Wanted Man

Note: in conjunction with this review I also made my third appearance on I MUST BREAK THIS PODCAST, discussing the movie with Sean Malloy. Thanks for having me, Sean! Always a fun time. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE EPISODE.

WANTED MAN is the latest film by director Dolph Lundgren (MISSIONARY MAN). If you’re not aware, Lundgren is also an actor, so he stars as Mike Johansen, a way-past-his-prime cop. He’s introduced taking a morning beach jog, and of course he’s Dolph Lundgren (or stunt double – his hood is up), but he’s kinda limping, lumbering around. He has to take a bunch of pills. Later we find out he needs ankle surgery.

And he’s also in hot water. When he pulls up to the station and the protesters and media say, “That’s him!,” we realize oh shit… he’s the cop they were talking about on TV, the one that brutally assaulted a “migrant driver.” He sees the protesters and kinda does a whoops! and comically turns his pickup truck around. Later we see the indefensible bodycam footage, where he repeatedly slams a car door on the poor guy, yells about Mexicans and punches another officer trying to pull him off.

Of course it’s not remotely believable that the other officers on the scene would stop him from doing this, or that the department would immediately admit it happened and was bad and release the footage. I also don’t know what’s up with this press conference where they have him standing there and say he’s sorry and will need to learn more about Mexican culture. At least the movie doesn’t pretend there would be any accountability for it, but this whole beginning part rings false and had me worried WANTED MAN was gonna be a clunker. Thankfully it won me over pretty quickly after that.

His punishment is that nice guy chief Hernandez (Roger Cross, “Shield Agent #1,” NICK FURY: AGENT OF SHIELD, BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER) makes him drive down to Mexico to pick up two witnesses to a massacre where an undercover DEA agent was killed by masked gunmen stealing a drug shipment. Two prostitutes who escaped the scene have now been picked up for shoplifting in Mexico.

Johansen is not excited about the assignment. At the strip club that night, his younger partner Hilts (Aaron McPherson, “Cop,” CRUEL INTENTIONS 3) and his retired buddies Brynner (fellow Expendable 3 Kelsey Grammer), Tinelli (Michael Pare, THE DEBT COLLECTOR, INVINCIBLE) and Leo (Tony Messenger, Dolph’s stunt double for THE EXPENDABLES, BATTLE OF THE DAMNED, PUNCTURE WOUNDS, SKIN TRADE and more) mouth off about Mexicans, and tell him he should refuse to go. He jokes that he’ll just go there to drink tequila.

Upon arrival he hooks up with Officer De La Cruz (James Joseph Pulido, “Sailor [uncredited],” KONG: SKULL ISLAND), a handsome young dude with shades and a little curl of hair hanging down, who surprises him with his perfect English, and says “My Italian is even better.” They pick up the prisoners, Leticia (Daniela Soto-Brenner) and Rosa (Christina Villa, THE WEDDING IN THE HAMPTONS) and Johansen grunts grumpily as De La Cruz talks about how he has a temporary visa and wants to work with the DEA, or maybe even be in movies (and then he quotes SCARFACE).

Leticia and Rosa are convinced they’re in danger, and argue with De La Cruz about it in Spanish. I love the detail that Johansen clearly feels left out when one of them says something that makes De La Cruz laugh. Suddenly we have so much potential here, the classic DIRTY HARRY type situation of the backwards asshole hero being forced to team up with one of the minorities he disparages, reluctantly making a human connection that teaches him to be slightly less of a total bastard. And there’s this theme about the fear of aging, with Hernandez pointing out how Johansen’s way past retirement age. De La Cruz, who embodies the new generation teases Johansen that he’ll get him “home to your beautiful strippers and beer” – the sad life waiting for him, where his loser retired cop friends sit around drinking beer and talking about how young the strippers are.

I’ve never seen this actor Pulido before, but he has the charisma to pull it off. Dolph looks really cool in his light-colored suit but he seems intimidated by how much more energy and charm this young guy has. There’s some good buddy movie chemistry here.

But then some cops pass by and shoot up their SUV, killing Leticia and De La Cruz, blowing off his Hollywood face. Now we’ve got a totally different, equally classic action movie scenario: the cop and the criminal forced to go on the run together. Johansen kills the guys that attacked him, but he’s hit, and can’t stand up. He begs Rosa to get him the first aid kit. “Those were… real cops?” he asks. “Mexico’s like this,” she says.

She considers killing or ditching him, but as he comes in and out she’s got him in the back of a pickup truck, then handcuffed to a bed, recovering after the removal of the bullet. They can’t let him go because the Mexican police would kill her and her family, and anyway everybody thinks he killed those cops, including the good one. The only cop she trusts is her brother Miguel (Jesus “Rocko” Reyes, CRY MACHO), who insists he has to rest for a few days before they make any moves.

Obviously Johansen doesn’t like any of this, but he does lighten up slightly when he tastes the food that Rosa’s sweet mother (Erma Giron) cooks him. He even says, “Gracias. Bueno.” I feel kinda dumb that I didn’t see this coming but yes, I enjoyed the part where he started getting invested in the telenovela mama watches on the TV in his room.

