I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Men of War

tn_menofwarMEN OF WAR is a Dolph Lundgren mercenaries-on-a-mission movie. In the surprisingly atmospheric opening Lundgren’s ex-Special Forces character Gunar is hanging out on the streets of Chicago, wearing a hat he could wear if the movie was set during the Depression, his breath showing in the cold air. Some tough guy rudely tells him to talk to somebody, gesturing to a limo. “In the back seat?” Gunar asks and when the answer is yes he bashes the guy’s head through the backseat window and leans in to talk to the passenger. So you don’t have to wait too long for the movie’s declaration of badass intent.

mp_menofwarBasically some rich nerds (they seem like Microsoft guys) want to hire him to go into this island and get the natives to sign over the mineral rights or something. At first he says he doesn’t do that shit anymore but of course next thing you know he’s going around to different cities, to prisons and cage fights, recruiting his team. They include Tiny “Zeus” Lister and Catherine Bell from TV’s such-and-such. They fly in, get into some trouble with another special forces guy he used to know (Trevor Goddard, English-pretending-to-be-Australian guy from MORTAL KOMBAT) then try to talk to the natives. Of course, eventually Gunar will decide to side with the natives and fight for something he believes in instead of work-for-hire.

But first some funny shit starts happening, little clever touches that decorate a standard action movie structure and give it flair. You see, the script is credited to Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris and John Sayles. If you don’t know who Sayles is, here’s a quick primer. He’s known as an uncompromising and pioneering director of independent cinema. Nothing flashy, just smart movies for grownups, mostly dramas, things like PASSION FISH, THE RETURN OF THE SEACAUCUS SEVEN, EIGHT MEN OUT, LONE STAR. He also did BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET but is better known for THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH. Part of the reason he’s able to make movies like that is his side work as a screenwriter and script doctor. He always gets the credit for the smart bits in PIRANHA, ALLIGATOR and THE HOWLING. He worked on THE QUICK AND THE DEAD. He wrote that insane JURASSIC PARK 4 draft that Moriarty wrote about a couple years ago. According to him the script was about “a DIRTY DOZEN-style mercenary team of hyper-smart dinosaurs in body armor killing drug dealers and rescuing kidnapped children.”

As far as I know there are no books or documentaries about the writing of MEN OF WAR (yet) but I got a hunch which parts Sayles wrote. It seems like the other guys probaly wrote a normal script, then Sayles came in to add some laughs. (UPDATE: Looks like I got it backwards – see the comments by “Perry” and “LA Movie Guy” below) There’s a part where they go to a bar that searches at the door – they confiscate all their guns and give them a number to reclaim them, like a coat check. There’s also a whole bunch of humor involving the natives not responding to the mercs the way they expect. They storm in with their guns and headbands and the natives keep saying “GI Joe? GI Joe?” Trying to put fear into the natives the mercenaries shoot up the village with a machine gun, but instead of being scared the villagers all applaud. They have sort of a spokesman (B.D. Wong I believe), a guy who speaks English, claiming he learned it from guys hanging out there writing a National Geographic article. This guy tricks Dolph and his guys into eating disgusting things and makes up fake or misleading oral histories. And he keeps calling Dolph “boss.” Really he’s messing with the mercenaries and with the audience by doing all the cliches you expect in a movie like this, but only as a joke.

And the biggest joke of all is the mcmuffin. At first you don’t know what the clients are after. Then there’s a hint that it’s jade, and I thought that was kind of cool. Usually it’s gold or diamonds or artififacts. Treasure. Not jade. But later you learn that it’s not even jade, it’s more unusual than that: they’re after the minerals created by thousands of years of bird droppings. This corporation wants to kill these people to steal bird shit! (The box says they’re after jade, by the way. I guess they didn’t think “fighting over birdshit” was marketable.)

The director, Perry Lang, mostly directs TV episodes. As an actor he had been in ALLIGATOR and EIGHT MEN OUT (and later SUNSHINE STATE), so maybe he brought Sayles in himself. I’m guessing Sayles came up with most of that stuff I liked, but who knows? Whoever it was they deserve respect. Another great part that could be any of the writers is the scene where the natives have a crazy-off with the bad guys. A mercenary dumps gasoline all over a hut, so a little girl goes ahead and lights it, to get it over with. The merc threatens to chop off somebody’s hand, so a guy runs in, chops off his own hand with an ax and cauterizes the stump in a fire. Basically, you can’t do anything to these people, they’ll do it first. They win.

I like Dolph in the movie, as always, and there are some other good people in the cast too. Along with Tiny “Zeus” Lister you also got Tom Wright (Charles, the Jamaican cop from MARKED FOR DEATH), and the great bad-guy actor Kevin Tighe plays Dolph’s mentor. And Goddard is kind of hilarious as the over-the-top villain who seems to take everything way too personally. The acting and production values are impressive for DTV – in fact I had to check to make sure it was straight to video. There’s a pretty funny turn of events and a good mano-a-mano fight between Dolph and Goddard at the end.

