SECTION 8 came to VOD a couple months ago and now is on disc and I guess AMC+. It’s a solid and enjoyable movie of its type, with a good cast, some good fights, and liberal use of familiar action conventions that tend to be enjoyable. However I’m gonna show it a little tough love in this review because, as we agreed when I went on I Must Break This Podcast to discuss it last month, it’s pretty representative of where VOD/DTV action is at right now, for both good and bad. So there might be some value in going deep.
It has not one, not two, but three significant action stars in the cast – not as the lead, but in those we-can-afford-them-for-this-many-days-and-if-we-put-them-on-the-cover-we-get-financing type roles that are the bread and butter of this industry right now. One of the three is I think not used very well, one I did enjoy, another I think we will all agree is clearly the best part of the movie. All of them are added value along with Ryan Kwanten (RED HILL, ), who stars, and Dermot Mulroney (SUNSET, THE GREY), who plays the villain with a grey beard that makes him look kinda like present-day-Mel-Gibson on the cover.
The story begins in “Mosul, Afghanistan” (uh… whoops) where Jake Atherton (Kwanten) is, we’re told, a really great marine, but his platoon is ambushed by the Taliban and only he and his mentor Captain Mason (Dolph Lundgren, HAIL CAESAR!) survive. I’m kind of unclear what happens, but later we’re told that Mason saved Jake’s life and also received a career-ending leg injury.
Years later, Atherton lives happily and beautifully in Riverside, California with his beautifully happy wife and son (Kimi Alexander and Noah Alexander Sosnowski). He’s a mechanic at an auto shop owned by his uncle Earl (Mickey Rourke, YEAR OF THE DRAGON, KILLSHOT), and one day when he gets to work he literally runs into some gangsters who were just threatening his uncle for protection money. He swings a wrench and does some Liam Neeson type moves on them and is threatened by their leader Fresh (Robert LaSardo, RENEGADES, KING OF NEW YORK, LEON, WATERWORLD, ONE TOUGH BASTARD, HALF PAST DEAD 2, DEATH RACE, PUNCTURE WOUNDS, THE MULE).
I dig how this feints at following a couple different action templates before it gets to the real one. Jake tries to warn Earl not to get these guys mad. “That’s just a war that’s never gonna end.” But Earl makes an emotional speech about how he has “no beef with the gangbangers” and says some very sympathetic things about them just doing what they think they have to do to feed their families, but this is his block and his neighborhood and etc. So it seems like it’s gonna be a guy-uses-his-special-set-of-skills-to-protect-the-neighborhood-from-gangs movie, like ANGEL TOWN.
But then Jake gets home, sees Fresh leaving and smirking at him, and finds his wife and kid dead inside. So it’s gonna be a guy-can’t-get-justice-from-the-system-so-he-goes-after-the-killers-himself movie, like DEATH WISH 2, VIGILANTE or DEATH SENTENCE.
Wrong again! He goes to a restaurant where Fresh hangs out, just start shooting people, walks right up and shoots Fresh in the head, and we get a “SAN QUENTIN PRISON” title. (Which is in Afghanistan, I assume. Like Mosul.) Mason comes to visit him, tells him he’s gonna find a way to get him out. “Yeah, don’t bother. I’m where I belong,” he says.
“Look, you’re a great soldier, Jake,” Mason says. “ One of the best I’ve ever known.” I gotta tell you – he didn’t seem that great in the flashback! Maybe it was an off day. But his reputation precedes him because some mysterious bigshot named Ramsey (Mulroney) shows up and removes him from the prison to reluctantly work for a secret agency called Section 8. The ol’ “oh yeah, if you do a certain number of missions for us we will totally get you out of prison for sure” scam. So actually it’s a recruited-from-prison-to-be-a-secret-operative movie like THE GRAY MAN, xXx and xXx: STATE OF THE UNION, or an off-the-books black-ops covert agency that plays by its own rules movie like REMO WILLIAMS, THE KILLER ELITE or AMERICAN ASSASSIN.
