A couple of years back I reviewed Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables. You may have been around then, and if not the review is easy to find. The selling point of that movie was that action heroes of the ’80s and today were getting together to do an old-school kind of movie with plenty of bullets and explosions and machismo. It was not entirely successful. What’s more, it overlooked a salient point: some of those action stars have never stopped making old-school action films. In fact, one of The Expendables‘ many stars has pretty much made a career out of keeping the ’80s alive, and that man is Dolph Lundgren.
I’ve made it my mission of sorts to seek out and watch every movie Dolph Lundgren has ever made and I’m making slow but steady progress. Command Performance is the latest of these films, released in 2009 (predating The Expendables) on DVD and Blu-Ray. Pretty much everything Dolph Lundgren does these days is confined to the DVD shelf of your local media outlet, which might be sad considering that he had a short career as a screen hero decades ago, but is actually a good thing, because movie studios have no use for the kinds of movies Lundgren makes. If he were still making it to the big screen regularly his films would not have the freedom to be what they are.
Command Performance is such a throwback that it actually falls into the “Die Hard in a…” format that plagued the action genre through the late ’80s and early ’90s. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s definitely got the ring of familiarity to it. This time the venue for the terrorist baddies is an arena where a special pop-rock performance is being staged for the Russian president and his daughters. The glitzy pop star is Venus (Melissa Molinaro), and her show is about to be ruined by a group of ne’er-do-wells led by Oleg (Dave Legeno). Oleg has an old score to settle with the Russian president: years before, the man who would be president led a group of soldiers to the home of Oleg’s parents to arrest Oleg’s father. Oleg’s father had been a part of the coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, and rather than face the humiliation of a trial and imprisonment, he kills first his wife and then himself. Young Oleg was never the same.
Since this is a variation on the Die Hard theme, there is one man inside the arena who can make a difference against the hostage-takers, and that’s Joe the drummer (Lundgren). Joe, as well as having no last name, has a shady and violent past that we eventually get to know as things progress. All we know at first is that Joe abhors guns and is proficient at beating people to death. I won’t say Joe gets a softer side as things progress, because he really doesn’t, but Lundgren gives Joe some of the humanity that’s absolutely required for this film to fit the mold.
Some things about Dolph Lundgren that are useful to know: as well as being a Rhodes scholar, a writer, a director, a martial artist, a writer, an actor and a general Adonis even though he’s in his fifties, Lundgren is also a rock-and-roll drummer. There appears to be nothing he can’t do. So when the movie shows its star/director/writer up on stage rocking those drums, that’s really Lundgren doing his thing. It’s difficult for me, as a schlub in his forties, to watch Lundgren without some twinge of jealousy. Some guys really do have it all. The only thing he hasn’t got is the mega-stardom that was showered on his former co-star Stallone. Considering Lundgren’s many talents, that seems a damned shame.
Anyway, I said this was a retro-action kind of movie and I was not lying. If you’ve seen Die Hard and its many knockoffs you know exactly how things are going to go and pretty much how they’re going to get there. Joe busies himself killing various henchmen in his quest to rescue the hostages and eventually works his way up to Oleg for an epic throwdown between two awfully big men. Along the way he’ll gain allies, while those on the outside don’t know whether to trust him or consider him part of the bad guys’ group.
So Command Performance wins no points for originality, but I honestly don’t care too much about that. One of the appealing aspects of ’80s — and to a certain extent the pre-Matrix ’90s — was the kind of kabuki-theater construction of their action movies. There’s absolutely no reason to suspect that things will go the wrong way for our hero, and we’re fully aware of the pattern the film follows (see above), but we go along for the ride anyway because the individual parts of the movie are exciting and interesting. Old-school action movies prided themselves on their creative employment of violence and Command Performance is a standard-bearer for that tradition. You’ve never seen a goon dispatched with a drumstick before, have you? Well, watch Command Performance and you will. It goes like that.
One of the things I find interesting about Command Performance, and it’s something that carries over to movies like The Killing Machine or The Russian Specialist, is that Dolph Lundgren is inextricably tied to Russia in large and small ways. His debut came in Rocky IV, of course, when he played the virtually indestructible Russian, Ivan Drago, and from then on he could not get away from that. Even though Joe is not a Russian, the movie is set in Russia and the motivation of the bad guy is distinctly Russian, thanks to its historical basis. I wonder if there’s ever going to be a point in Lundgren’s career when he’s going to be able to break free of the Russian label completely and never have to be associated with that country again. Though I should say there’s nothing particularly wrong about it, I just think Lundgren might like to be rid of that last bit of typecasting.
Command Performance is not going to alter your worldview or anything, but it does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s a small-budgeted film that has that kind of feel to it, but if you’re accepting of the limitations of direct-to-DVD filmmaking, you’ll be perfectly all right. You’ll come for the Lundgren and stay for the ultraviolence. That should be good enough, shouldn’t it?