Director: Dolph Lundgren
Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Kelsey Grammer, Michael Pare, Aaron McPherson, Christina Villa, Roger Cross, Michael Worth, Bourke Floyd, Gabriel ‘G-Rod’ Rodriguez
Running Time: 86 min.
By Henry McKeand
It’s a new year, and Dolph Lundgren is still making movies. Really making them, too. His latest film, Wanted Man, is his seventh as a director. He also produced and co-wrote the script along with Frank Valdez and DTV legend Michael Worth. And, unlike Steven Seagal’s behind-the-camera work, Lundgren’s efforts as a filmmaker aspire to be more than vanity projects. Instead, they’re usually a way for him to continue making the kind of stuff that endeared him to audiences back in the 80s.
It is a new year, after all, and muscle-bound freaks like prime-era Dolph don’t have the same commercial appeal that they once did. Not that it would make much of a difference to the Dolph of today, who has decidedly aged out of his perfectly sculpted Übermensch body and alien-like beauty. Now, in his late-sixties, he has the grizzled good looks of great 20th-century tough guy actors like Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. In a more just world, this would ensure him a comfy niche in American multiplexes. But in this new year we find ourselves in, it’s becoming harder and harder for retirement age guys with granite faces to attract wide audiences. No one in Hollywood’s elite circle, save for maybe Stallone, is trying to cast a guy like Dolph in a lead action role. That’s why he’s had to create his own world and cast himself as the washed-up cops and killers he was born to play.
In Wanted Man, he’s as washed-up as they come. He plays Johansen: an aging, racist cop who’s gotten himself in trouble for brutally attacking a Mexican suspect on camera. He’s the type of guy who likes to go to the strip club with his brother cops (Aaron McPherson, Michael Pare, and Kelsey Grammer, who does great work as a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing ex-cop with a penchant for locker room dialogue) and chat about how immigrants are ruining the country and Fox News has gone soft. When Johansen is tasked with crossing the Mexican border to bring back a pair of witnesses to a shootout that spilled DEA blood, it doesn’t take a genius to predict that Johansen’s retrograde politics will be challenged. It’s not long before he’s on the run with one of the witnesses, a beautiful young woman played by newcomer Christina Villa, and being forced to question his assumptions about America’s place in the drug trade.
The attempts at political commentary vary in effectiveness, but it outdoes most of its contemporaries by at least trying to interrogate the political ickiness at its core. Just last month, we saw the release of John Woo’s mostly enjoyable Silent Night, which unfortunately reverted to all-too-common depictions of Mexicans as bloodthirsty, inhuman killers. Screenwriters have been using Mexico, with its infamous drug cartels, as a cinematic “Heart of Darkness” for years (and it’s not just trashy action films; elevated Hollywood fare like Sicario is guilty of the same shorthand).
While Wanted Man is hardly The Searchers, it’s entertaining and refreshing to watch Johansen grapple with his own views on race and law enforcement as he bonds with Villa’s witness. Anyone who’s followed Dolph’s career won’t be surprised to hear that he has the dramatic chops to sell Johansen’s evolution. Villa, too, does well as essentially the co-lead of the film. In fact, the quieter human moments between the two characters are the real highlights (though I could certainly lose the more romantic moments between two performers who could be playing father and daughter). Even with its flaws, this focus on relationships over action is a nice surprise, especially since the characters are fleshed out and memorable. The script is certainly more indebted to the street-level potboilers of Don Siegel and Walter Hill than it is classic Dolph joints like Silent Weapon or Universal Solder.
The problem, then, is that Wanted Man lacks the grit needed to make its crime narrative feel authentic. The best neo-noirs of the 20th century had a palpable sense of weight and dirtiness. Dolph and cinematographer Joe M. Han, on the other hand, give everything a too-perfect digital sheen. It has the same cheap look as a million other straight-to-streaming movies with titles like Wanted Man when it should strive for the sweaty intensity of something like Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Everyone involved would have better off cutting down on the obligatory shootouts so that they could focus on the visual details that could have elevated the strong material.
Nevertheless, it’s a thing of beauty that an actor introduced to the world as the epitome of 80s Russian iciness can now harken back to the very-American genre filmmaking of the 70s. Wanted Man may not be as strong as the cop-with-an-edge thrillers it emulates, and seeing Ivan Drago and Frasier with guns on the poster may not scream “modern classic,” but this is an easy recommendation for anyone who likes Dolph and has a soft spot for back-to-basics crime stories.
Henry McKeand’s Rating: 6/10