I don’t necessarily think of Renny Harlin as one of my favorite directors, but the truth is he’s very foundational to my viewing. I grew up being obsessed with all kinds of movies, but when I try to pinpoint what truly hooked me on my twin obsessions of horror and action, it seems like the main culprits are A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS and DIE HARD. So their sequels, both directed by Harlin, were huge for me at the time.
I understand why A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER doesn’t get the same love as DREAM WARRIORS, but for me it was monumental because it was my first Freddy movie in the theater. When it came out on tape I watched it (and its making-of tape) over and over again. That’s how I knew there was this hot up-and-coming director named Renny Harlin, a long-haired Finnish dude who showed such promise with the 1987 horror movie PRISON that he did Freddy 4 and DIE HARD 2 – followups to two of pop culture’s biggest things going. I think some article I read in Newsweek or somewhere called Harlin “The Sequel Master.”
I rented PRISON, of course, and I’ve seen it since then, and it’s pretty good, and stars Viggo Mortensen before he was classy. But until recently I never really paid attention to the fact that Harlin made one movie before that, a Finnish production, but about Americans, and more in the action vein.
BORN AMERICAN (original Finnish: Jäätävä Polte [“Icy Burn”]) is from 1986, and it’s about three American friends – Savoy (Mike Norris, THE YOUNG WARRIORS), Mitch (Steve Durham, one episode of Brimstone) and K.C. (David Coburn, voice of Donnie Wahlberg on the New Kids On the Block cartoon as well as Captain Planet) – on a trip to Finland. K.C. is kind of the uptight nerd with wire-rim glasses and less interest in doing idiotic things, while Savoy and Mitch are meatheads who wear sunglasses and like to smile and be assholes to assert their Born Americanness. In some foreign films they would be intended as an Ugly American stereotype, but I think Harlin sees them the same way that our movies did at the time, as some kind of symbol of freedom and rock ’n roll and what not.
My point is, when they’re hiking through the snowy wilderness and realize that they’re right on a border to the Soviet Union, those two decide it would be a fun lark to sneak over the border. Maybe there’s a little “ha ha, that’ll show those commies if we break their rules” to their spirit, but mostly a sense that if there’s something you’re not supposed to do then it’s cool to ignore the very long list of obvious reasons why it’s a bad idea and just put on sunglasses and smile and walk right into it and assume you’ll be okay. This is both the most nonsensical choice in the movie and the most authentic one.
K.C. is very reluctant but he’s with these goes so he goes along as they literally do the limbo under a road gate into USSR territory. And being the guy who knows better he’s also the one with the bad luck to get his luggage stuck on barbed wire and have to tear it up and abandon most of it. (This is only the very, very beginning of their troubles and it already seems like the vacation is totally fucked.)
When they’re spying on a guard at a checkpoint they have to sneak past, there’s a funny line where one of them says – possibly because he’s playing Voice of America on his radio – “One of our fellow men has never tasted a Coca-Cola before.” Sort of like Little Richard’s music in RED SCORPION, they use American products as some kind of symbol of the American spirit. Well – not all American products. Later they notice a Soviet with a can of Pepsi and say, “I hope you choke on it, pal!”
But their presence is first detected when soldiers find K.C.’s abandoned bag and pull out a handheld video game and a pair of jeans. I have no idea if it was based in reality or total bullshit, but it was commonly said back then that jeans (or maybe it was specifically Levis?) were an extremely valuable black market item in Soviet Russia. So the guard holding up a pair of jeans and examining them means he’s thinking “Americans? Here!?”
I guess the boys were just planning to camp out over night and then go back, but they see the guard finding their shit and have to flee deeper into the country, where they run into some other trouble. Long story, but a priest murders a little girl, and the locals blame our boys for it, so K.C. sneaks up and shoots the priest (who’s audaciously presiding over the girl’s funeral) with an arrow and the barn they’re all in catches on fire and there’s a big shootout and spin-kicks and jumping through a stained glass window and sliding down a roof and then it seems like the movie’s gonna give us time to breathe again, but in the middle of a conversation a dude punches through a window to attack and buildings are getting blown up with bazookas and they steal an army truck and that’s within the first 30 minutes of the movie. So what I’m telling you is that yes, this is a movie that Renny Harlin would direct.
