I wonder if there’s a direct-to-video action star more unlikely than Dolph Lundgren. Say what you want about guys like Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme or even Wesley Snipes, but those men had bona fide theatrical hits on their resumes before they slipped into the DVD-only realm. Dolph Lundgren’s big moment was as the heavy in Rocky IV. The memory of Masters of the Universe has largely been wiped from the collective consciousness. And is there anyone who counts I Come in Peace among their favorite actioners?
Lundgren transitioned to direct-to-video first and maybe it’s his pioneering status that accounts for his longevity. If you look him up at IMDb you’ll see he has an impressive selection of acting credits and, starting a few years ago, he branched out into directing. It turns out he has some talent in that area, too. More unexpectedness from the man who popularized, “I must break you.”
I’m not here to put Dolph Lundgren down. Far from it. In fact, I really dig Lundgren and am more surprised than anything that there are others who feel the same way. Like I say, who would have thought it? Which brings us to this 2010 action-film effort, The Killing Machine.
I should start out by saying that I don’t think The Killing Machine is Dolph Lundgren’s strongest film. There’s some good stuff to be had here and his direction and performance are as solid as ever, but it’s let down somewhat by the screenplay, which is a touch slack and doesn’t have the propulsive, hard-edged qualities that Lundgren brings to these roles. Alone among the direct-to-DVD hard-men I mentioned above, only Lundgren puts out genuinely intimidating vibes when he does his thing. You really buy that he could chew up iron and spit out nails. Dolph Lundgren is a killing machine? Sure, I can see that.
In The Killing Machine Lundgren plays Edward Genn, an apparently ordinary businessman specializing in international investments, who moonlights as a highly paid assassin. He has an estranged wife and a young daughter for whom he obviously cares, but due to the nature of his work he can’t connect with them the way he wants.
After another successful assignment, something goes wrong at the top of the organization Genn works for. Suddenly he’s targeted for death by the people he trusted. With limited resources (but plenty of bullets), he is forced to defend himself and his family from forces he only barely comprehends. Where did he slip up? Who gave the order for his elimination? How can he extricate himself from what looks like a no-win situation? In a slender 88 minutes, all will be revealed.
Here’s the thing about direct-to-DVD action films: they’re never as big or as flashy as their theatrical brethren. Even with a budget of $5 million, The Killing Machine is a tiny fish in a big sea. You can forget set-pieces that tear up city streets and demolish buildings because that’s just not within the scope of the operation. What you get are relatively modest gun battles, some guys getting kicked and punched and maybe a small explosion or two. If that doesn’t strike you as enough reason to spend an hour and a half watching then by all means move on to something else.
Usually the shortcomings of a low-budget actioner can be offset by a particularly tight screenplay but, unfortunately for The Killing Machine, Raul Inglis’ script doesn’t deliver. There’s some interesting stuff there — Genn is apparently a former Soviet gunman who once was challenged to kill his best friend and turned against his masters, only to reinvent himself in America — but there are a number of gaps that need to be filled in order for the film to be a wholly satisfactory experience. For most of the running time we’re seeing the same situations and characters over and over again and that lack of variety hurts. Of course it’s easy for me to say this, not being the guy who has to pull off an action extravaganza on a relatively slight budget, but from the viewer’s perspective it’s a problem.
Lundgren does his level best with the material he’s given to work with. I’m not sure that he’s particularly well equipped to do familial warmth, as he’s called upon to do here, but he sure knows how to turn on the steely-eyed determination when the situation warrants it. Maybe The Killing Machine‘s action does lack the sheer, overwhelming oomph of a big-budgeted action film, but there are lots of gunfire and squibs to offset that.
Lundgren doesn’t have to carry the movie alone, though once again the screenplay lets him down. Frequent television actress Samantha Ferris has an intriguing role as a fixer of sorts and sometime ally of Genn. I had hoped for more from here as the film progressed, but the part remains small. Also of note to film fans is the presence of Bo Svenson in a likewise tiny part. I suppose it’s all part of the character of Genn, but I found it interesting that Svenson is also supposed to be a Russian expat, with his accent intact, while Lundgren delivers his lines in the same American-inflected English that he always does. Maybe that says something about Genn’s commitment to being reborn in America or maybe it’s a way to make Svenson come across as a menacing foreigner. Who knows?
I hesitate to give The Killing Machine the highest marks because it is, as I say, not Dolph Lundgren’s best film. There’s nothing actively bad about the movie, but it doesn’t present us with anything remarkable, either. I suspect that if the script had another draft or two to really sharpen its edges, we might have had something special. The ingredients certainly are there, anyway.
Of course, no matter what I say Dolph Lundgren fans are going to watch The Killing Machine and they’re probably going to enjoy it. Expectations for direct-to-DVD films remain pretty low, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my reservations were completely dismissed by others. To those folks I say: have fun.