There’s one small disconnect here in that we barely glimpse Rosa when she’s a prostitute at the beginning. One of the movie’s strengths is the non-judgmental way it portrays a character with that background, so I wish we had a first impression of her then to reconsider once we see more of her life. She has this nice family, including a loving mother who calls her “my princess,” and I think a really good touch is that this seems like it could be her old bedroom, with trophies on shelves, a soccer ball, a poster of some player. It looks very lived in, a history of a previous life before she tried to start over in America, got screwed by a coyote and stuck on the streets, doing a dangerous job Johansen can insult her for.

Villa is a really good co-lead, she has a strong screen presence, and a maturity that makes it work when they hint at some sexual tension between them, though thankfully it doesn’t turn into a big thing. She initially told Johansen “I don’t give a fuck about you,” but she goes behind her brother’s back to let him call home. Then some guys immediately show up to shoot up the house. Hmmm.

Here is a reality. Dolph Lundgren is 66 years old, and recovering from cancer, and Sean told me on the podcast that he really did need ankle surgery. He can’t physically do the type of action he used to do, and if they faked it it would seem silly. So most of what he does here is shoot people, and he seems to get very lucky in being able to hit these guys before they hit him. But I really like the way they approach it: being old is one of the main themes, he’s already dealing with an injury at the start of the movie, now has a freshly stitched up (by amateurs) bullet wound. So lumbering around and wincing are part of the story. And this scene has two particularly good action bits:

1) Cuffed-to-the-bed Johansen picking up a shotgun from Rosa’s fallen cousin Salvador (Jose Trujillo), propping it on his body, shooting out the door and through the fence, and we see Salvador’s killer’s body flop out from behind it.

2) A guy is about to shoot Rosa’s mom through the window and Johansen grabs him around the neck and stabs him repeatedly with a knife he got from the kitchen. Dolph’s face really sells it.

The rest of the movie is pretty simple. Rosa decides to trust Johansen that she will be safe with him in the states, they try to make a plan to sneak over the border, and she convinces him it’s not a coincidence that they get attacked every time he calls his boss. I’m gonna mark this as a SPOILER because it’s not confirmed until late in the movie, but I had a pretty good hunch where this was going, and you will too. Johansen decides he can trust on his old buddies, so he calls Brynner, but of course those guys were the ones who stole the drugs at the beginning and shot the DEA agent to cover their tracks, even though they knew him. (The States are like this.)

The portrayal of Johansen’s buddies – these macho guys always dressed like they’re on a resort vacation – is the best part of the movie. Yes, corrupt ex-cops are a common action movie trope, but I think this is pretty observant about one of the reasons they get away with it. Early in the movie, when there’s still the possibility that the buddies are good guys who will go vigilante to save their pal and recapture their glory days, Brynner goes into the station to ask about the case. As he walks through he keeps seeing people, smiling, pointing, saying “You lost weight!” or whatever. Because they’re all friends with him. Hey everybody, Brynner’s here. Great guy. We love Brynner. We go way back.

When they all unexpectedly show up at the motel in Mexico, only Rosa seems to think “Oh shit, this is suspicious.” Johansen would never think that. He’s a little confused but these are his guys! His boys! Hilts even calls them “the Old Boys Club.” They put Johansen and Rosa in the back of a scary black SUV and Brynner starts doing his bro shtick. “Vacation’s over, buddy. You look like hell, by the way.”

There’s an interesting dynamic when all is revealed. Hilts tries to be the mediator, thinking they can get Johansen on their side, Brynner seems a little less sure. But he tries to justify himself, and has this line about “You know how it is these days, you make one shit mistake, some asshole’s down your throat tryin to defund ya and demoralize ya.” And he admits that what he misses about being a cop is “the chase, the control, the power.” It’s interesting that Grammer plays this role – I don’t know the specifics of his conservative views, but I have to wonder how he felt about making this point about the type of people who become cops. Maybe he thought his character was supposed to be making a good point. At any rate, he works well in this role. I believe he believes it.

Lundgren, who’s credited for writing the script along with Michael Worth (actor in FINAL IMPACT and U.S. SEALS II, writer of SASQUATCH MOUNTAIN and WAR WOLVES) and Hank Hugues, was recently on the NPR podcast Bullseye. He said that he rewrote the script to make his character racist because, “I was at a pool party, and there was a guy there, kind of an acquaintance of ours, and he had a few too many tequila shots and he started going off on immigration, about the immigration policies, and I had the script at the time, kind of tinkering with the script, and I thought well, maybe if the protagonist has this sort of preconceived notion about immigration and immigrants because of his job, and because of his friends and, you know, the environment he lives in, then it makes it more interesting to see how he’s gonna react to what happens to him.”

And I think it works. It’s not full-on GRAN TORINO, but you can see him being an ignorant jerk who lightens up a little. One moment I appreciate (I forgot to mention this on the podcast) is at the end when he’s sneaking over the border with a group of his former most hated people, Mexican migrants, and he sees the joy on their faces when they seem to have made it. He smiles and experiences that relief along with them while getting a better idea of their perspective. Whether or not he still talks shit at the strip club (or pool party), he has had one moment in his life where he understood.

