SANCTUARY (1998) is not The Great American Mark Dacascos Vehicle, but it’s pretty enjoyable classical DTV (or in this case straight-to-cable, I believe) action, the kind that made me fall in love with the format in the first place. Yes, it’s messy, at times confusing or befuddling. It’s kinda gloomy looking, sometimes there are iffy line deliveries, and there are definitely parts that I laugh at that I’m not supposed to. But also there’s some showcasing of a cool actor I like, pulpy traditions of the genre are exercised, and when something really cool happens there’s a sense of underdog achievement. You’re really pulling for it to be good.
It has a convoluted chronology: it starts with our Catholic priest hero Luke Kovak (Dacascos a year after DRIVE) in a Vatican interrogation room being questioned in Italian about what happened six days ago when he got attacked by some killers from his secret past. From the story of six days ago it keeps flashing back to the larger backstory of his former career doing dirty deeds for the government and why he went into hiding to get away from it. A few times he even remembers his childhood, when a priest was his role model until Dyson (Alan Scarfe, CATHY’S CURSE, IRON EAGLE II, LETHAL WEAPON 3) took him and some other orphans and raised them to be experts in martial arts, guns and spycraft.
Admittedly my favorite part is the opening. In his role as “Father John,” Luke tries to help his tough girl homeless teen friend Jinx (Elisabeth Rosen, CULT OF CHUCKY). She sees him get punched in the gut and just drop to the ground and she looks at him like he’s pathetic. Then he goes home to his sparse, shakes-when-the-el-train-goes-by apartment. He takes off his frock, revealing that he’s absolutely ripped, and practices some really fast Wing Chun or something on a metal pole. Then some gymnastics. Yeah, maybe he’s a pacifist at the moment, but the sleeping beast has one eye open.
The real story starts when Rachel (Kylie Travis, Models Inc., RETROACTIVE) shows up at his door. He grabs her and frisks her like an enemy, but she’s there to warn him that Dyson has found him. She’s an ex who’s still working for the agency. “You really hurt us, Luke, with what you did.”
So he tries to figure out how much he can trust Rachel, what the agency is up to with a job in Nevada, and how to handle the people he knows are surveilling him. You know it’s a flashback when he has a goatee, and we learn about his relationship with Rachel, their methods, and the way they broke in newer, less honorable team member Dominic (Jaimz Woolvett, The Schofield Kid from UNFORGIVEN). They fall out after staking out a senator (Nigel Bennett, DARKMAN III: DIE DARKMAN DIE) with team member Colette (Monika Schnarre, WARLOCK: THE ARMAGEDDON) as a honey trap to get some blackmail video. Sort of a pee tape, if you will. When the senator turns out to be a sicko who beats and rapes Colette, only Luke is willing to intervene. So he has a good reason to quit.
Dacascos doesn’t use his martial arts as much as I’d like. It’s mostly gun stuff. But he does get to run into the bullies who punched him at the beginning and now he’s willing to knock them both out with one spin kick. He ends up having to take refuge at a homeless camp under an overpass (now we know why his friendship with Jinx is important) and just like in PEPPERMINT it puts innocent poor people in the crossfire, in this case with a tank and a rocket launcher. Like they need that shit. Jinx gets shot in the leg, which makes me think Luke is the only jinx in this relationship. When he kisses her on the head and leaves her there I think we’re supposed to assume an ambulance came and saved her, but we don’t see her again, and shouldn’t he say something to her in his capacity as her priest anyway? I guess he’s still learning that stuff.
Dyson is such a dick. He must know he’s the villain because he refers to Rachel as “the girl” even though she’s pretty much his adopted daughter! I like at the end when Luke chases a guy through the headquarters out a window and then he turns his head and sees that Dyson is sitting at a table watching him through panels of glass. Dyson closes his eyes as Luke picks up a machine gun and points it at him, but then Luke just sprays around breaking all the windows and TV screens surrounding him. Just making a real mess. And that’s not the worst thing somebody’s gonna have to clean up out of there.
Christianity is often used in action movies as shorthand for morality and righteousness. John Woo loves to set gun fights in churches to show that violence violates the sacred. Warrior heroes often have a relationship with a priest or reverend (ABOVE THE LAW, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, MACHETE, GRAN TORINO, BOYKA: UNDISPUTED), or they give confession, or at least go to sit alone in an empty church as a way of showing they hope to be redeemed for the immoral deeds that, in all honesty, we came to see them perform.
Within its heightened world, SANCTUARY treats this cliche of action movie spirituality with admirable sincerity. Luke discovers that “Father John” is not just a way to hide out, but the person he feels he was always meant to be. And there’s a cool twist at the end (COOL TWIST AT THE END SPOILER) where the Vatican interrogators are not going to defrock him, as he expects, but instead invite him to join The Sacred Order of the Holy Cross, their secret army of sanctioned killers that has existed since the Crusades. It could absolutely be played as a badass origin story for some righteous Christian asskicker, but the movie fades out on Luke just sitting there, not picking up the gun. In the end he can’t put his faith in institutions, whether they be the government or the church. He has to follow his own spirituality, his own code, not what some powerful organization tells him is permissible.
The screenplay is credited to Michael Stokes (JUNGLEGROUND, IRON EAGLE IV, NO CONTEST II) and Brian Irving (NOSTRADAMUS, VAMPIRE HUNTER D: BLOODLUST?). Director Tibor Takacs is known for horror movies like THE GATE and I, MADMAN, but by this point he’d already directed Dacascos in DEADLY PAST, SABOTAGE and REDLINE. He’d also do two episodes of The Crow: Stairway to Heaven. Since the turn of the century he’s mostly done TV/DTV movies about disasters (TORNADO WARNING, THE BLACK HOLE, NYC: TORNADO TERROR, METEOR STORM), killer animals (RATS, MANSQUITO, KRAKEN: TENTACLES OF THE DEEP, ICE SPIDERS, MEGA SNAKE, SPIDERS 3D) or Christmas (ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS, TWICE UPON A CHRISTMAS, ROCKY MOUNTAIN CHRISTMAS, IT’S CHRISTMAS, EVE, MEMORIES OF CHRISTMAS). Fingers crossed that he does one where Dacascos plays an elf who has to save a small town’s Christmas celebration after an earthquake cracks open the town square and a giant spider crawls out. Until then, I’ll have to find a copy of SABOTAGE.
Trailer narrated by Optimus Prime:
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.