Generations meet and styles collide when a human trafficking ring gets personal in this East-meets-West indie action flick.
The “aging action hero” trend that is all the rage today is a blessing and a curse for me. I grew up watching most of these guys in the ’80s, so it’s great to see the action stars of my youth still going strong today. That said, many of the films they make today leave much to be desired in terms overall quality, often heavily relying on the name recognition of the star as a strategy for success. Coming into my screening of Skin Trade, I had concerns. A good action film is challenging to make under the best of circumstances, but with an independent budget, that challenge is exponentially greater. Plus, the film’s star, Dolph Lundgren, might have his roots in old school action films (The Punisher, Universal Soldier), but he has neither the name recognition nor the resume to carry a film like Stallone or Schwarzenegger.
In Skin Trade, Lundgren plays Nick Cassidy, a New Jersey detective on the hunt for Serbian crime lord Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman). Dragovic and his four sons run a massive human trafficking ring out of Bangkok. When Nick kills one of Dragovic’s sons, the mobster retaliates by killing Nick’s wife and daughter. With nothing left to live for and nothing to lose, Nick travels to Thailand to seek revenge.
It’s there Nick meets Tony Vitayakul (Tony Jaa), a Bangkok cop looking to bust up the same ring. Nick and Tony’s early encounters aren’t very friendly, though, and making matters more difficult for them is FBI Agent Eddie Reed (Michael Jai White). Reed is sent to Thailand to retrieve the vengeful Nick, but the agent might have ulterior motives of his own.
My concerns, for the most part, were unfounded. Skin Trade, from director Ekachai Uekrongtham, is a solid action flick that does a good job blending old and new styles of action while sticking to the fundamentals of the genre.
From the (old) West comes that ’80s style of shoot ’em up/run ’em down/beat ’em up action, including an obligatory (yet still effective) scene in a shipyard at nighttime. Lundgren, no less barrel-chested at 57 than he was at 27, is in his element here. He’s a cop with a singular focus who can run, fight, and shoot. Once his family is killed he becomes the vengeful anti-hero, a construct that is the stuff of ’80s classics. Top it off with a gruff police captain played by action veteran Peter “Robocop” Weller and it’s a fine homage.
From the (new) East comes Jaa and that modern style of fast-paced, up-close martial arts combat. Jaa’s opening gambit is a great one-against-many fight sequence in one room that ends the way most American action films won’t but many Asian ones do. Satisfying to watch, particularly early in the film, though I won’t spoil it with specifics. Also keeping with Asian action themes is a grittier, more exploitative tale than many western counterparts would tell.
On their own, these two heroes are entertaining. Once they get together—deep into the film and in no way via an action equivalent of a meet-cute—they are terrific. They have a chemistry between them that works, their styles complement each other without trying too hard, and, with nearly a foot difference in height between them, they’re an amusing duo.
From a technical perspective, director Uekrongtham and editor Victor Du Bois do a very good job staging, framing, shooting, and cutting the film to maximize their leads’ strengths while minimizing the effects of the stars’ ages.
That aside, two things greatly hinder the film from being the next great action find (a la last year’s John Wick). The first is the script. Lundgren co-wrote the screenplay with Gabriel Dowrick and Steven Elder, neither of whom have a feature screenwriting credit to their name prior to this. It shows. While the trio understand how to properly construct and combine the contrasting action styles, the weak plot and clunky dialogue suggest they all watched a lot of action movies and simply mimicked.
The film’s other hinderance is its villain. He’s straight out of central casting with no injection of originality whatsoever. Perlman—who got his start in the ’80s—does the best he can with the character (and his kind of Slavic accent), but the veteran actor has very little to work with.
I had a lot of fun watching Skin Trade, and if they make a sequel where Lundgren and Jaa are in the film together from the beginning, I’m buying tickets.