Unfortunately, they get caught and it’s mostly a prison movie after that, and it’s less fun. They get tortured and forced to work in a mine and there’s a good chance they could’ve crossed paths with Boyka in there.
They have a rough time. They start out saying entitled things like “We’re American citizens! You can’t kill us!” (People always say that in these movies – probly in real life too.) But soon they’re resigned to the fact that they’ll be tortured and tormented in various fucked up ways. K.C. gets worked to exhaustion and the others worry he’ll die. Mitch is defiant to the point of masochism, starts to get the prison version of space madness, and gets sent to a secret underground part of the prison where the most insane and violent prisoners are forced to play a human game of chess! I wish they went into more detail about that.
They meet various other prisoners, hear rumors and legends, occasionally get to talk briefly to women and are desperate for human contact. If I understand correctly, Mitch pays for the right to watch through a vent into the shower for the women’s prisoners? It seems like he’s smiling about it until he sees a young woman he met on the outside, Irina (Laura Heimo, casting director of RARE EXPORTS), is a prisoner.
They have some hope when a U.S. ambassador (Albert Salmi, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES) comes to meet with them. He keeps trying to lower their expectations, but just the fact that there’s someone there to advocate for them is very reassuring.
Well, it seems like he’s there to advocate for them. When he has dinner with the Russian ambassador he makes very little effort, admits he would prefer “those boys disappear off the face of the earth” and then happily accepts an offer of “special dessert,” a.k.a. sex slaves.
Despite all that excitement in the beginning, I found this movie mostly a slog. The exaggerated evils of the Soviet Union had a certain kick back then when it was supposed to be a cautionary tale, but now it’s pretty boring villainy, in my opinion. And Mitch, who is the closest thing to charisma among the lead characters, spends most of the movie either missing or deranged. I actually didn’t realize star Mike Norris was Chuck Norris’s son, so I didn’t hold that against him when I assessed him as too bland to carry a movie like this.
Luckily it does get a little more exciting at the climax, when he finally teams up with a mysterious African-American ex-CIA inmate called The Admiral (Thalmus Rasulala, BLACULA, FRIDAY FOSTER; dubbed by Stack Pierce, TROUBLE MAN, VICE SQUAD) who has a bunch of stuff and seems to be allowed to do what he wants and is locked up on purpose to stay off the grid or something? I don’t know. Anyway, I’m glad at least Savoy gets a training montage – pullups, pushups, awkward shadowboxing and kicking, fashioning home-made keys – with appropriate synth/drum machine score and flashbacks to earlier in the movie. That’s the kind of thing I came here for.
Here’s the incredible thing I didn’t realize until reading the movie afterwards: It was designed to be a Chuck Norris vehicle called ARCTIC HEAT. But delays caused Chuck to back out, and his son took over. The elder Norris was 46 at the time and had already done LONE WOLF McQUADE, two MISSING IN ACTIONs, CODE OF SILENCE and INVASION USA, so I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess he wasn’t gonna be playing some dipshit college dude on an aimless trip with his bros getting drunk and doing stupid shit. But I hope he was. I want to see that movie.
The movie Harlin ended up making is not an action star movie like Chuck would do, it’s more of a “Hey average Cold-War-era young person, imagine if something like this happened to you” fantasy like RED DAWN or GOTCHA!. To me that’s not as fun, but I guess maybe there are fewer of that subgenre, so it’s good that it exists.
Also, it’s interesting that it just seems like an okay small action movie to me, but in Finland it was a pretty big deal: at the time it was the most expensive film ever made there, and they had to cut 3 1/2 minutes of violence and anti-Soviet elements, plus go to the Supreme Court, to even get it released.
But it did well enough in the U.S. to get him PRISON and then PRISON got him Freddy and Freddy got him Dice Clay and DIE HARD and next thing you know he’s married to Geena Davis, there’s pirates, etc. etc., until he leaves Hollywood for China. Great story. BORN AMERICAN is not one of my favorites by him, but it’s interesting to see the beginning.