AS GOOD AS DEAD is a 2022 straight-to-VOD Michael Jai White vehicle that I caught up with when it came to DVD back in March, but I was deep into Ronny Yu studies so I held off on telling you guys about it. Sorry about that.
Back in 2009 when White made the stone cold classic BLOOD & BONE we wondered why he wasn’t getting theatrical releases, but what was considered low budget then seems like sheer extravagance compared to many of the independent action movies today. I’d love to see White making a couple mid-sized action vehicles a year like Jason Statham used to do, but instead he’s gotta cut in a couple scenes of Mickey Rourke or Tom Berenger just to shoot something small out in the desert. Despite this injustice, AS GOOD AS DEAD is a great time because it’s written by the person who best knows how to showcase Michael Jai White – the same man who wrote and directed NEVER BACK DOWN: NO SURRENDER – Michael Jai White. So it’s a solid traditional action structure where he gets to glory in his own badassness, have some good fights, some inventive moves, and get a few laughs. Honestly it has most of what I hope for in a movie like this except for a strong visual style or atmosphere.
White plays Bryant, a gruff American loner who moved just over the Mexican border to escape some mysterious past. He lives alone in a trailer on a humble patch of land, works as a surveyor, comes home and practices fighting on a wooden post with tires attached. When he does that he notices a young man named Oscar (Luca Oriel, Shameless) watching from a hill and shadowing his moves. Later, while having lunch in town, he notices the same kid hiding behind a car to avoid some gangsters in a lowrider, and feels sympathy for him.
So the next time Oscar is watching him he goes back into his trailer. The kid cranes his neck around trying to figure out where he went, before realizing Bryant is standing right behind him, appearing out of nowhere like a ninja or a Jason Voorhees. He doesn’t say anything, he just gestures for Oscar to come down, and he starts to train him.
MJW clearly likes teaching in real life, he did it in his NEVER BACK DOWN sequels, and it’s appealing to watch here too. Bryant’s style features a defensive stance where you cover your ear with your hand and have your elbow up. I thought it was a 52 blocks, close-quarters fighting system thing, but it’s explained as Bryant’s unique style. As Oscar gets good at it he makes a comment about competing, but Bryant shuts him down, insisting that what he’s teaching him is for self defense only.
Those older gang guys Oscar hides from aren’t bullies, they’re actually pressuring him because they’re friends of his older brother Hector (Guillermo Ivan, DINOSHARK). So when Hector gets out of prison Oscar goes to hang out with all of them, to Bryant’s obvious disappointment. He’s a good kid, he’s not really gonna get into any bad shit just because they do it, but his interest is piqued when they drag him along to some underground fights. A champion is taking on all challengers and they watch a big guy get his ass kicked before little babyfaced Oscar nonchalantly goes up and volunteers. It’s very satisfying how confused Hector and his friends are seeing little brother go up there and then win, having had no idea what he could do.
As is the formula now (including in I believe more than one NEVER BACK DOWN movie), a cell phone video of the fight goes viral and makes Oscar famous. Now the movie finally heads over to the U.S. to meet the pricks Bryant is hiding from. Sonny Kilbane (Tom THE SUBSTITUTE Berenger) and some other old hotshots are sitting in a sauna talking about cop stuff, a woman comes to get him for his massage and/or other services, but then a guard interrupts, says his lawyer is here. Yeah, it seemed like he was just some guy living it up but he’s actually a corrupt cop getting special treatment while continuing to run his criminal empire from behind bars.
His lawyer (DTV all star Louis Mandylor, THE DEBT COLLECTOR) shows him the video and doesn’t have to explain what it means – that this kid has to have been trained by Bryant. Fighting style as fingerprint. I love that shit. So they send twin hitmen Ivan and Vlad (Roberto “Sanz” Sanchez, 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS) to find the kid and then find Bryant.
Meanwhile, Hector sees profit in his brother’s talents, so he goes to Bryant’s trailer and tries to pay him to train him for competition. He not only refuses but tells Oscar to never come back or talk to him again.
So they go to the gym instead, some scary looking twins ask about Bryant, so they go back to warn him. As soon as Bryant hears about twins and that they came straight from the gym he says “Get in the house!” (what he calls the trailer) and from that point on it’s a battle with Bryant protecting them and trying to fight off these guys who want to kill him and will use anyone he cares about to get to him.
