Recently I reviewed RED SCORPION and I talked about The Enigma of Dolph Lundgren. The enigma is that this guy who I’m betting is fascinating in real life (he’s a big muscleman martial artist who does dumb action movies, but he’s highly educated) has almost no presence in movies. Well after seeing this topnotch John Woo TV movie I take it back. It turns out when he’s not pretending to be Russian he’s got all kinds of charisma.
I know this is made for TV, not video, but it’s exactly the kind of gem I’m looking for when a dig through all this crap. A ridiculous, enjoyable and unusual action movie. The main reason it’s unusual is that Dolph Lundgren’s character is afraid of the color white.
Well, it’s a long story. Something in his past that he doesn’t quite remember yet has given him a phobia. Dolph is playing some kind of federal marshall or something turned bodyguard. And he’s got alot of problems. For one thing, his friends recently died and he has to adopt their precocious daughter Casey. For another thing, another friend (Fred the Hammer Williamson to be specific) was recently killed protecting a supermodel from a stalker, and he has to take on that case. Even though Casey’s parents were in trouble with organized crime in the prologue, it’s said their death was an accident and we never learn otherwise. But that’s okay because Dolph is haunted by the death of the Hammer and the death of his father, and two separate deaths are more than enough for an action hero to be tormented by. Especially an action hero who is afraid of the color white.
At first he kind of lucks out on this white thing, because the model-stalker he’s after likes wearing all black. Not in a goth way, more of a Johnny Cash I guess. You figure if the hero is afraid of the color white, he’s gonna come up against Puff Daddy or somebody and be in trouble. But he lucks out. At first. Then he comes up against the stalker dressed as a nurse. Not like Elle Driver, a male nurse. It’s not THAT crazy of a movie. Or maybe it is, because soon after that he fights the stalker in a milk factory, in a giant puddle of milk. White milk. You might think I’m joking about that, but I’m not. This is a great movie.
This is not your ordinary stalker, by the way. I’m not sure how this is possible, but he has henchmen on motorcycles. They never explain how and it doesn’t seem to occur to Dolph that it’s odd. Anyway, there are lots of flaming motorcycles, which is a good thing. This guy’s better than your usual villain too. For the first half of the movie you don’t even hear him talk, you just see him setting up snifer rifles in far away apartments. There’s a great scene where he’s going to kill the model and he’s shaky, it kind of looks like he might be fondling himself outside of the frame. Then while he spies her through the scope and gets ready to pull the trigger he starts to cry. He’s not quite as interesting later in the movie when he talks, and it’s weird because he looks like this suave European dude but he turns out to be a redneck. But he does do some weird things like tie Dolph up in front of a bunch of dummies made out of hay and blond wigs. You don’t see that every day.
Before the Hammer gets shot he seems to be overestimating this stalker. This guy tries to shoot the model while she’s on the runway, but he misses and hits a vase (maybe because he’s crying). Investigating the crime scene, the Hammer says that they are “disappearing bullets” and that means “this guy is a real pro.” But he’s a real pro that can’t shoot for shit. Hammer says “We know he can hit from ten blocks away.” Yeah, he can hit a fucking vase. I want 24 hour surveillance on all the vases within a ten block radius.
I thought the Hammer was overestimating this crybaby but the guy does turn out to be pretty smart. Somehow he figures out that Dolph is afraid of white, and invests in alot of drapery. And I think it takes alot of balls for him to point out that Dolph is afraid of the color white. I mean, they’re fighting in milk and Dolph seems kind of freaked out, and it occurs to him that this is caused by a phobia of the color white. Okay, it’s one thing for that theory to occur to you during a fight. It’s another thing to say it out loud. I mean, in almost all cases where you’re fighting a guy and you announce that he is afraid of the color white, you are gonna look like an idiot. Afraid of white? Where the fuck did that come from? That’s pretty random.
