a.k.a. A CERTAIN JUSTICE
Lately I’ve been talking up Cung Le, the Vietnamese-American MMA legend turned movie martial artist who has had really impressive supporting roles in FIGHTING, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, THE GRANDMASTER, SAVAGE DOG and recently SECURITY. I love his stoic performances, unique sledge hammer fighting style and unusually compact body type, and I don’t think he’s gotten enough credit for his work.
So far there are a couple of Le starring vehicles, and if you’re only going to watch one, for God’s sake choose John Hyams’ DRAGON EYES (2012), a sort of loose contemporization of YOJIMBO with Jean-Claude Van Damme in a supporting role. But if you, like me, are also willing to watch a not as good Cung Le vehicle, I offer you PUNCTURE WOUNDS from 2014.
This one’s actually pretty similar to DRAGON EYES, except with some of the questionable style and sloppy storytelling you expect in DTV action. The fights are generally shorter and never as well photographed. There’s a weird blurring around the edges of so many shots that I started to wonder if it was a technical error and not an artistic choice. The character is less catered to Le’s acting abilities, with especially clunky first person narration: “I guess I was doing a pretty lousy job of adjusting to civilian life. But I was about to get pulled into a whole new war.” And the content gets ugly in a not-fun-or-enlightening way. But it also has some flashes of inspiration, decent use of beloved action/revenge tropes, a dash of craziness and an earnest (if completely awkward) attempt to deal with our combination of admiration for and fear of veterans and their combat skills.
Le plays John Nguyen, recently returned from Iraq, having trouble getting a job and suffering from PTSD (presented in the form of Avid fart flashbacks, and specified in the narration in case you don’t get the idea). While staying in a cheap motel “trying to make sense of life” he hears some racist assholes shoving around a prostitute in the parking lot, so he goes out to intervene and ends up killing and/or maiming them all while they call him slurs based on the misconception that he’s Chinese.
The prostitute Tanya is played by Briana Evigan (STEP UP 2 THE STREETS, S. DARKO, SORORITY ROW, STEP UP ALL IN) and she’s such a convincingly frazzled mess in her first scene that I was genuinely worried that this is what she’s like now. She’s not grateful for John’s help since she knows it will bring down the wrath of her pimp, Hollis, played by none other than Dolph Lundgren. The first time we see him (in the trailer-like highlight reel opening credits) he’s practicing karate looking like this:
and the next time is even better:
Both are in HARD TARGET-esque slow motion, by the way.
And Dolph is good, of course, but I regret to inform you that it’s not the fun over-the-top character the look suggests, but a genuinely despicable villain. He catches Tanya before she can skip town and psychologically torments her by pretending to make her his girlfriend then degrading and humiliating her, saying the cruelest things a Dolph character has ever said, breaking her heart. And later he straight up rapes her. I guess that’s one way to make us root against Dolph.
That said, there is some actual dark humor in his first scene, where he goes to the hospital to question one of his henchmen that John beat up. He tells him how each of the others died. And then he’s asked about one named Tony.
“He’ll make it. One of his testicles got crushed and infected, so, they’ll have to cut ’em off. Probly won’t be able to talk so good,” he explains matter-of-factly. I have seen many people get kicked in the balls in movies, sometimes even saying “My balls!,” but I’ve never heard a post-script about the permanent damage caused, so I respect this moment.
Anyway, they don’t tell the police anything so that Hollis and his men can hunt John down themselves. They keep calling him a slur or “a quiet guy” or “soldier boy” even though I don’t think there’s any point where they learn of his military history. Meanwhile a crime dude named Vin (Gianni Capaldi, BLOOD OF REDEMPTION) tries to set up a deal between Hollis and Bennett (Vinnie Jones, everything). Jones isn’t in several scenes that aren’t that crucial to the plot, but you get that all-important Vinnie Jones credit on the cover, I guess.
John goes to “the one guy I could trust,” his war buddy J.P. (Jonathan Kowalsky, Wynn Duffy’s bodyguard Mikey on Justified), who mostly sits around playing video games since losing his leg. And Hollis goes to the jittery drugged-out motel manager Carl to get information. This guy is played by Eddie Rouse, an actor who got his start in David Gordon Green’s early short films and GEORGE WASHINGTON and was a highlight of DRAGON EYES in a similar role. He’s also in PANDORUM with Le, so maybe that got him in this. He’s really good at pathetically whining and whimpering in terror, but they make us feel less sorry for him by giving him a kiddy porn habit.