I do have to admit there’s a little something missing. If there were a couple classic action scenes this would really elevate it above others of its type. What’s there is pretty good at times but  not particularly memorable. Still, the weird sense of humor and clever tweaks on the formula are enough to make this stand out as a much better-than-usual DTV action movie.

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.

This entry was posted on Sunday, July 19th, 2009 at 11:33 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

33 Responses to “Men of War”

  1. I’m kind of looking forward to COMMAND PERFORMANCE, but I’m wary because it looks like the kind of high-concept craziness that never seems to pay off in DTV-land (eg Seagal vs vampires). Although I guess Lundgren has had a better track record with DTV than most exiled action stars. I’ve seen a couple of his self-directed efforts and they’re watchable if kinda bland. This one, however, looks pretty good (though I haven’t seen it) and BLACKJACK was fuckin’ nuts.

  2. Wow. This is a movie that I’ve seen on the shelf and never thought twice about. Now I think I’ll have to watch it. Jesus, dude. If it’s half as funny as you make it sound it should be a blast. So here’s what I want to know: Why doesn’t John Sayles put that kind of ridiculously awesome humor into his own films? I respect him greatly, but I think The Secret of Roan Inish could have only been improved by a T-Rex brandishing a machine gun and a Rambo headband charging through the town square. Like anyone who isn’t an Irish grandma I’ve never seen The Secret of Roan Inish, but if I heard that it had a scene like that I can guarantee I would buy it tomorrow.

    Nice find, Vern.

  3. caruso_stalker217

    July 20th, 2009 at 1:24 am

    FINALLY!

    This is my favorite Dolph picture and I’m glad you finally reviewed it, Vern.

    I recommend this motion picture to everyone. It’s kind of a spin on SEVEN SAMURAI and also Charlotte Lewis shows her boobs. It’s a damned fine picture.

  4. “a DIRTY DOZEN-style mercenary team of hyper-smart dinosaurs in body armor killing drug dealers and rescuing kidnapped children.”

    Holy shit, how did I not hear about that one?

  5. OLEG prevails!
    Men of War is a fucking DTV masterpiece!

  6. Vern, there is nothing “missing” fromt his film. It is pure Oleg! The way the villagers defeat the mercs through sheer conivction is great. Through the whole thing the mercs are trying to act like bullies and intimidate the locals with their big guns and tough talk, then the locals all start mutilating THEMSELVES in ways that makes the mercs wince like babies. It’s brilliant.

    This movie takes every cliche of RAMBO knockoffs and flips them but still delivers that same type of entertainment. It’s fantastic!

  7. “I’ll have the beaver sandwich”

    Great flick.

  8. One of the coolest things in this movie is the scene when they eat the eggs with unborn birds inside , ritual ceremony style . Then the locals are , like , ” Are you crazy ? We don’t eat that shit !”. I also like the mercenary outfit . You’ve got the “Apocalypse Now”-stereotype junkie , the Holy Man similar to Keith David in “Pitch Black” , the Latin lover and , of course , Tiny Lister.

    Now , I’ve got to track down Blackjack !

  9. This is Must See DTV

  10. Vern check out this other Men of War review at http://wolfiedarling.com/menofwar.htm . This guy also makes movie reviews but with a different style. He tends to point out things that I overlook when watching the films.
    I think he posts here as I’ve read some references to Oleg.

  11. While you’re there check out his “Lethal Weapon” series essay. It’s good stuff.

    Ha, remember that bit in the first where Danny Glover says to that kid “Six years old? Wow. I bet you like the Gobots”. LOL-80S-LOL!!!!

  12. Well I had forgotten that this wolfiedarling guy interviewed Vern one time so… yeah, I think he already knows of that site.

  13. Hey Vern, great review!

    I will be the first to admit that you got me hooked on the Dolph! I’ve been plowing through his movies like
    mad and have a few suggestions for you to check out.

    The Peacekeeper – Dolph in a VERY Die Hardish clone, with Montel Williams and Roy Scheider
    Silent Trigger – Dolph directed by Highlander’s Russell Mulcahy. Cool little assassin pic that looks great.
    Detention – Kinda so bad it’s good, but it’s Dolph in a Die Hard clone, set in a High School
    Retrograde – Ultrasleazy Sci-Fi pic with Time Travel. Almost MST3K level acting, makes this a must-see for
    unintended laughs

  14. Yes Merso, that is me who maintains my own blog “wolfiedarling” where I post my comic strips and movie thoughts etc. I am a member of the Brotherhood of Oleg, a community based on the principles of Dolph Lundgren.

