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

Blackjack (second review)

tn_blackjack“Okay, I understand that, but Jack you need to realize that your sunglasses are the only protection you have from all the white out there.”

woozoneusaBIt wasn’t part of the original plan, but as I was re-watching the American John Woo movies I realized I had to revisit this 1998 USA Networks TV movie (and unfulfilled backdoor pilot), even though I did an okay job reviewing it long ago. I’ve recently had good luck recommending it to a couple people who never heard of it, but I hadn’t seen it myself in 11 years. Fortunately this thing (shot right after FACE/OFF) holds up as an absurd and entertaining Dolph Lundgren vehicle that transcends its cheapo format.

Dolph plays Jack Devlin, a world class bodyguard who seems to work out of Reno. In the opening he agrees to a favor for an old friend who owns a casino and needs him to protect his little girl Casey (Padraigin Murphy) from the mob. She calls him “Uncle Jack,” which I took literally this time, but my research tells me that they’re not actually related.

It goes down kind like in TAKEN, where the kids get to Europe and are immediately kidnapped. Here gunmen arrive about 30 seconds after Jack walks into the house with Casey. He’s checking the rooms upstairs when they come in.

I described this opening action scene in my original review, but I have to do it again to make it clear why this is not a drill, this is a must-see movie. During the gun battle (which involves plenty of Hong Kong style jumps and slides and debris) Jack is temporarily blinded by a grenade and has to carry Casey around on his back, telling him where to shoot or kick. “Roundhouse! 7 o’clock!” she says at one point, and it works. It’s kind of in the tradition of Tequila carrying the baby in HARD BOILED, except if he was blind and the baby was telling him where to shoot.

Then the place is gonna blow up so he throws her off the balcony, she bounces off a previously-established trampoline and lands safely in the swimming pool. He jumps just as a gigantic fireball singes his ass (a great stunt shown from two different angles and done I believe by stunt coordinator and Dolph double Wade Eastwood)…

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…bounces off the trampoline in slow motion, and he fires back at the mansion (two handguns, of course), and they actually exchange shots back and forth, hitting each other, while he’s in mid-air. If that doesn’t make you smile then there’s nothing I can do for you, friend. My condolences.

He saves the girl, and some time passes, and he has his eyesight back, but a combination of the blinding white flash and traumatic childhood memories of the death of his gambler father has caused a phobia of the color white. Sometimes if he sees too much if it it weakens him like kryptonite or confuses him or messes up his vision. His psychiatrist (Kate Vernon, PRETTY IN PINK, MALCOLM X) has him wear sunglasses, so this is the rare movie with a psychiatric basis for the hero always wearing cool shades.

By the way, IMDb has some interesting trivia:

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I suppose that’s true, but I believe I can explain it. Since it’s a Woo movie he wears nice suits and shirts. He doesn’t want to take that shit off.

Meanwhile his old friend Tim (Fred Williamson) is running a security company that’s protecting super model Cinder James (Kam Heskin, THE PRINCE AND ME II through ELEPHANT ADVENTURE) from a stalker. Not just like a weirdo who tries to get past security, but a cunning assassin who tries to take her out with a sniper rifle while she’s doing some kind of event for a contract she signed. They treat her like she’s the president, talking about “locking down” all the surrounding buildings and having “six units of NYPD” there. I feel like maybe they should just face reality and do their fashion thing in a secure location. My tax dollars should not go to this shit.

mp_blackjackJack doesn’t want to take the case until Tim gets shot. Then he takes over pro bono. This is not a Woo movie where hero and villain find that they’re alike. The hero is awesome and the villain is a gross sicko loser.

Jack carries weaponized playing cards and a Zippo lighter that was involved in his father’s death. He knows how to do card tricks, how to dance, how to do pain-curing (and orgasmic) chiropractic techniques, and how to help drug addicts. He had a problem with painkillers himself after the blinding/bouncing incident, so when he finds Cinder practically OD’d he knows to mambo with her limp body until she wakes/cheers up. When it gets real bad he calls in his psychiatrist, who wants to be alone with her and then apparently cures her of drug addiction offscreen during a period represented by a wipe.

At one point Jack also does a Jar Jar type move because he unknowingly saves Tim’s life by clumsily knocking over a poisoned IV at the hospital. Good bungle, Jack.