It’s a cool approach because I absolutely believed Hector would be the villain and Bryant would have to save the kid from the gang, but that’s all jettisoned due to emergency circumstances. Bryant clearly dislikes Hector and worries about his influence on Oscar, but now that there’s danger he’s responsible for all of their safety and eventually appreciates that Hector (somewhat) knows how to use guns. Bryant is in a whole other league, though, and Hector is pretty shocked to see the steel plating on the trailer, the bank of security monitors, the escape hatch into a commandeered narco tunnel, and of course the lawn sprinklers that spray acid on trespassers.
Hector is a funny character too, because at first you hate him but he has a pretty amusing bickering chemistry with Bryant, and I swear he talks like Christopher Lambert.
Though AS GOOD AS DEAD uses action cliches with the appropriate lack of irony, White’s awareness of the genre leads to some knowing absurdity. Being a former DEA agent and martial artist whose wife was murdered should be enough, but then he mentions going undercover in a prison and being in an underground fighting circuit. It’s halfway a reference to his own UNDISPUTED II, I figured, but Hector says, “Like that Van Damme movie. IN HELL.”
Then they debate which action movie involving prison it was more like, bringing up KICKBOXER: RETALIATION and what Bryant calls “RAID: RETALIATION” (but he must mean THE RAID 2). It stands out as more self conscious than the rest of the movie, but I can’t lie, it’s a thrill to hear these pretty deep cut movies mentioned within a real movie. They’re talking about Alain Moussi! It’s old hat for horror movies to display fandom for their own genre, but it’s unusual in action.
There’s chasing, infiltrating, fighting off various waves of attackers. One guy shows up doing that same elbow move, turns out it’s because Bryant trained him. It’s cool that we can recognize that just like Kilbane and his lawyer did with the video of Oscar.
One of my favorite parts is when an unarmed Bryant faces some guys with machine guns, steals a weapon from one of them and I guess runs out of ammo, because some other guys with machetes start chasing him. He throws the gun in the bushes and runs up a hill, with them chasing him. When they get to the top they’re exhausted, he punches out the first guy, takes his machete, slashes the other.
See, the average action movie would just have him take a guy’s machete and slash him. But this is a movie that knows it will be more fun to add on this whole clever strategy of using his superior cardio-vascular fitness to defeat them. We even saw him running up a hill during his workout earlier, we just didn’t know it was foreshadowing.
It takes itself seriously, as I prefer, but there are a couple of very funny lines. My favorite involves him wanting to make sure it wasn’t his fault a guy got lit on fire. My second favorite is when he’s killed one of the twins so he tells the other one, “You are one of a kind now.”
Although he has the typical action hero DEA past, the bad guys are a whole bunch of cops who work as a gang, and when Hector says, “See, I told you. Never trust cops,” he says, “Bingo, El Chapo.” To take them on, he has Hector put together a team of biker narco guys.
I didn’t need an explanation for how Bryant snuck up on Oscar at the beginning, but it’s cool that you can later piece together that it was using the tunnel. So he’s more like remake Jason than real Jason. Still, there are times when he appears out of nowhere to help, and does not use the tunnel. He’s just nearby because his strategy is to follow the guys who try to follow him.
White’s fights are varied and powerful, as always. The stunt coordinator is Art Camacho (director of POINT DOOM and HALF PAST DEAD 2) and pre-viz fight coordinator is Michel Quach (did stunts in FROM PARIS WITH LOVE). This is the tenth movie from director R. Ellis Frazier. He’s previously worked with Luke Goss and Cole Hauser (DEAD DROP), Dolph Lundgren (LARCENY), Gary Daniels (RUMBLE), and Tom Sizemore (HUSTLE DOWN), so he gets around. Let me know if any of those are as fun as this one.
May 9th, 2023 at 9:45 am
I was just thinking about Michael Jai White a few days ago when I discovered he’s the voice of Blade in the Marvel Midnight Suns video game. It of course made me wish that he had gotten a chance to play Blade in live action (and hey, considering the problems they’re having getting the new one made, who knows? Maybe they’ll need to recast by the time they actually get that thing off the ground… no offense to Mahershala Ali, who I think is great in most things I’ve seen him in). But I was also just kind of thinking about what an odd career MJW has had. Spawn was terrible, of course, and I think it hurt a lot of his chances at breaking out into more mainstream roles. But, since then he’s been great in these DTVs, got to pop up in the Dark Knight, and of course made an all-time comedy classic in Black Dynamite (plus the spin-off cartoon!). In some ways, I almost think he has benefitted from not breaking out after Spawn. Would he have been doing off-the-wall stuff like Black Dynamite or voicing Blade in video games if he was tied up in some major franchise or competing with the Rock to make the most money on 4 quadrant forgettable action movies? Maybe?
Anyway, I’ll keep an eye open for this one. Sounds like it could be a fun weekend afternoon watch.