They bring him to secret headquarters and haze him by forcing him to fight another member of the team, Ajax Abernathy (Justin Furstenfeld, who apparently is singer and guitarist for a band called Blue October). It’s a pretty good scene where Jake refuses to fight until he has little choice and then he fucks the guy up with a ballpoint pen which, it must be said, these people are fucking blind for not having seen him pick up off a desk not very subtly as they came in.
For his first mission, Jake is sent to assassinate a drug lord or something, and he basically just runs in and because he has the military gear and knows how to do the military crouching and aiming that they do it means no one can stop him and he is awesome and what not. HOWEVER, there are some women in the car who are not involved so he lets them live and when he gets back he gets chewed out about it.
Okay, here’s the part that I’m positive we’ll all agree is the highlight. Ramsey calls some other assassin named Locke to kill a gangster in Reno. Locke is played by Scott Adkins (“Swimming Pool Fighter,” UNLEASHED) and he’s a relentless motherfucker in a suit and tie who storms into the target’s hotel room while he’s in bed with two women.
“We can work something out, just give me a number,” the guy says.
“Two,” Locke says, and shoots him twice with his silenced pistol. He has to flee through the casino floor, where security starts coming after him, so on his way out he beats up five casino guards, knocks over a random employee, then starts shooting (to the sound of gasps and screams) and gratuitously executes one guard, for emphasis, I guess.
This is much more exciting action filmmaking than we’ve seen in the rest of the movie. (Stunt coordinator: Luke LaFontaine, THE DEBT COLLECTOR 1 & 2, TRIPLE THREAT, THE MERCENARY, HELL HATH NO FURY.) That largely comes down to Kwanten being an actor who acts vs. Adkins being an actor who’s one of the top screen martial artists of our era. Yes, Kwanten’s fights are designed around his abilities, limiting movement and savagely scrapping his way out of beatdowns, while Adkins’ have longer, fuller shots and flying kicks and shit. But maybe more importantly Kwanten wants to act, so his character is broody and dark and heartbroken and grows a shaggy beard and tries to imbue his fights with anger and grief and shit, while Adkins is there to lend his action chops, so his energy goes to being fierce and looking cool and kicking ass, which is simply way more fun to watch than the other thing.
Not that Jake doesn’t do some cool shit. And I like his chemistry with some of the supporting characters. I really like Tracy Perez (Animal Kingdom) as Mueller. I believed her as a tough lady, and she seems like the only one who has Jake’s back.
I like when he’s sent to kill a senator (Geoffrey Blake, THE LAST STARFIGHTER, FERNGULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST) who’s up for re-election on a MAGA-like “Take back America” platform (“This election will. Not. Be. Stolen.”) and when security gets him into an SUV Jake is able to catch up with it on foot.
But then he doesn’t shoot him himself because he says “Please, I have a family. I have a wife, a son.” Obviously this tugs at Jake’s heartstrings; he too had that exact combination of a wife and son. If the guy had said, “Please, I’m a single father raising six biological daughters and three foster sons” he would’ve been toast. Or if it had not been Jake, but somebody who had not experienced having one wife and one son, they would’ve just assassinated a senator without giving it a second thought, is how it works. Similar to how nobody knows that women shouldn’t be harassed until they have daughters, and then they know, at times. But people without daughters, how could they have any idea?
(Related: I chuckled in a later scene when Jake believes Mason set up the murder of his wife and child, and is mad because “You know what they meant to me!” Look, having some people’s families murdered I get, but you knew how much I loved mine!)
Jake contacts his mentor Mason, who tells him that Section 8 are disgraced CIA people, they got shut down, they’re a rogue organization. So obviously he has to go rogue from the rogue organization, and he runs off. Back in Riverside he runs into a little kid named Landon (Zachary Michael Cruz) who was friends with his son, and who in their brief conversation accidentally tips him off that he saw Fresh talking to some feds outside of the comic book store one time (!?). So there may be more going on here than he knew, but then Locke shows up and shoots at him in a shopping center. That guy really is a Terminator, he doesn’t give a fuck, taking out two sheriff’s deputies and stealing one of their cars.