Phillip MacKenzie (a zombie in the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake) plays the villainous stalker who turns out to be Rory, Cinder’s ex-husband, a “failed actor gone haywire” who does Shakespeare scenes by himself and “word on the street says he’s been training in weapons.” He shakes and cries while aiming at her with his sniper pistol. He claims to love her and be protecting her.

In one scene he keeps a butterfly in a jar. So there’s that motif from BROKEN ARROW. There it represented the survival of man and nature despite the evil of the nuclear bomb. Here it represents something beautiful cruelly deprived of its freedom.

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The best thing about Rory is that he has three faceless henchmen on motorcycles. I thought maybe I was misremembering that, but it’s true, and I still haven’t picked up an explanation of why they would be willing to kill and die (though they only end up doing the second one I believe) to help him stalk his ex-wife.

When he captures Jack he ties him to a chair, sits in a throne watching him and sets up five dummies made out of hay wearing blond female wigs with his friend Thomas (Saul Rubinek, UNFORGIVEN, DEATH WISH V) inside one of them so he keeps shooting them to scare Jack. Kind of an eccentric thing to do, in my opinion. But Jack uses his bladed playing card to cut the rope and throw at Rory, slicing his cheek so he’ll say “Oh my God – my face! You’re dead, Jack!” I guess since he’s an actor he’s vain, like Brakus in BEST OF THE BEST 2.

still_blackjack11Another aspect that I wondered if I was making too much of it in my memory was the possibility that Jack is supposed to be gay. But it’s there just as much as I remember. At a glance you would assume that Thomas is Jack’s butler or something, but only because he cooks for him and takes care of him and lives at his house. They never treat each other like boss and employee. Jack introduces him more than once as “my friend” or “my friend Thomas.”Also, Thomas has some sort of past that gives him expertise in guns, which seems more like a guy that Jack would have a personal relationship with than a guy he would hire to cook and clean for him. Anyway, does Jack really have the money or lifestyle for a full time live in servant? And if that’s all he was, why would Rory choose him as the hostage to make Jack do his bidding?

There’s lots of dialogue that can be read two ways, including implications that Thomas is jealous of Jack buying a woman flowers. To be fair, Jack and Cinder do kiss once at the very end, but it seems like a one-and-done peck, definitely not a “we’re together now” or a “and now we have sex” type of kiss. So it doesn’t prove anything.

The opening is not the only great action. Maybe it lacks a trampoline, but I think the best chunk of action starts with one of Rory’s moto-maniacs attacking the security convoy by sliding a motorcycle under the limo and blowing it up with a time bomb. Then Rory walks out of the woods with a shotgun. His motorcycle guys drive by with machine guns and Jack does a couple of ultimate John Woo moves:

1. Slow motion two pistol launch off of burning car tackling guy off of motorcycle and landing in a somersault

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2. Stealing a motorcycle and purposely falling sideways and shooting up in the air at a motorcycle jumping over him and shooting down at him and then that motorcycle lands in the flaming car and explodes and crashes and lands on top of him.

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3. On the motorcycle he chases Rory, who’s on foot, but somehow goes from being like 5 feet in front of him to outrunning him and heading down an alley and into a warehouse, where Jack gets chased down a ramp by another motorcycle guy and spins around and drives backwards firing somewhere around 20 bullets until the motorcycle explodes into flames but then the guy drives out like a Terminator doing a flaming wheelie but then he falls off and Jack leaves.

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And that’s when we get to the famous (in my mind) scene where Jack chases Rory into a dairy and gets milk poured on him and can’t fight anymore because he’s afraid of the color white and somehow Rory figures this out and starts wearing white suits and hanging up white sheets for the rest of the movie.