Another thing that’s unusual about this movie: I really think Dolph is supposed to be gay. He lives with an eyepatch wearing dude played by Saul Rubinek. This guy helps him out and cooks for him, so you could argue that it’s his personal assistant. But he always introduces him as “my friend Thomas.” There’s a scene where he has to bring the super model to the house, and Casey asks “Is she your girlfriend?” and he says no. And then his female psychiatrist, who obviously digs him, comes over to help, and Casey asks “Is SHE your girlfriend?” and he says no. And his friend Thomas seems a little annoyed by all these women coming in the house.
At the end of the movie the model kisses Dolph, and it’s ambiguous as to whether he is in love with her too. This is the only part that made me think, “Hmm, maybe he’s not supposed to be gay.” But I’m still going with gay because it makes the movie way more interesting. I mean, it’s kind of sad to think that he’s afraid to tell Casey why he lives with his friend Thomas.
In fact, BLACKJACK is a good argument for gay marriage. What if Jack gets shot or run over by a flaming motorcycle or something? Shouldn’t his friend Thomas get the same visiting rights as a spouse? Shouldn’t they get the same health care coverage? Fuck man, there’s no way Jesus would be against Jack and Thomas being married. They’re a great couple. I bet Jesus would even be best man if he was asked. These are some cool motherfuckers. And one of them has an eyepatch. I mean come on.
By the way, Dolph’s character is named Jack, which maybe explains the title BLACKJACK. Also, he carries bladed playing cards that he uses as weapons.
I like Dolph alot in this movie. He’s not the dumb hunk of meat I’ve seen him play in other movies. He’s actually charming and he seems like a guy you would hang out with, even if you don’t have alot of gay friends. I mean he knows how to fight, and “there’s no better backup in a fire fight,” says little Casey. But he has to juggle alot more than that. He has to deal with raising this new daughter while stopping a deadly stalker AND trying to keep the model off of drugs. And by the way I forgot to mention that he had a problem with painkillers some time between the opening scene and the present day. So he’s complicated. Also he teaches her how to dance.
The great thing about watching BLACKJACK now is that it’s just become ripe. Because back in 1998 when it was made, there was still that naive hope that John Woo had great things ahead of him. He had just done FACE/OFF which seemed to prove he could fuse the strengths of his Hong Kong movies with the Hollywood method of filmatism. It was before MISSION/IMPOSSIBLE 2: THE REVENGE OF MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and more importantly it was before WINDTALKERS. After those I think most of us kind of gave up on John Woo and forgot about him, left him to the hole he dug for himself where he’s stuck being listed on IMDB as director of video game and cartoon adaptations that never materialize.
So now that we’ve seen John Woo’s fate, it’s easier to accept him doing a movie where Dolph Lundgren plays a gay guy with bladed playing cards who’s afraid of the color white. This is not the John Woo that blew us through the back of the theater and into the lobby and then into the restroom and through the side of the restroom and then back through a new hole in the back wall of the theater and back into our seats in HARD BOILED and THE KILLER and BULLET IN THE HEAD. This is the other John Woo, the silly one we* also love, the one who directed HARD TARGET and that part in MI2 where they fly off their motorcycles for a mid-air chest bump.
(*and by “we” I mean “I”.)
Let me describe the opening scene for you, then you’ll know what you’re getting into. Our man Jack gets temporarily blinded while protecting the little girl from bad guys. So she climbs on his back and tells him where to walk and where to shoot. Like Master Blaster or The Double Man in EL TOPO. Okay, so that’s cool, but then what’s even better is that a grenade gets thrown down, so Jack throws the girl out the window and she bounces off of a trampoline into a swimming pool. And then he jumps on the trampoline and fires off the trademark John Woo double-pistols while in mid-air. The first ever slow motion trampoline mid-air gunfight.
Really the only complaint I have is in the casting of the little girl (who is annoyingly plucky at times) and the supermodel (who is not nearly exotic enough to be a famous model). But it’s a TV movie so I forgive it.
If anybody knows of any other movies as good as BLACKJACK, please tell me. It’s not right to keep this kind of information secret.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.