In real life Lundgren just became an American citizen a few weeks ago. If I may brag, in his Bullseye interview he said that his first experience in the U.S. was a layover in Seattle on his way to study chemistry at Washington State University in Pullman. A professor took him to get pancakes and drove him around, “and it just felt like a country full of energy, and it was a dynamic country that I wanted to be part of.”

Yep, we did it. We recruited him. That was us.

If you only dabble in the aging action star low budget VOD world this might not be one of the first ones you should go to, but I think it’s a solid one – a nice version of a classic formula told with some heart and with some thought put into it. It seems like they might’ve gone in thinking “DTV SICARIO,” but they came out with something a little more Clint-like. Thank you, Dolph, and welcome.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 4th, 2024 at 7:04 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Comedy/Laffs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

8 Responses to “Wanted Man”

  1. There is something beautiful about the way all those super macho 80s action stars keep embracing their age. I guess back then we thought they would break necks and carry logs without sweating until they die. And maybe they thought that too. So it’s nice when they don’t use stuntdoubles to do high flying kicks and shit, but instead tell the audience: “Nope, can’t do this anymore, so my character can’t do it either. Deal with it.”

  2. Scrolled ahead for the GRAMMER pic. Was not disappointed.

    I am a fan of Dolph’s directorial work, and I’m relieved that he’s still out there doing his thing after the cancer scare. Unfortunately, it looks like the days of this stuff coming out on disc are coming to an end, and I don’t do VOD (I don’t even know how) so unless I bother to remember to check for them on one of the few streaming services somebody let me use a password for on one of the five or six times a year I bother I sign in, I don’t know how many more of these low-budget action joints I’ll ever check out. Feels like the end of an era.

  3. It’s actually out on disc over here, so hooray for German Angst of technology.

  4. Well, I suppose Dolph always earns a closer look.

    But it was only a couple of years ago when I realized not everyone hated Kelsey Grammer. I don’t get him. Never liked “Frasier”, never liked him. He’s just so exaggeratedly mannered and pompous. It’s a natural fit when he has to play some hateful rich boss. But when he has to play someone mildly likable and/or relatable, it is never convincing.

    It’s funny – he’s also one of those guys who is cast specifically to play “white” in movies with primarily minority casts, usually in a conflict-centric role, like he’s supposed to represent THE ESTABLISHMENT. Adam Brody is similar – I cracked up when he showed up in “American Fiction” as the oblivious hotshot white filmmaker. I don’t think it’s an especially harmful caricature — I’m not white — but it’s not a particularly interesting caricature, that type of role, and I generally don’t really vibe with the whole idea of a caricatured character in a more-or-less real narrative unless we’re talking some really funny stuff. And Kelsey Grammer plays a ton of caricatures, because sometimes he’s ALL HAM.

  5. Oddly enough I actually enjoy Grammer’s screen presence. Never watched CHEERS and the success of FRASIER is still baffling to me (at least it’s more watchable than FRIENDS), but BOSS deserved more than 1 season! As a person? Well, obviously his political leanings are…troublesome. And apparently he is one of those “How dare you to make me audition for a movie? Just give me the part! Don’t you know who I am?” people. Maybe if he would go to a few more castings, his body of work would be more varied. His daughter was funny on that show AWKWARD, which I had for a while running in a Pluto TV background loop.

  6. Speaking of the waning DTV action market, anybody see the recent Jesse V. Johnson joint ONE RANGER? I thoroughly enjoyed it. It stars Tom Jane as Texas Ranger Nick Nolte From Extreme Prejudice, and he’s doing that thing he does where he pitches his accent just at the very edge of parody, yet you somehow still buy him as a real person. The story’s some hogwash about Jane getting called in by British intelligence to help stop an unlikely consortium of Irish and Ukrainian terrorists from shooting a Howitzer loaded with a dirty bomb into Parliament, but it’s got a lot of personality. It doesn’t push the fish out of water thing too far, and there’s an admirable lack of pretention and handwringing to the whole affair. It takes its cues from Jane’s sardonic character, who is never for one moment impressed by any of this horseshit. It’s another day at the office, no reason to get all hysterical about it. The action isn’t too extensive but is satisfying enough and hits the right pitch for this kind of thing, and the supporting cast is distinct and likable, notably ONE SHOT’s Jess Liaudin as a surprisingly genial lead henchman named, obviously, Oleg. One caveat: You’re gonna want to put the subtitles on a good chunk of the time, because in addition to Jane’s mouthful-of-beef-jerky Texas drawl, there are some very thick accents on display, from London to Ireland to Ukraine to whatever the living fuck John Malkovich thought he was doing with his character. He sounds like a Dutchman who got taken over by an emotionless alien android and was forced to try to speak with a Welsh accent. It’s completely inexplicable and sort of delightful. Majestyk says check it out.

  7. Finally got the time to listen to the podcast. I enjoyed it. I’m probably wrong and I know you’ve given us his name before but was the host your old friend Mr. Armageddon?

  8. No, Mr. Armageddon is Matt Lynch, now a well known curmudgeon on Letterboxd and co-host of The Suspense is Killing Us.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>