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Skin Trade (2014), Tony Jaa and Dolph Lundgren aaaand Michael Jai White deliver a mash-up of gritty hard-R police action and martial arts.

February 8, 2018

MY CALL:  Three great actions stars in a decent gritty action movie. Not their best, but still more than worth the price of admission!  MOVIES LIKE Skin Trade: Well, some other vengeful police action movies include Kill Zone 2 (2015; aka Sha Po Lang 2) and the far more brutal The Raid: Redemption (2011).

Okay, let’s just set the tone right here.  Listen to the IMDB plot summary—it sounds like something from a gritty 1989 action movie:

“After his family is killed by a Serbian gangster (Ron Perlman; Hellboy 1-2, Pacific Rim) with international interests, NYC detective Nick (Dolph Lundgren; Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, The Expendables 1-3) goes to SE Asia and teams up with a Thai detective (Tony Jaa; Ong-Bak, Kill Zone 2, Furious 7) to get revenge and destroy the syndicate’s human trafficking network.”

It’s an interesting cast with many familiar faces. Nick’s colleague’s include Reed (Michael Jai White; Blood and Bone, Undisputed 2) and Costello (Peter Weller; Dragon Eyes, Of Unknown Origin, RoboCop).  Viktor’s lackies include Kong (Sahajak Boonthanakit; Hard Target 2, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li).

To call the dialogue extremely expository would be kind, it has all the dry over-explanation of a typical 80s or 90s action movie.  And in that vein, we have nudity, eastern European criminals with penchants for leather jackets and cocaine, sex slaves, and the classic “one tough cop” trope.  Our tough cop is Nick, and after he crosses paths with Viktor things spiral into an old Steven Seagal movie plot.  Much as in Hard to Kill (1990), Nick’s home is invaded on the evening of his wedding anniversary, his wife is executed before his eyes, and then he’s shot and left for dead as the house explodes. But Nick is… wait for it… Hard to Kill.  He somehow survives, wholesale murders every Serbian he can find, and sets out to turn this flick into a vigilante police revenge movie.

The action scenes range in quality from okay to pretty good, but nothing wowing—not considering the action star power behind it.  Tony Jaa’s first fight scene features some serviceable belt-fu, and Michael Jai White’s skills seemed sorely underutilized early in the film.  I’m reminded of Kill Zone (2005), which outweighed its martial arts with police drama.  But, like any martial arts movie, the more significant fights come later.  And that they do in spades!

The Jaa-Lundgren fight was entertaining and definitely stepped things up with some Jaa stunts in a fight that merges the close-quarter stylings of Li-Lundgren (The Expendables) and Diesel-Johnson (Fast Five).  However, the overall execution of these scenes was technically lacking.  The action photography was just okay, often with the camera distractingly moving (mid-shot) amid fight choreography—the kind of camerawork better suited for chaotic wide-angle warscapes filled with tanks and explosions, but that obscures the finer fast-paced combat techniques from even a careful eye. The subsequent editing was so choppy that, at times, it felt like six consecutive techniques might each have their own six cuts from six different camera angles—which is fine for a Die Hard (1988) brawl, but a major flaw when hindering viewers’ ability to be wowed by Tony Jaa’s dexterous flair.  I can’t help but to wonder if this wasn’t to mask the agility-skill gap between Lundgren and Jaa. That said, Jaa has his moments (however less than he deserves) and the occasional several-second shot for an impressive combination of techniques flurrying his over-sized Swedish foe.

Though not as brutal or drawn out as the Jaa-Lundgren face-off, the White-Jaa fight offered richer exchanges of techniques.  Of course, this should come as no surprise.  Michael Jai White is outstanding as both a fighter and choreographer and delivers a sort of “tough guy” grace in his maneuvers.  I wish he had more screen time.

Director Ekachai Uekrongtham (Halfworlds, Beautiful Boxer) has achieved a very entertaining action film that strikes me as equal parts 90s-esque hard-R gritty mainstream crime movie and Asian martial arts flick.  The gunfights and chase scenes were passable (if we’re being nice), and the fight scenes seemed more limited by the experience of those behind the camera than before it.  But while this falls below our stars’ heydays of Rocky IV (1985), Ong-Bak (2003) or Blood and Bone (2009), it remains kindly recommended for fans of its three action stars.

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