RIP Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career, which by the three strikes rule went toes up last Monday, when the boxoffice results of Sabotage were published. After the disappointments of last year’s The Last Stand and Escape Plan it’s clear this stalwart of 80s action movies is terminated with audiences, and his Expendables brethren isn’t doing much better. Look at the cast of its third and presumably final installment, due this summer: Sylvester Stallone (absconded to Broadway and a Rocky musical), Wesley Snipes (caught and released by the feds for tax evasion), Dolph Lundgren (straight to video since forever), Kellan Lutz (washed up at 29 with Twilight and The Legend of Hercules behind him), Mel Gibson (crackers), Harrison Ford (allegedly due to be replaced as Indiana Jones by Bradley Cooper), Kelsey Grammer. Kelsey Grammer? This isn’t a franchise, it’s The Walking Dead.
Facing dwindling returns on his own, Expendable Jason Statham has hooked up with the Fast & Furious crew and is playing second banana to Melissa McCarthy in the action comedy Spy. As part of the former he intersected with Gina Carano, the mixed martial arts sensation who made a splashy debut in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (2012). That was a smart movie from a filmmaker who knew how to harness the strengths of a performing novice, and Fast & Furious 6 good exposure; In the Blood, her third feature, is a dumb one from lesser talents, largely shunted to VOD, and shows that there’s work ahead if she’s to be the new face of the genre.
The uphill battle’s not entirely her fault; these days, with a bit of training, a dollop of CGI, and some “darkness,” everyone’s a superhero, even Noah. There’s not as much call for just folks with skillsets that don’t extend to flight or otherworldly weaponry. But Carano’s not really your regular gal, either. She gets married early on in In the Blood, and looks awkward in a wedding dress–her Jane Russell with muscles build is a challenge for such girly finery, and she’s unconvincing pitching woo at Cam Gigandet, her husband. (Again not altogether her fault, as he radiates more smarm than charisma.) Moving, shooting, cracking heads–this is her forte, and Soderbergh kept her in motion as much as possible in Haywire, with the more experienced actors handling the exposition. That heavy lifting too often falls to her this time, and it’s crushing.
Carano plays Ava, a woman from the wrong side of the tracks, who touches bottom in drug rehab, then ascends with the help of Derek (Gigandet), a fellow recovering addict. (We hear more of this than we see, and the movie does little with it.) Their marriage discomfits his wealthy father (Treat Williams, dropping by for a scene or two) but they’re off to a Dominican honeymoon for some scenic timewasting. The movie perks up at a club, where Ava–trained in the art of combat by her dad (a flashbacked Stephen Lang, spouting aphorisms like “If he puts you down, put him in the ground”)–makes short work of some goons, which attracts the attention of the swarthy ganglord Big Biz (Danny Trejo). Looking forward to Carano vs. Machete? So was I. Look elsewhere, however–the movie forgets about Trejo until towards its climax. The real desperadoes show up to spirit away Derek from a ziplining accident they’ve staged for him, with Ava in hot pursuit.
Well, make that lukewarm pursuit. The zipline scene is taut, so to speak, and Carano has a decent scene escaping an officer in a boat bathroom. (Luis Guzman, in serious mode, is an ineffectual lawman.) But the screenplay is awfully sketchy. The chief hombre has a reasonably novel reason for wanting Derek, not that it’s terribly credible. Ava’s backstory is hazy, and the character relationships perfunctory. At 107 minutes, the pace flags, frequently. The director, John Stockwell, specializes in bad movies set in pretty places with attractive actresses (Dark Tide with Halle Berry, Blue Crush with Kate Bosworth, etc.) and adds another one to a growing pile. He must have lingering affection for his most tasteless credit, the horror film Turistas (2006), as the movie repurposes elements of its organ snatching plotline (Ava is a dab hand with surgical instruments) and repeats its borderline racism. In short, not a good fit for a talent that needs nurturing.
In her early 30s, Carano needs guidance if she wants to carve out more of a niche. Plumbing a softer side seemed a good idea, but hack filmmaking has set her back. Perhaps this is a work-in-progress for John Hyams to investigate? In the Blood is the sort of flick that Charles Bronson was grinding out in his 60s. Too many more of these and a spot in Expendables 4, before her time, looms.
Maybe Carano should hightail it to Asia, where a resume like hers is more in demand. From China comes The Wrath of Vajra. Who’s Vajra? He’s a Chinese boy swept up into a Japanese death cult, The Temple of Hades, as Japan sweeps through China in the 30s. After years as a Japanese assassin, one unwitting pupil, known as K-29 (Xing Yu), returns to China to destroy the reactivated cult with some equally grudge-bearing POWs. If you thought China and Japan had patched things up after all these years, guess again, as the movie zealously revives old stereotypes, to ends that are unclear. But perhaps, as Faulkner said, the past is never past–and perhaps that kind of thinking is misapplied to a movie more about breaking heads and backs than it is about world affairs. On that score, it’s effective if hardy groundbreaking, and Xing, a former Shaolin monk, has presence. Disc extras include a trailer (it was shot in 3D, but that hasn’t carried over), a making-of, an English soundtrack, and French subtitles if you prefer your limb cracking with Continental accompaniment.
A floundering Justin Bieber should follow the example of his K-pop kin and man up already. There seems to be some sort of law in Korea that dictates that young pop stars make action movies, and here we have Choi Seung-Hyun (that’s “T.O.P.” to you) in Commitment, which works another inexhaustible vein in Asian cinema, the divide between South and North Korea. (Their reconciliation would be terrible for the local film industry.) I like thrillers about siblings (like Vertical Limit) and this one casts T.O.P. as the son of a North Korean agent who fumbles an assignment, consigning him and his sister to a labor camp. Before you can say The Americans (or, rather, The Koreans) teenage Myung-hoon volunteers to go undercover at a South Korean high school, a cover for a hit he’s tasked to perform after the requisite grueling training. But it all goes South when Myung-hoon, who had aspired to be a pianist, befriends a bullied girl who dreams of being a dancer. Art and assassination make for strange bedfellows in a fairly appealing saga with a current events twist. Extras accompanying a good transfer are a trailer and a making-of. Maybe Bieber can do the US/Canada remake, with Carano changing it up as the evil colonel pulling the strings.