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It’s kind of like reverse BLADE, because it’s all leading to Jack taking his sunglasses off when they eventually face off (no slash) again. In fact he purposely steps on them to be free of them. It’s like Luke taking off his headset and using The Force to blow up the Death Star. (that’s from Star Wars.) He can overcome his fear of white to win this fight against a guy in a white tux.

still_blackjack12Even though it was made on less than one-fifth the budget and for a small screen and with Toronto TV crews, BLACKJACK infinitely more exciting than BROKEN ARROW. The second unit director and co-stunt-coordinator is Ken Quinn, who was the stunt double for RoboCop in the TV show. He did stunts in the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake as well as actual George Romero movies BRUISER and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD. It does look a little TV-ish, and has a 4.3 aspect ratio, but the feel, again, is more Woo, owing in part to a high volume of slow motion shots. The cinematographer is Bill Wong, a Hong Kong guy who shot GOD OF KILLERS, ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, YES MADAM, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA, etc. before coming to the U.S. to shoot Woo’s Once a Thief TV series.

And like HARD TARGET it’s a good mix of the Woo style and a particularly ridiculous strain of American action movie. So many “better” movies wouldn’t have the hero be afraid of a color, and then have a liquid of that color poured on him, and that’s why they are so boring and we forgot what happened in them. BLACKJACK waves its freak flag high, and in slow motion, with fire and butterflies all around it. Weirdly, though, screenwriter Peter Lance seems like a very serious guy. He was an Emmy-winning reporter and investigative correspondent for 20/20 and Nightline before he started writing for procedurals including Crime Story, Miami Vice, Walker, Texas Ranger and The Sentinel. BLACKJACK was his last credit before 9/11 sent him back into journalism, where he helped link the attacks to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He has written several acclaimed investigative books, mostly relating to terrorism, starting with 2003’s 1000 Years for Revenge, which argued that the FBI had many chances to stop 9/11. He only returned to television for the 2006 mini-series The Path to 9/11.

One time I tried to email him to ask if Jack and Thomas were really supposed to be gay, but I guess exhaustively researching the activities of terrorists and mobsters made him too busy to respond to a random dude.

I wonder what this would’ve been like if it had been picked up as a series? I guess Jack would protect different clients, raise Casey, spend some more time in casinos. Someone besides Woo would’ve directed and other episodes would most likely be lighter on flaming cars and motorcycles and buildings and people. So fuck that. We got the better option. Third best American John Woo movie, and a great showcase for Dolph.


NOTE: Look how cheap that is! Can you honestly tell me you don't need BLACKJACK in your life for $5.99?

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 Monday, May 2nd, 2016 at 10:39 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

35 Responses to “Blackjack (second review)”

  1. Really enjoyed this one. Like about 90% of people who bothered to rent this thing way back when (because I’m told I’m old) is because of John Woo directing it. This was also the first movie I saw that made me feel that there was more to Lundgren than I gave him credit for at the time.

    I’m sorry you’ll have to watch the Once A Thief TV-remake (will you watch his original to compare and contast, it would be cool if you did that like you did to Lone Wolf and Shogun Assassin) and Windtalkers (which I think beats Broken Arrow for genericness in his US filmography and drops the ball the most).

  2. I remember Once a Thief being an ok tv pilot.

  3. Fuck it. I just put it on my online rental DVD queue and hope it will arrive in my mailbox soon, since this isn’t streaming anywhere and I keep missing it whenever it’s on TV.

  4. Ahhh, tHE SENTINEL. Does anyone here even remember that show? Richard Burgi who spent too much time in the jungle, honing his senses unknowingly to be over sensitive to everything in another jungle, the urban one.

  5. I know I won’t get much love on here for saying this, but I’d take BLACKJACK over HARD TARGET any day. BLACKJACK is stupid like a fox; HARD TARGET is just stupid.

  6. Sternshein: Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, maybe I was being a snob at the time because I had already seen Woo’s original Hong Kong version, so maybe I was wrong. I have initially dismissed many things I think are good now and looking at the time it came out, I was most-probably in a snobby mood at the time when I watched it.

    Speaking of Woo Zone U.S.A., has anyone else read his comic, Seven Brothers. I quite liked it and I recommend it if you have not read it yet already. It was part of a series of comics that Virgin was dong where they asked director’s about ideas they had (that I guess were never going to be made or something).

    I remember The Sentinel but I never watched it, your description kinda makes me feel like I should give it a shot though.

  7. STRANGLEHOLD should count in Woo Zone USA as it was an american videogame sequel to HARD BOILED developed in cooperation with John Woo. However how much of Woo is in the game is questionable. It seems like it was made by dudes only liking John Woo movies for the bodycounts and the carnage than any aestethic and artistic value his best works had.