When Hollis has John’s family burned alive, it goes from a trying-not-to-get-busted story to a brutal revenge one. John flips to warpath mode and manhandles, duct tapes, shoots with rock salt, yells in faces, sleeper holds and electro-shock interrogates his way to Hollis. He turns from polite, upstanding citizen to evil Terminator. It’s kinda creepy when he feeds Carl oxycontin, pretending like he’s trying to help him feel better, before force-feeding him a handful.
The detective who’s trying to solve the motel murders is Sergeant Mitchell (James C. Burns, MY SON MY SON WHAT HAVE YE DONE), a no-nonsense guy who has one scene visiting his sick wife in the hospital, a quick way to give him some humanity. He sees John as a stand-up soldier and takes his word that he knows nothing about what happened, but his involvement quickly becomes too obvious to ignore.
Here’s a pretty good Just How Badass Is He?: you get the standard discovery of military heroism (“Turns out he’s a green beret. He’s got a list of medals half a page long”) but also one of his activities was caught on video and went viral, so they also get to watch him turn the tables during a hostage execution video and kill his captors. “Apparently being a guest of the Taliban for a few weeks seriously messed up this guy!”
There’s also a FIRST BLOOD homage and/or ripoff scene. When poor Detective Mitchell is sitting in the unoccupied hospital room that symbolizes great loss, a dude in uniform covered in badges and ropes and shit (Christian Levatino, director of two featurettes on the HELLRAISER dvds) walks in and introduces himself as “his CO.” He doesn’t give his name, but somehow Mitchell knows to call him Griggs. Griggs says “Army never should have let him out in the world the way they did” and “John was a born leader. And he’s a true killer. Cold as fuck if you’re down range,” but goes on to talk about him passing out candy to children and volunteering to give vaccines. Because “I just thought someone should know who he was.”
That’s all he wanted to say but when Mitchell asks, Griggs swears after John’s revenge he’ll turn himself in. “He won’t run from what he’s done. That’s not how he’s wired. He believes in justice.” That sounds cool but it doesn’t really jibe with what we’ve seen, because after killing the guys in the parking lot John burned his clothes, refused J.P.’s advice to go to the police and pretended not to know anything about it when questioned.
I kind of like this scene because I like this trope, but Griggs’s accent and unconvincing grittiness relative to Mitchell or John makes it kind of goofy.
The weirder part is when John yells at J.P. about not letting his injury hold him back, and convinces him to help with the retaliation. I appreciate the ROLLING THUNDER style brotherhood – and they both wear Bruce-Lee-as-a-DJ t-shirts during a weapon preparation montage – but it seems like it’s trying to paint participating in violent revenge as an inspirational triumph over adversity. And then (SPOILER) J.P. gets killed doing it! Kind of a bummer to be close to the cathartic conclusion and have the protagonist screaming “No! No!’ at the execution of his best friend (mirroring one of his war traumas, no less).
Director Giorgio Serafini also did GAME OF DEATH (which I instantly forgot), AMBUSHED (which I was not inspired enough to write about) and BLOOD OF REDEMPTION (which I’m 90% sure I haven’t seen). This one he co-directs with writer James Coyne (associate producer of MAN-THING). I can’t say it’s top tier DTV action, but it’s got plenty of what I’ve been missing: a lead I can root for even when the scene requires acting beyond his abilities, an iconic action great trying to do something different from usual, pretty good violence, occasional accidental head scratching, occasional on-purpose laughs. At one point he’s beating and stabbing everybody in Hollis’s drug lab, and the last one standing manages to shoot him. The guy yells “What do you want, fuckface? Huh? You want me to say I’m fuckin sorry? Is that what you want?” Then immediately, “Mm, fuck – I’m sorry!” But it’s too late, he gets shot dead.
And sure, I love originality, ask anybody, I am a huge originality supporter, swear to Christ. But I also get joy in the employment of favorite action traditions, such as the climax where John convinces Hollis to put his gun down and find out if he can beat him in a fight. I am always always always in favor of putting down guns and using martial arts. Put that in needlepoint and hang it on your wall.