(On Cable TV, August 2015) I normally wouldn’t stop to watch a straight-to-video third sequel in a series where most people don’t even know about the second and third film, but it turns out that this fourth film in the not-really-connected Behind Enemy Lines series is directed by Roel Reiné, a surprisingly effective low-budget director who, somehow, always manage to get a few impressive action sequences in otherwise unremarkable films. So it is that I got my interest’s worth in Seal Team Eight: Behind Enemy Lines, which heads to Africa for a rather predictable story about a SEAL team investigating the acquisition of nuclear material by a local warlord. The story is a big ball of nonsense (with an mysterious antagonist whose identity can be deducted from the very first briefing scene), and the actors aren’t particularly skilled, but the action sequences and the atmosphere of the film aren’t bad at all – some of the stunts look genuinely dangerous, Reiné gets the most out of his location shooting and he has a knack for capturing striking images. (Alas, one of those is of a human being blown into paste.) The subpar screenplay hurts the film most toward the end, with a fairly mean-spirited turn into misogyny near its unsurprising conclusion. Still, as long as you know what you’re looking for (action sequences looking great despite a small budget, that is), then Seal Team Eight: Behind Enemy Lines has something for you.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) The narrative pedigree of this film is prodigiously confusing (it’s the sequel to a prequel to a remake), but the results are surprisingly entertaining, especially considering the production values of this direct-to-video effort. Helmed by the cost-effective and visually audacious Roel Reiné, Death Race 3: Inferno squeezes every dollar out of its limited budget for maximum impact. This is a B-grade action film by every measure, so it’s almost surprising to see the cleverness of the script (which manages to find something interesting to say in-between the space left by a prequel and a sequel), the unexpected charm of the actors, the impressive production values and the engaging pacing of the whole. Death Race 3 makes maximum use of its South African shooting location by featuring fantastic local visuals, and relying on captivating local talent for pivotal roles (most notably Hlubi Mboya as game-master “Satana” or Roxane Hayward as a mousy assistant). There are plenty of contrivances and outrageous use of exploitation devices –the nadir being the sadistic “navigator wars” segment. But the backbone of those films, the stunts and visuals, are as accomplished as one could expect from this kind of production, and Death Race 3: Inferno becomes decent entertainment no matter its budget class. You’ll know from the Death Race title whether you’re likely to enjoy it or not.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Movie thrillers are built on contrivances almost as a matter of fact. But then there are thrillers like the 12 Rounds series, explicitly depending upon a tower of assumptions that only make sense at the movies. Can you believe in the existence of an ultra-competent vengeful psychopath who takes a year to set up an intricate series of challenges for our capable hero? Suuure. Much like the New Orleans-set 12 Rounds, this Direct-to-Video sequel (filmed in Vancouver but set in AnyBigCity, USA) is a pure genre exercise in implausible plotting, featuring a wrestler set up for an acting career and no real links with the first movie save for the similar premise. Once again, a protagonist is manipulated like a puppet through various games, all leading up to a twisted revenge scenario against imagined wrongs. There isn’t much more to the film, and director Roel Reiné, lately surprisingly good on limited budgets, here seems less interesting than usual in presenting a far more ordinary film than his previous few. Ex-wrestler Randy Orton isn’t too bad as the square-jawed hero –nearly everyone else in the cast quickly gets forgotten in average performances. The contrivances get annoying, but to its credit this sequel does something better than the original, and that’s to give the hero a sidekick so that he can interact with something more than a cell phone and booby-traps. Nevertheless, 12 Rounds 2 doesn’t take it to the next level. It remains a film that’s not too bad by the low standards of most DTV releases, but still quickly fades in memory once the end credit roll.
(On DVD, December 2011) I won’t try to hide my disdain for the 2008 film that led to this follow-up, especially given how it establishes my low standards for approaching this film. Can you expect anything good from a Direct-to-Video prequel to a wholly useless remake/prequel? No way. And yet, especially by the rising standards of Direct-to-Video action movie, Death Race 2 actually isn’t too bad. Director Roel Reiné knows how to work with a small $7-million budget, and the film feels just as big as the big-budget 2008 film. Luke Goss makes for a fine stand-in to Jason Statham as an action hero, Lauren Cohan seems to be auditioning for a chunk of Milla Jovovich’s career (similitudes may not be accidental given Paul W.S. Anderson’s presence as a writer/producer), and there are surprisingly big and enjoyable roles for both Danny Trejo and Ving Rhames. The concept of the film has been stolen from the 2008 Death Race, but the dialogue has occasional moments, the story leads straight into the 2008 film, and the direction is quite a bit better than what we could expect with moving cameras, ambitious pyrotechnic stunts and audacious shots –some of them in super-slow-motion. The car chase following the bank robbery looks as if its cost quite a bit, and the film seems to have been able to re-use a bunch of material from the 2008 film. It’s certainly more colourful than its predecessor, taking away one of the main criticism I had of the earlier film. No, there certainly isn’t any more social consciousness here compared to the 1975 film. But it is exactly what it claims to be: a competently-made action film released straight to video. I even enjoyed chunks of it. The DVD extras are far more successful in focusing on the making of the film than trying to glorify it as an entry in an ongoing “franchise”; director Reiné is more interesting in discussing aspects of his approach in low-budget film-making.
(On DVD, June 2011) The original The Marine wasn’t much more than a forgettable action B movie, and that may explain why this sequel feels pretty good, even though it went Direct to Video. Taking the basic plot of the first film (Marine rescues girlfriend from clutches of bad guys, gun-fights, explosions, etc.) but with new characters, structure and setting, The Marine 2 daringly moves the action to a resort in Thailand. After the protagonist’s wife is taken hostage, our protagonist spends the rest of the picture killing bad guys; it pretty much ends like you’d expect. There normally wouldn’t be much more to say about a low-budget action film, but this one actually seems to have good production values and an imaginative director who knows what he’s doing: The first few minutes in Thailand offer some really spectacular scenery, while the action sequences are better-directed than most action films there says. Director Roel Reiné is fond of using lengthy shots, and as a result one hand-to-hand fight is far more interesting to watch than you’d expect. Most of his action sequences show a good sense of geography, and it looks as if he was able to push the limits of his budget. This doesn’t make The Marine 2 a good film: the dialogue is average, all-American-boy-hero-killer Ted DiBiase Jr. is bland as the lead, and there’s a mid-movie lull in which the hero spends 40 minutes going back to the resort to kill more terrorists without much by way of plot progression. Still, it does make of The Marine 2 one of the increasingly common DTV semi-sequels that have at least some entertainment value, even in isolated bits and pieces. At a time where theaters and movie-rental chains are getting marginalized as movie distribution channels, non-awful DTV films are a significant development.