Expendables Week #2- Blackjack (1998): Dolph Does Heroic Bloodshed

As the week begins to slip by, we’re growing ever closer to The Expendables, and I just can’t wait. To hold me over I’m looking at films from some of the stars all week. Yesterday, I started with Eric Roberts in the action classic Best of the Best, and today I get a chance to talk about one of my favorite all time action stars, Dolph Lundgren. I was all of eight years old when I first saw Dolph in action as the Iron Curtain baddie Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Of all the Rocky movies, I think I saw it the most while growing up. From the jingoistic plot (empathized by James Brown’s tune “Livin’ In America”) to seeing Balboa take out his vengeance on the Russian for the death of Apollo Creed, I was consistently enthralled. Not only because of the monosyllabic pugilist played by fellow Expendables star Sly Stallone, but also because of Dolph’s icy, tractor lifting Russian. The next year Dolph stormed my childhood for real when he starred in the Masters of the Universe Movie, and though I appreciate it now, it left me scratching my nine year old head wondering who this He-Man was supposed to be.

Time and time again Dolph popped up in films I wanted to see like The Punisher, Universal Soldier, I Come in Peace, and even Johnny Mnemonic. Each time I enjoyed seeing him, and in recent years he’s starred in a number of enjoyable direct to video flicks like Command Performance, Diamond Dogs, and Icarus. While none of them are top flight films, Dolph always seems to captivate me. As he’s gotten older there’s so much more character in his face, and his look takes me back to a time when action stars were not matinee idols (Channing Tatum, I’m looking at you.) So when I recently stumbled across Blackjack, a film starring Dolph and directed by the legendary action master John Woo, I knew I couldn’t pass it up. Woo had a contract with a Canadian television company to develop two series, the first being “Once a Thief” which serviced in limited syndication for 22 episodes. The second was Blackjack which never got beyond the pilot stages. At the time Woo was between two big American projects, Broken Arrow (1997) and Mission: Impossible (2000) and Dolph was well mired in the direct to rental market. A series combining the talents of John Woo and the charisma of Dolph Lundgren should have been a home run, but unfortunately the end result doesn’t quite deliver.

Dolph stars as Jack Devlin, a former Federal Marshall now turned freelance security expert. To kick things off Jack must save the daughter of a close friend and client, but while guarding the little girl, Jack is blinded by the glare of a flash grenade leaving him with a fear of the color white. When the girl’s father is killed, Jack takes her back to his apartment where he lives with his friend/butler Thomas (venerable character actor Saul Rubinek in an eye patch). He tries to play Mr. Mom, but when his old friend Tim (Fred Williamson) is killed while trying to protect supermodel Cinder James (Kam Heskin), Jack gets back in the protecting business. He finds himself pitted against the model’s crazed, sharp shooting ex-husband, but he must overcome his fear of ivory tones if he’s going to save her life.

That’s right. Dolph has a fear of white. I didn’t even mention the fact that he has a penchant for card tricks and carries a deck of cards with sharpened razor edges. While all of these little character notes might seem silly, they actually all add to the film. Woo exploits the razor cards effectively in a couple of scenes, and Jack’s fear of white makes his throw down with the bad guy at the milk factory a tad difficult. Sure it adds up to action with a side of silly, but Woo had often likes to work humor into his films. Plus when you think about syndicated action shows around that time like Renegade, V.I.P, or She Spies, it fits a similar tone. There are plenty of Woo touches along the way too. Though the action sequences are a little toned down from what you might expect from Woo’s films, there’s still plenty jumping with two guns, walking away from explosions, and black helmeted motorcycle riders to keep most Hong Kong fans happy.

Dolph, as usual, puts on a solid performance using his craggy face to great effect. The fact that he wears sunglasses constantly though a good portion of the film (to avoid white of course) only adds to his air of cool. I’m afraid I don’t have as much good to say about his supporting cast, and this is really where the whole film goes off the rails. First off, Phillip MacKenzie, who plays the psycho ex-husband, does one of the worst, most over the top, most poorly delivered Southern accents ever. It doesn’t help matters that he’s a little weenie looking dude, and if he didn’t have milk around, he wasn’t much of a match for Dolph. Kam Heskin, who would go on to be one of the stars of NBC’s short lived soap “Sunset Beach”, doesn’t fare much better as the drug addled supermodel. Her line delivery missed the mark most of the time, and though she was cute, she didn’t really seem like the world’s most popular model. The rest of the cast fails to distinguish themselves at all, and only the appearances by Saul Rubinek and Fred Williamson add some spice to the proceedings.

While the acting had issues, the real problem lies in the story written by former Miami Vice screenwriter Peter Lance. I know that the film was intended for TV, and the left to right screen wipes inserted where commercials should be never ceased to remind me. However, the story never felt like it would flow or be cohesive even in an episodic format. There were numerous gigantic plot holes (if the ex-husband was working alone where did all the motorcycle riders trying to kill Dolph come from), and portions of the film lag terribly. It runs for nearly two hours (probably its intended running time with commercials), and that is at least a half hour too long. It’s clear that this is not nearly the best either Woo or Lundgren were capable of, but there’s enough of both men’s styles housed in this film to make it work it worth a watch for fans of either man.

Bugg Rating

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