Skin Trade is released
This is one I've been looking forward to for a long time. Long in development and with various personnel changes along the way, Dolph Lundgren's passion project was evolving as early as 2007 with the Big Swede penning the script and originally down to direct until he handed over the reigns, steering the ship as writer/producer. And incidentally, for anyone drawing parallels to Taken, Dolph actually wrote the script before the Liam Neeson actioner was made, inspired by an article he read on human trafficking.
After developing the film in its earliest stages, Dolph and the team chose arthouse and stage director Ekachai Uekrongtham, reportedly after seeing his film Beautiful Boxer, which impressed them enough to trust him with the visual style and subject matter of Skin Trade. And so, the movie, as we know it, was born...
The result is an action genre picture with definite stylised, arthouse sensibilities and which uses the vehicle of action to deliver a social message. Love it or hate it, we don't see this too often! This makes the film pretty interesting and sets it apart from the rest.
In the story, Detective Nick Cassidy (Dolph Lundgren) takes down an Eastern European crime lord (Ron Perlman) who uses his power and sway to evade justice. Soon, fuelled by a personal vendetta, Nick heads to Bangkok where he teams up with Thai detective, Tony Vitayakui (Tony Jaa). Before long, Nick and Tony traverse their way through the Bangkok underworld to take down a human trafficking network and, each with a score to settle, will stop at nothing to bring down the criminal enterprise responsible for human trafficking in that part of the world.
Not wishing to sound like we’re setting the bar low here, but with so many lower budget titles churned out with little care or thought, it's seriously refreshing to see something with some heart, soul and substance behind it. Skin Trade is imperfect, admittedly, but there's no denying the depth here. Dolph has made a bold move in utilising his action star (and filmmaker) credentials, and the genre which audiences have grown to love, to deliver a message and build awareness for a subject close to his heart. It might not change the world but, as he said himself in a number of interviews, if it gets people talking about the subject and the message is spread, then it's worth it.
To give further insight into this passion project, Dolph has been working closely with LA organisation CAST (The Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking) with the profits from various charity screenings and auctions supporting the organisation, so the film really has been a catalyst for change.
That being said, we also know that films are primarily made for entertainment and, fortunately, we have a shedload of it here.
Firstly, on the downside, the script, dialogue and pacing felt a little weak at times, but fortunately the performances and believability of the cast salvaged it for the most part. Personally, I would have liked a slightly grittier shooting style to accommodate the seedy world we soon become immersed in, but the film is still well shot, well lit and captures the neon underbelly of Thailand. All these points are pretty minor for the most part and don't substantially detract from the enjoyment factor.
On the plus, Skin Trade delivers solid entertainment and even takes a big swing to do something different. For that, it deserves applause.
A decent story and concept is really only as good as its players. Fortunately there are many of note. Building a pretty epic star ensemble, both in action and dramatics, one of the biggest accolades for me was seeing this team together on screen. We have Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, Michael Jai White, Ron Perlman, Peter Weller, Celina Jade, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa... pretty awesome by any standard. Each does their job well, though it would've been nice to see a little more of Weller and Tagawa who only really featured in cameos. Still, with a cast that size there are bound to be major characters and minor roles... not everyone can fill the screen at every single point.
One thing everyone wanted was action. The great news is that it delivers in high doses and I was pleased with several fight and action highlights. Lundgren vs Jaa was great but top marks would have to go to Jaa vs White. Both featured excellent, long take sequences (with nice, wide framing) which play to the strengths of each star. (I recently interviewed Jai White and we spoke briefly on the film, you can read it here). In terms of the action, the many fights, wrecks and shootouts - plus a lengthy chase - offer something different every time and props deservedly go to the stunt team who brought each of the elements together. Plus, fans will know that those Thai stunt guys know how to wreck. It makes such a difference when talented performers sell those big hits and finishers. In short, the action is great and worth the price of admission alone.
As a final note, seeing this great lineup of stars also got me thinking about how these genre movies are put together now. For the most part, gone are the days where studios and producers could 'sell' a lower budget/genre movie for release based on one or two big, bankable actors. Who remembers lower budget films from the 1980’s and 90’s? For the most part, they actually delivered on the promise they made in both production value and star power.
Now, we typically see an Expendables syndrome, if you will. Maybe not always to that extent, but we often see several name actors splitting top billing and, in this case, a whole ensemble cast filling supporting roles and cameos. This probably amounted to one or two days on set for some actors, but sells the film to the largest possible audience. Why have one big name when you can have five right? Or ten? There are many factors as to why this happens, but it's also a symptom of the industry and the need to get cut-through in a saturated marketplace, with maximum chance of success versus illegal downloading (mostly affecting the home entertainment market, more so than the big blockbusters). As an audience though, it's cool to see all these names appearing together... how often does that happen? It's a real geek-out for fans of these stars, adding an extra dimension to the fun, so it’s a conflicted point.
Still, I can never emphasise enough the importance of supporting these smaller, genre movies, espeiclaly those which actually take a swing to do something new. If we want to see more of the same, and I certainly would, we need to get behind them and show there's a demand. With budgets being drastically cut already and many actors and directors speaking out on the subject (it affects both quality and time spent shooting, not bloated salaries), we as audiences need to support the crazy amount of work that goes into filmmaking and champion projects which aspire to do something different, such as Skin Trade.
Skin Trade is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download On Demand with the Blu-ray and DVD release to follow soon.