph’s career has snowballed – just not in the direction he would have liked. Sure he’s has the odd semi-hit (Universal Soldier) and one criminally overlooked gem (The Punisher), but in the cold light of day, Dolph’s Hollywood star has been slowly fading away for some time now. Starring in a bunch of predictable, copycat action flicks has done nothing to aid the cause. The Shooter. The Peacekeeper. Silent Trigger. All bargain bin DVDs that failed to set the world alight.
Perhaps in response to that, Dolph has more recently been seen to take more control over his own projects. Branching out from the acting stage, he’s taken to producing, writing and even directing, as is the case with the UK DVD release of his 2005 action-drama The Mechanik. It’s a brave move for any actor to go down this road, especially one with the CV of Mr Lundgren. Let’s be honest, as great as he was in Rocky IV (we’ve written about the before, here and here) and The Punisher, you would hardly be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that he won’t be able to cut it as a filmmaker. After all, it’s not like he’s ever been asked to flex his creative talents very far.
To be fair to Dolph, he doesn’t stray too far from past efforts in this film either. The Mechanik sees him on instantly familiar, if distinctly uninspiring ground. The tagline tells you all you need to know. ‘They took his family. Now he wants revenge.’ The ‘they’ it refers to happens to be the Russian mob and Dolph (or rather Nikolai Cherenko) has taken up a new life in the States as, you’ve guessed it, a mechanic. Naturally, Nikolai gets his chance for payback when he’s drafted in to help rescue a kidnapped woman from their evil clutches. Not alone in this heroic crusade, he has a gang of tough military types to help him kill many, many men along the way.
Not that you’d notice. This is resolutely the Dolph Lundgren show. He gets the best weapons, the best camera angles, and the best back-story – hell he even gets the best haircut. Whether it’s intended as a vanity project or not is unclear but in many ways all credit to the guy for giving everybody else such unmemorable roles that he stands out by a country mile.
I wonder if that’s also why the acting is largely dreadful. A better director would take charge of his actors, coaxing them into giving him the best performances possible. On the other hand, a director who wanted to ensure that his was the role that would stick in people’s memory would shout ‘That’s a wrap’, despite having watched one of the most unconvincing displays of the acting craft since the ‘Keanu scowl’. To a man, all the other actors are really rather poor. Ben Cross in particular (why a British actor is included in this distinctly Russian production is beyond me) is truly dreadful, phoning in a performance that almost redefines the meaning of stilted.
So, it being the case that this is Dolph’s baby (the DVD cover also features his name and his visage in the boldest terms possible) is he up to the task. When I first watched the DVD, my instinctive answer was a staunch no. When it comes to acting, the man has one sole (and indeed soulless) expression. When it comes to writing, there’s no character exploration other than his own, females are clearly seen as nothing more than sex objects and dialogue is lazily written (‘What’s the plan?’. ‘Kill them all.’)
However, on the second watch I saw I’d been missing something all along. You see as a director, Dolph is actually not too bad. Sure he’s not going to be on any award shortlists but take the film for what it is, a low budget action flick with lots of guns, explosions and needless violence, and you can’t deny that this sits very comfortably within the genre. Dolph certainly knows how to inject a bit of pace into action scenes and he doesn’t let up when it comes to bloodletting killings either. Better still, the film’s stunning Bulgarian backdrops regularly punctuate the film, making for a welcome respite from the at times dubious drama unfolding.
Despite an all too familiar plot (it’s actually known in many circles as The Russian Specialist), woeful acting, complete lack of characterisation, and the feeling that it could have been made back in the 80s, The Mechanik is, taken on its own terms, a perfectly average action flick. As long as don’t go in expecting anything approaching a good, modern day action film, you won’t be disappointed. If nothing else, you can sit back and wonder just where movie villains learn to shoot. Even when facing our slowly walking hero straight on, with no obstructions in the way, the gunshots somehow still seem to miss by about 50 feet. Time to sack that weapons supplier.
I would have liked to talk about the extras on the disc, but there aren’t any, save for four previews for films I cannot wait to see. Best of the lot? Got to be Rottweiler, a film about, well, a cyborg Rottweiler. Genius.