    It was quite bad.

  8. No, I´ll take some of that back. I quite enjoyed STRANGLEHOLD at the time. But the John Woo name was being milked a bit and teh final product was a shallow intepretation of Woos work. But you at least had a digital Chow Yun-Fat shooting up a dinosaur museum. The lever of destructio was amazing for the time.

  9. The Original Paul

    May 2nd, 2016 at 1:27 pm

    I’ve only ever watched this movie once (I remember enjoying it back then). I gotta do so again some time, much like HARD TARGET, and see if it holds up. The weird thing is that I’d no idea that it was John Woo’s work. I just thought of it as a random Dolph movie that happened to be pretty good.

  10. Crushinator Jones

    May 2nd, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    Come on. Stranglehold had a level where the bad guys were attacking a jazz quartet playing a song, and if they all died you lost. That’s pretty damn Wooriffic.

  11. That is pretty Tequilariffic at least. I´d admit to that. Good of you to pick that up, Crushinator. I don´t even remember that part.

  12. I just noticed. That is the cover to the Swedish dvd Vern used. Nice Dolphian touch.

  13. Crushinator Jones

    May 2nd, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Don’t get me wrong. There was a lot of water in that beer. But Stranglehold was alright. You could tell they wanted to make it Woo-riffic. The ultimate special move made doves fly through the air. If you played multiplayer one of the levels was the tea house from Hard Boiled. They clearly cared a lot about the game. The problem was that Midway was dying and the consoles of the time just weren’t powerful enough to do everything they were going for (insanely ambitious destructible everything levels with cinematic shootouts)

    The Jazz Quartet part was great because the dudes would get blasted and just slump over in their chairs. The song got more and more stripped down as guys died until there was one dude left playing a clarinet and probably getting REAL fucking nervous about the player’s skill level.

  14. I found Stranglehold too hard because some levels went on forever.

  15. I’m always a generation or two behind when it comes to video games, so I just found STRANGLEHOLD for 99 cents at GameStop. I’d never played it before, so from this latter-day perspective it is clearly mostly just a sloppier, more frantic MAX PAYNE ripoff. Which is a circle-of-life thing, because MAX PAYNE ripped off its whole combat style from John Woo movies. It’s like when THE FAST & THE FURIOUS reused the POINT BREAK plot and then the POINT BREAK remake styled itself after the FAST & FURIOUS movies.

    STRANGLEHOLD is pretty fun, if really dated, but Sternshein is right: Some of the levels are just too fuckin’ hard. I had to put it on Easy and I almost never do that. Ruins the sense of accomplishment.

  16. I caught this a few weeks ago on UK TV and while I’d heard bad things and tempered my expectations accordingly, I was still stunned by how inept and boring it is. For me, it’s the absolute nadir of Woo’s US career – Ringo Lam had a similar moment with REPLICANT, an absolutely horrid Van Damme vehicle (which I’m amazed to learn has its avid fans!). Yeah, I’d rather forget this one exists.

    If there are little-known Woo films which I think are deserving of a closer look, I’d definitely nominate his earlier HK martial arts films HAND OF DEATH (1976) and LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY (1979). I haven’t seen the even earlier THE DRAGON TAMERS yet, but those two are both genuinely great.

  17. I found the boss fights repetetive as shit. When did Chow Yun- Fat had to fight helicopters and muscular bulletsponge beefcakes? Not very Woo, but more like standard-esque tiredsome bossfight constructions in my opinion. I have not played the game in like seven years so I don´t exactly remember the game, but I seem to recall some of the trappings the game fell victim to.

  18. Who wins in a fight, BLACKJACK’s Dolph with his fear of white, or COLOR OF NIGHT’s Bruce Willis with his inability to see the color red?

  19. I reckon “I’m lactose intolerant” is Dolph’s greatest ever one liner.

  20. I´d say the inabliity to see red in a confrontation that might end in blood letting might be a severe handicap. Unless Bruce Willis is Bishop, then the more he bleeds the better a chance he has.

  21. No , wait that does not make any sense. I don´t remember COLOR OF NIGHT. Is he just unable to see the color red? Or does it hamper him in any way?

  22. Mr. S— Riddick would intervene victorious by goin’ old school [Three Stooges style] and thump their skulls together. Bonk!… done.