    I did interview Vern once when he first self-published Seagalogy. I continue to admire Vern’s writing and his dedication to his field of study. His writing has helped guide me in my own pursuit of cinematic knowledge.

  15. Thanks Vern… I like it too. The script was Sayles originally.

  16. Wow, directors are coming out of the woodwork all over the place lately. You don’t get this open dialogue between filmmakers and fans anywhere else. One of these days, Seagal himself is gonna show up, and none of us will ever be the same.

  17. Christian Brimo

    July 20th, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    apparently Dolph Lundgren used to work as a bouncer in various sydney nightclubs

  18. I have a question about writing etiquette and something that annoys the shit out of me. Here is an example…

    “But first some funny shit starts happening, little clever touches that decorate a standard action movie structure and give it flair. You see, the script is credited to Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris and John Sayles.”

    It seems like the last few years I see ton of movie reviews using the phrase “You see,” I really feel that the use of “you see” is not proper and should really be ended. Why is it bothering me so much?

  19. Read it without the “you see” and it’s meaning is less clear. It creates a causative link between the funny shit that starts happening and the fact that these people wrote the script containing said funny shit.

    I’m not sure I understand your objection to it. Is it just that you’re sticking to the primary definition of “see,” which is “to perceive with the eyes; look at?” If you use one of its secondary definitions, “to perceive (things) mentally; discern; understand,” it makes perfect sense.

  20. Wow, I just got really pretentious about grammar and used the wrong “its.” If you need me I’ll be in the oven.

  21. Perry – *the* Perry? If so, great job on the movie. Thanks for stopping by and for the clarification on the script.

    Lawrence – yeah, I can see what you’re saying. I think it makes sense in that sentence but I will keep an eye out that I’m not using it gratuitously. I’ve noticed that with other phrases like “Now,” “Mind you,” or “Look,” which are often are used for no reason, out of habit I guess.

  22. John Sayles?

    Wicked

  23. Hey, nice to meet you, Wolfgang. You run a very cool blog.

  24. My dislike of “you see” also doesn’t help being that I’m a huge wrestling nerd and “you see” is used A LOT during promos. Almost like movie reviewers are in fact doing promos.

    Also, I think it’s because Harry Knowles tends to use “You see” a lot followed by him masturbating to all the cool things he owned, saw, or did relating to film.

  25. THE THIN RED LINE before Terence Malick!

  26. actually, dear vern, there was a little world war because of bird shit.

    http://www.zum.de/whkmla/military/19cen/guanowar.html

  27. Hey, Vern,

    Nice review of “Men Of War”, a movie I’ve always liked, ever since it came out and — in a very limited release — did play at several real movie theaters, back in the day.

    I had some involvement in the making of the movie and can tell you that you are kind of wrong about the script. John Sayles wrote the original screenplay many years before it got made, based on a story idea from the guy who gets story credit or co-story credit and may also be one of the producers on the movie, if my memory serves correctly. Reiff & Voris were brought in to update the script — it had been originally written before “PLATOON” came out in 1986 and was a much heavier Vietnam allegory type of story — add all the other characters to support Dolph as “Gunar” and pump up the action and humor.

    A lot of great stuff from the John Sayles script remained in the shooting script and remains in the movie but pretty much all of the jokes and action and all the quirky supporting characters came from the other guys. They went on to be pretty successful themselves. They created a great but largely forgotten horror/cop TV show for FOX called “Brimstone”, created and I think solely ran the showtime terrorism drama “SLEEPER CELL” and got the story credit on “Kung Fu Panda”, plus the new Russel Crowe Robin Hood movie started out as a spec script they wrote called “NOTTINGHAM” that had the sheriff as the hero, which is the part Russel Crowe originally signed on to play, before ridley Scott became the director and changed it up.

    Nothing against John Sayles, who is one of my favorite screenwriters, but credit where credit is due!

  28. Plus, I should admit, those guys hired me since!

  29. I watched this last night. Great movie, but it took me nearly 24 hours to figure out the title. Now, obviously Dolph & Co. are literally men of war, because they’re mercenaries. But remember that story that the elder tells about how whatsherface’s father parachuted onto the island and they thought it looked like a jellyfish falling out of the sky? Well, what’s the most badass kind of jellyfish? That’s right: a man o’war.

    This Sayles dude is a deep motherfucker.

  30. Hey, that’s good, I didn’t think of that. Best jellyfish related title I have seen.

  31. @LA MOVIE GUY

    Brimstone fucking rules.

  32. From Lundgren to Sayles to Jelly Fish.

    This thread is awesome!
    *clap* *clap*

  33. @TimD

    AGREE 100% — or 113%!!! Maybe some day WB will release the 13 episode run on DVD. But maybe it’s too late now. I don’t know why they didn’t a long time ago.

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