Defending Indie Action
For a long time it's surprised me how many audiences and critics (especially those in the mainstream) turn their noses up and sneer at "DTV” films (a term I don’t like to use, but I’ll explain) and this particularly affects action. Worth noting, these films are often produced on an independent scale and while dramas or quirky, low-key comedies would be categorised as "indie", a smaller action or fight flick will instantly receive a B-movie stamp. Often these are lower budget films admittedly forced to compete in a saturated DVD and VOD market which will never earn the same recognition as their mainstream, blockbuster counterparts.
I personally recall plenty of times I've seen soulless CGI-laden schlock on the big screen and yet ballsy, inventive lower budget films which aren't forced to conform to mainstream sensibilities. They may not all reach the same cinematic level but I'd argue they shouldn't all be categorically dismissed, and many just may surprise you. Here are a few you should seek out which prove there can be substance, quality and genuine entertainment in the smaller niche of action.
Wake of Death (2004)
Directed by Philippe Martinez
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Simon Yam & Tony Schiena
Plot: Ben Archer is an ex-mob enforcer seeking revenge against a ruthless Chinese kingpin responsible for his wife's brutal murder. When Archer joins forces with his old underworld friends, an all-out war is waged against the Chinese Triads.
This is one of my all-time favourite Van Damme movies and serves up a high-octane, stylish and powerful action/thriller. This also stands as one of JCVD's most emotive performances and Hong Kong favourite Simon Yam makes a great villain.
Sinners and Saints (aka Bad Cop) (2010)
Directed by William Kaufman
Starring Johnny Strong, Kevin Phillips & Costas Mandylor
Plot: New Orleans Police Detective Sean Riley is a tough cop investigating a series of brutal murders. But when a clue leads Riley to a troubled buddy, he'll uncover a shocking military conspiracy that triggers a war between local gangs and an international team of mercenaries. And in a city set to explode, nothing is more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose.
Kaufman's indie cop thriller is a blistering, no-holds-barred return to the days of straight shooting, no nonsense cops circa 1970’s and 80’s cinema, with Johnny Strong serving up a career best performance. The ensemble cast is great and the film features some of the best ballistic action seen in recent memory.
The Package (2012)
Directed by Jesse V. Johnson
Starring Steve Austin, Dolph Lundgren & Darren Shahlavi
Plot: Austin is combat veteran Tommy Wick, a nightclub bouncer and stone-cold enforcer for a Seattle mob boss. Lundgren is 'The German', an international crime lord and hardcore killing machine. But when Wick is asked to courier a mysterious package to The German, he'll suddenly find himself hunted by relentless teams of hit men, mercenaries, assassins and sadists.
Director and veteran stuntman Jesse V. Johnson has long proven his aptitude for quality physical action and bold storytelling blended with flamboyant, memorable and occasionally oddball characters. This took him to the next level and in my mind stands as his best work to date alongside award winning gangster drama, Charlie Valentine.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)
Director: John Hyams
Starring Scott Adkins, Jean-Claude Van Damme & Dolph Lundgren
Plot: Forced into hiding, a rogue troop of UniSols have formed an underground militia of deadly warriors. Lead by the merciless Andrew Scott and Luc Deveraux, their plan is to rage a war of total destruction. Only one man can stop them. Hell bent on revenge for the death of his family, John is on a mission to hunt down and kill all UniSols, unless they find him first.
John Hyams earned huge recognition when he resurrected the UniSols (pun intended) in the action-packed Universal Soldier: Regeneration which stamped the franchise back on the map. He raised the bar even higher with this next outing which ambitiously combined elements of action, horror, sci-fi and mystery with some truly jaw-dropping fight scenes. Also one of the most cinematically impressive action films of recent times.
Undisputed III (2010)
Directed by Isaac Florentine
Starring Scott Adkins, Mykel Shannon Jenkins & Mark Ivanir
Plot: Scott Adkins returns as the iconic Yuri Boyka! Eight elite fighters - prisoners from maximum security prisons around the world - are brought together by a powerful underground gambling syndicate for a secret, survival-of-the-fiercest battle competition. The prize: freedom for the champion... and a payday of millions to the organizers. Except the syndicate really doesn't plan on allowing anyone to walk free.
After Undisputed II stunned audiences and become one of the most successful DTV films ever, Undisputed III raised the stakes further with the hugely popular Boyka character pushed to his limits and the fights offering some of the most impressive physical feats seen on camera. This truly represents physical artists putting their bodies on the line with no tricks and gimmicks. It has to be seen to be believed.
Blood and Bone (2009)
Directed by Ben Ramsey
Starring Michael Jai White, Julian Sands & Eamonn Walker
Plot: The film follows the story of a mysterious drifter named Isaiah Bone who falls into a mob controlled street fighting ring in the back alleys of Los Angeles. A post-modern Samurai movie, it blends the dangerous world of gangster controlled underground Mixed Martial Arts fighting, with a visually stunning, action packed narrative.
An elegant, dramatic and poignant spin on the fight film, the story is handled in a fresh way and Michael Jai White dominates the screen at his coolest and most deadly. The film brings to the fight genre something which has lacked a great deal in the past: heart and soul. Don’t be misled by the face-punching artwork!
Wrong Turn at Tahoe (2009)
Directed by Franck Khalfoun
Starring Cuba Gooding Jr, Harvey Keitel & Miguel Ferrer
Plot: A debt collector for the mob finds his fate taking a series of treacherous turns after his boss is caught in a dangerous double cross with the most dangerous drug dealer in town. All of a sudden his life is on the line and tensions escalate within the cut-throat world of the underworld.
This really turned heads as an edgy, uncompromising thriller and pulled no punches. The dialogue is excellent and delivered in style by quality cast of true character actors. Well worth seeking out.
12 (aka Underground) (2007)
Directed by Chee Keong Cheung
Starring Mark Strange, Joey Ansah & Nathan Lewis
Plot: The film follows the story of twelve fighters who are brought together to compete in an illegal underground tournament for the prize of £500,000. The fighters come from a variety of backgrounds, each hand-picked for a gruelling no-holds barred competition, intended to push each fighter to their limits. Each fighter has their own reasons for competing, and each give everything they have to take the prize... but there can be only one winner!
This film charged the fight tournament genre of the 1980s and 90s with a much needed shot in the arm and dragged it into a modern, gritty and violent setting. What's more, it was filmed in the UK with a cast of homegrown action talent! The fights were even coordinated by David Forman (Batman Begins, The Last Samurai).
While support is always important, these smaller projects on the Home Entertainment market are the ones hurt most by piracy. It's these titles, filmmakers and smaller studios that especially need to be supported, promoted and treated with respect. This should be the case for the industry as a whole and illegal downloading needs to stop. But low budget films rely on our support the most! Spread the word.