Jake gets away but then Ajax attacks him at the garage. Ajax is a funny sub-villain, so invested in proving he’s tougher than Jake even though he lost a fight to him, and so performatively douchey. He wants to fight him hand to hand so he purposely fires his last two bullets in the air and announces, “I’m out. Now let’s fuck!”
Mueller shoots Ajax, joining up with Jake. We cut from California to Montana (they took a flight together?) and then it’s immediately revealed that she’s not really on his side, she just set him up to bring him back to Ramsey (so everybody was okay with her killing Ajax as a trick?). If that’s not enough betrayal for you, Ramsey brings Mason into the room and explains that actually he’s been in on it the whole time too. Then in the next scene Mason unties Jake and reveals that actually actually he’s not in on it, he just couldn’t bring himself to retire and is undercover to take down Section 8 once and for all. Which they do. And the attorney general says Jake doesn’t have to go back to prison. The end.
No, actually there’s more – and you will be thankful for it! Locke attacks Jake at home. Yes, he understands that the guy who hired him is dead, but he says that “reputation dictates” he has to finish the job. It’s a good fight – Locke kicks the living shit out of Jake, but he takes it well. There’s a Ginsu knife fight, he smashes a shelf but not the giant TV. Locke calls him “Little. Fucking. Shit.” which is fair considering how the fight ends. Jake finds a gun, and Locke doesn’t have one. Since they both recognize this is a check mate moment, they agree that “we done.” I really believed it was gonna be some honor shit where Locke considers his professional duty fulfilled and they go their separate ways, but Jake kills him. Little fucking shit.
A funny thing in this movie is that at the end they recruit Jake for a new agency called Section 9. So, to sum up, there was an agency called Section 8 that was assassinating people, so they shut them down, but they kept going off the books, so they shut them down again, and then immediately started a new agency doing the same bad thing but with an updated name. It seems to me like it’s just supposed to leave room for a sequel, not make a statement about the endless cycle of intelligence community abuses, but oh well. Maybe I should just take it as the latter.
Guilt compels me to reiterate: this is a solid and definitely above average DTV movie, and though I’m sure it’s very low budget I think it feels bigger and slicker than many of its brethren. But I think something’s slightly off at the center. Kwanten does a good job as this shaggy ordinary looking guy who’s actually a killing machine, but doesn’t want to be and always tries to avoid a fight. But I think there’s kind of a mismatch because they surround him with all these bigger, scarier looking people, plus legit action icons Lundgren, Adkins and Rourke, all of them playing as larger-than-life-action while he’s doing serious-gritty-action-drama. So when he tries to get out of the fights it doesn’t feel as much like “Oh man they better not push him” as “Yeah no shit he doesn’t want to fight, they’re gonna flatten him.” And then when they do push him and he wins the fight there’s no sense of victory because he just bows his head and leaves and is sad. When he kills the bad guy at the end he cries.
And actually I like that on paper, but let’s face it, this is not saying anything new or smart or honest about a guy losing his family or living a life of violence. The brightly lit slow motion flashbacks of teaching his kid to ride a bike, the sad poses in the shower, the sex scene flashback, the crying at a photo while drinking and having his hood up indoors… these are so factory standard out of the cliche catalog I doubt they would make you feel human emotion even if this exact thing happened to you and your wife and kid and you all had the same names as in the movie and everything. Kwanten is a good actor and doing his duty to pour his soul into it, but in my opinion it’s misplaced energy when no other element of the movie attempts to move beyond formula to authenticity.
But otherwise the fights are handled well, so maybe the issue is some missing connective tissue in some of these scenes. For example, Ajax immediately hates Jake and is competitive with him, and goes to Ramsey to complain about “your golden boy,” but at no point did it seem like he’d impressed Ramsey yet or been treated like his “golden boy.” And when Jake has escaped and Ramsey is talking shit about him Mueller says, “Better hope he doesn’t find you first.” It feels like it’s supposed to be one of those badass “oh man, you’re fucked” moments, except Jake is running from them, he has shown no indication that he would come after them, and he’s done a bad job on all his missions anyway, so why would she say that? (A later twist may explain it, but it’s weird in the moment.)
