One thing I should make clear up front: I brought this on myself. A ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin straight-to-DVD film, just for me. It was offered. I asked for it. And then I received it. No one twisted my arm. It didn’t come as part of a package deal (although if there is a spare ticket going for The Social Network, I wouldn’t say no). It wasn’t even a dare.
It just spoke to me on a number of levels. Four in particular:
1. It didn’t have Vinnie Jones in it.
2. Austin’s moving up in the world with a part in The Expendables, so maybe this would catch him on that upswing.
3. I’d heard nothing about it save for Austin’s involvement, and it’s so rare to watch a film these days without knowing everything about it. (Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams have made great strides to correct this, for which we should be grateful.)
4. Last, but not least, I’m a sucker for a WWE film.
I know that last one doesn’t reflect too well on my taste in films. But it’s important to remember that too much of a good thing can be bad, and watching too many great films one after another can just become numbing. I need something to interrupt the Papillons, Charley Varricks, The Things that are so good that you can take them for granted.
That’s why I can get excited about films like Timecop: The Berlin Decision or Road House 2: Last Call. They don’t require anything of me, and I don’t ask anything of them in return. It’s a perfect partnership.
And WWE films fit the bill perfectly. They’re the closest our generation has to the Carry Ons. Formula-driven filmmaking with scant regard to the finer points of storytelling, they know their market and they play to it.
Liked The Marine? (I can’t be the only one.) Then you’ll love 12 Rounds. It’s the same film: bad man kidnaps John Cena’s woman and forces him to come get her. And that’s only a slight variation on Walking Tall, which has a very good guy beating up a very bad man.
Films like Welcome To The Jungle and Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia simply have a few extra distractions on top of that: monkeys and war, respectively. (Note: I’m deliberately ignoring See No Evil in this bit, for no other reason than it’s terrible.)
Now, it’s probably worth me adding here that The Stranger is not an official WWE Films licensed product. I learn that over the opening credits at about the same time that I realise this is a film with serious budget issues. They can’t even afford to hire someone to write a few bars of music. Instead, they seem to have drafted in a work experience kid with a terrible heavy metal album that he plays intermittently over the occasional action scene.
The first one, featuring a bearded Austin being chased by a dozen police officers, is filmed in blurry-vision, the director believing that shaking the camera a lot is a quick and easy way to create a frenzied set piece. It isn’t. It just makes it really hard to make out what’s going on. And to see the film’s main draw, Austin himself.
I like ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. He’s one of those men who doesn’t seem to have aged a day in the last twenty years (see also Denzel Washington). He looks like a cross between Duncan Goodhew and a slightly disinterested bear. He walks like one of those He-Man action figures from the 80s might have walked if they weren’t inanimate objects, bow-legged and arms out to the side like he’s got a balloon under each armpit.
And his acting style – don’t do anything more than you have to, and most of the time don’t even do that – would seem to lend itself well to the titular role in The Stranger. A man suffering from a classic case of movie amnesia, he’s unable to piece together what’s happened in his past that has him being chased by Adam Beach’s FBI man and Erica Cerra’s very caring doctor.
Yet, putting Austin into this Bourne-style narrative actually does him a disservice. It works against his swagger, asking him to hide it and play damaged instead. Only, with Austin, damaged comes out as bored. That’s on a par with Adam Beach’s perpetually glazed over look, as if he’s really thinking of something else, like, ‘I was in Flags Of Our Fathers a few years back. How did I end up here?’
Before I forget, The Stranger is rubbish. I should make a note of that in case anyone has the slightest temptation to rent or buy it on a whim. (We’ve all done it. I’ve still got a copy of the Dolph Lundgren version of The Punisher, which seemed such a good idea at the time.)
The Stranger isn’t the worst film I’ve seen. It has bursts of violence that are ugly, uninspired and lazily choreographed, but at least make for a reason to keep watching. “How much more ridiculous can they be?” I kept asking myself, after one ended with Austin outmanoeuvring a volley of shotgun rounds from five metres away. None more ridiculous, it turned out. They went downhill after that.
Their aftermath also prove the funniest thing here. Austin takes some incredible beatings (if there’s one thing WWE films have above all others, it’s leading men who know how to take a punch) and then walks happily on his way as if he’s been stopped for nothing more than a request for directions.
It ends with the bad guy dangling over a ravine, crying as he clutches onto the outstretched hand of Austin and begging for forgiveness. I felt for him a little bit. I wanted something just as badly: an hour and a half of solid entertainment. Sadly, neither of us got what we were after.
There is a bonus feature on here, a cursory ‘making of’, but it’s no more worthy of your time than the main feature. I gave up after two minutes and couldn’t even bring myself to watch the trailer.
The Film:The Disc:
The Strangeris out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.