  23. Sternshein: Yeah, you’re right. The boss battles do suck. But I find that’s true for most games.

  24. Grimgrinningchris

    May 3rd, 2016 at 6:08 am

    Or Superfuzz losing his powers when he sees the color red.

  25. The Seven Brothers comic is pretty boring tbh, but probably worth reading from a Woo-completist POV. It’s actually written by Garth Ennis, an absolute comics genius, who’s work I think Vern would love if he ever reads comics. But you can tell neither of them are trying. Virgin Comics clearly just paid Woo a load of money to come up with a rough concept and put his name on it, and Ennis probably just took it as a well-paying easy gig. Virgin did this with a few film directors at the time – I think there’s books out there with Guy Richie and Terry Gilliam’s names on them that they had very little to do with.

  26. I haven’t seen this in years but I remember a hero with a phobia of the color white being put into a shootout at a milk factory was inspired as fuck.

  27. After getting the DVD surprisingly quick, I’m now in the “Yeah, BLACKJACK is seriously good” club too.

  28. Crushinator Jones

    May 10th, 2016 at 9:39 am

    Ok, yeah. This came out while I worked in a video store. I heard the idea of Dolph Lungren being afraid of the color white and never bothered with it. Like I said, I was a real butthole during the late 90s. But like Vern said, for 6 bucks you can’t go wrong…I gave it a shot. Pretty damn good, definitely transcends it’s cheapo origins.

  29. Crushinator Jones

    May 10th, 2016 at 10:12 am

    The one thing I liked the most about this movie – other than Jack maybe being gay/bisexual and nobody making a big deal out of it – is that he’s hitting on his psychologist, and she’s kinda responding to it, and that’s CRAZY unprofessional! Like, “get fired and lose your license forever” unprofessional.

  30. That’s one of the things I loved about it. Its ultra-sincere pulpiness, where a nearly unbeatable, freelancing, retired US Marshall with a colourphobia can live in a penthouse suite with his own butler/maybe gay lover, randomly adopt a kid without having anybody but himself question if he is the right man for it and has a cigar smoking female psychologist, who obviously wants to fuck him and makes legally questionable house calls to help pill junkies.

    It’s too bad, that they made it in a time, when TV was still mostly too square for such a concept. 10 years later and this might have been the precursor of something like BANSHEE.

  31. Literally too square. This ends up being a unique and entertaining movie but you wouldn’t know it from the first five minutes, when the 1.33:1 framing, flat 90s syndicated TV videography, and (especially) Sega Genesis-level pixelated credits conspire to convince every critical capacity you have that this is going to be unwatchable and you made a terrible mistake deciding to pop this in. Obviously those concerns go out the window once the trampolining starts but I can see why lots of people wouldn’t be able to get past that awful first impression.

    How exactly would this have worked as a show, I wonder? I assume it wouldn’t have that much serialization, as that wasn’t really in fashion at the time, so Detective Jack “Blackjack” Black would probably take on a new case every week. Would they all coincidentally pose a challenge for his white phobia? Would he have to investigate arson at the flour refinery? Is there murder afoot at a wedding dress convention? Would the white uniforms of the orderlies at the looney bin where his latest client has been falsely committed cause Jack to end up there himself? Tune in next week to find out.

    Also, I’m pretty sure getting adopted by the world’s deadliest bisexual Swede and a dandy one-eyed queen with a shady past and a talent for gourmet cooking is basically hitting the foster parent lottery. You would end up SO. FUCKING. COOL.

  32. Crushinator Jones

    May 10th, 2016 at 11:22 am

    When Thomas goes with Jack to the bad guy’s lair he doesn’t even bring a gun! He makes a karate chop pose. Fucking hardcore, Thomas!

  33. Mr M: Don’t forget my favourite. The “Presented in Dolby Surround” logo!

  34. You are correct about the DVD price. Purchased and will arrive Saturday thanks to Prime free shipping.

  35. I watched the opening to this and with the release of the official Manhunt trailer I thought I would come up with this hot take. John Woo is the greatest director of gun fights in cinema history. There is nobody like Woo. It’s the little things like pushing a table towards a guy you shot from a balcony for him to fall on even though he is already dead. I hope Manhunt does not disappoint.

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