If I may go even further into nitpick territory for a second, I would like to propose a moratorium or permanent cancellation of the “traumatic War on Terror combat incident” prologues, at least at this budget level. If you can name one that’s convincing and/or not completely bland and dramatically inert I either haven’t seen it or forgot about it. Set aside my views about War on Terror indoctrination in these things, it’s not needed – they’re boring scenes because they’ve become as rote and lifeless as the jungle-shot Vietnam scenes in Z-grade ‘80s movies, and they offer nothing visceral that slicker studio movies on the topic haven’t long since made obsolete. As soon as the computer writing types across the screen my eyes start rolling and my mind wanders. So, forgive me for backseat rewrites, but I truly believe a movie like this would be more involving if the backstory just came out in dialogue (think Obi Wan telling Luke about his father) and they used that Jeep and explosion money to make the climax better or get Adkins for a little longer.
SECTION 8 is directed by Christian Sesma (THE NIGHT CREW) from a screenplay by trustworthy DTV scribe Chad Law (THE HIT LIST, ONE IN THE CHAMBER, DRIVE HARD, CLOSE RANGE, JARHEAD 3) and Josh Ridgway (THE SECTOR). I’ve only seen one other Sesma joint – last year’s TAKE BACK. It was shot early in Covid so it has much lower production values and minimalistic cast out in a desert town somewhere, but it’s pretty fun because it’s an action vehicle for Gillian White, with real life husband Michael Jai White as sort of a sidekick. It also has Mickey Rourke, and though he was the bad guy in that one there’s a similar appeal in that he looks and acts like his weirdo off-screen self, doesn’t really seem to be playing much of a character, but contradictorily seems to be absolutely throwing his heart into it, crying and everything.
I really appreciate him doing that in SECTION 8 too. The goal of a movie so openly built on formula is to slather some personality onto those bones, and that’s what he does. The movie ends with him crying and burning candles on a shrine to his dead brother while listening to an emotional voicemail monologue from Jake. And in his earlier scenes you bet your ass he’s always pausing his thoughts to do some kind of business with a pack of cigarettes or a toothpick or something, calling upon all his actorly powers and gimmicks, even though he could get away with phoning it in. The guy seems to have lost the plot in reality but there is still something pure and beautiful about his willingness to be vulnerable in the midst of picking up a check.
(He didn’t bring any of his pets for this one, though. I hope they’re okay.)
Adkins is clearly the MVP, and it seems to me that as long as he’s gonna be in supporting roles, lending his credibility to a movie like this is a better use of his time than trying to be in bigger Hollywood productions that don’t understand him. Consider that AMERICAN ASSASSIN was a much bigger and slicker version of this same genre, and he had some supporting part in that, probly got paid more and didn’t work as hard, but I don’t remember what he even did. Looked at a monitor, maybe. Here he has the one scene of the movie everyone will remember, plus the climactic fight,and he still got to write/produce/star in ACCIDENT MAN: HITMAN’S HOLIDAY and have the part in DAY SHIFT in the same year.
It’s an unfortunate reality of this level of action that they can only afford to work on very short schedules. This is a strong one because they clearly planned Adkins’ time carefully to get alot of action out of him. Unfortunately I don’t think Dolph is used nearly as well. In the flashbacks he’s always sitting down and seems very tired, I wondered if he was injured or sick. At the end he does fight a little bit, but not much. The one thing I really appreciated is that when Ramsey reveals him as a supposed co-conspirators he walks into the room a little hunched over like he’s ashamed of himself. Since it turns out he’s undercover, I guess just pretending to be in on it was enough to make him feel shame. I like that.
I guess my argument is that SECTION 8 is an admirable achievement in this type of movie, and also about as far as this type of thing can go. I would like to see more like this but with an eye for making the lead (whether an actor-actor or an action star) more fun. If we want to see a movie about grief there will be two dramas and six horror movies about it coming out the same month, all with bigger budgets and more believable characters. Let’s move some of that color and personality off of the margins into the center. That is my wish. But I am only one man, with a wife but no kids.