SKIN TRADE (2015)
(Directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham)
(Written by Steven Elder, Gabriel Dowrick and Dolph Lundgren)
(Starring Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa and Ron Perlman)
Plot: Nick Cassidy (Dolph Lundgren) and Tony Vitayakul (Tony Jaa) are cops from different countries with the same goal: hunt down a ruthless sex trafficker (Ron Perlman). But when their loved ones are targeted, they are manipulated into fighting each-other. Will they realize that they are not each-others enemies? Or will they destroy each-other first?
When I first heard about “Skin Trade“, my immediate thought was: “Is this a step up for Lundgren? Or a step down for Jaa“?. Nevertheless, I was intrigued to see the two martial artists collide and my mouth began to water as the cast expanded. Ron Perlman, Peter Weller and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa are awesome enough as it is, but Michael Jai White too? I’m…I’m pretty sure I just came a little…Although I made a blood oath that if “Skin Trade” did not provide a ‘Tony Jaa Vs Michael Jai White’ fight scene, I would massacre its entirely family in front of it before leaving it for dead, except it would somehow survive and seek vengeance…and I would probably be gruesomely killed at the ending, making me wonder why I would include this part in my blood oath…Please have a ‘Tony Jaa Vs Michael Jai White’ fight scene, “Skin Trade“, I don’t want to die! Reviews were mostly middling, so I presumed this was more of a Dolph Lundgren project than it was a Tony Jaa vehicle, although I was promptly reminded that Tony Jaa’s movies lately haven’t been beloved either (I don’t count “Furious 7“). It’s strange, seeing a collaboration between a has-been and a what-could’ve-been, but “Skin Trade” was an odd experience. It can’t be dismissed as a standard direct-to-DVD venture, because it does a lot right. But you can’t say it really excelled either, because it does a lot wrong. Calling it bad is unfair, but calling it good is too generous. It exceeded my expectations for the most part, but also frustrated me a lot more because there was so much potential.
Oh well, at least I got my ‘Tony Jaa Vs Michael Jai White’ fight…
I was taken aback by how impressive the production values were, even though I’m sure the budget was minimal. The story travels through multiple countries, from the U.S to Thailand to Cambodia, which gave “Skin Trade” somewhat of an exotic appeal. Admittedly, I can’t say it was necessarily an epic, because most of the scenes take place in culturally neutral buildings. But it was still more ambitious than most of its ilk. The visual appeal often caught my interest, as the color scheme and lightning techniques were surprisingly stylish. The cinematography is very eye popping, and the direction was usually flashy, but not grandiose. I liked the use of wide shots, especially during the larger action set pieces, which made them more exhilarating. I respect Dolph Lundgren as a filmmaker, but I am sure that if he directed this, he would’ve just used medium shots or close-ups for economical (and some artistic) reasons. There are some really cool stunts, from people taking nasty bumps to tricky motorcycle driving. Plus, “Skin Trade” boasts one of the coolest helicopter crashes that I have ever seen. I’m still trying to figure out how they accomplished that without casualties…Unfortunately, the editing brought much of the movie down. There are some bizarre transitions, such as when a conversation between Lundgren and White abruptly cuts to something else. Another moment has a villain apparently edited out of the scene, as he’s obviously gone, but I don’t remember seeing him leaving. Furthermore, there are a lot of cuts in the action and sometimes this kills the momentum. Nevertheless, if you don’t like the muted colors or the low budget atmosphere of Dolph Lundgren’s normal efforts, you will probably prefer “Skin Trade“. It feels more lavish, colorful and ambitious, even if the editing was pretty clunky.
The fight scenes are decent, never pushing the envelop but being good enough to satisfy my unholy cravings. Dolph Lundgren usually gets the shoot-outs, while Tony Jaa displays his hand-to-hand abilities and he can still shine…even if the choreography is mostly unexceptional. Some of Jaa’s moves look ridiculous though and I was sometimes distracted by how unnecessarily complicated they could be. He’ll do a strange flip just so that his foot will clip Dolph’s face, which probably would’ve done a lot more damage if he had just kicked him straight in the face. I also laughed at him flipping over obstacles during a chase scene (waste of energy!), when other times he merely runs around them or does a conventional jump. Nevertheless, he’s still incredibly fast and one of my favorite aspects of Jaa is how intense he looks when he strikes someone. It makes every punch and kick feel authentic. His bout with Michael Jai White was easily the films finest moment, even though I still think it could’ve been better. The movements are smooth, the stunts look nasty and the director uses some creative framing methods to make the fight stand out more. I also thought the differences in their size was interesting, although I wonder if there just wasn’t a lot of time to rehearse it. I’ve seen both men do better in inferior films, so I’m not sure why this wasn’t amazing, but it was still fun to watch. Whenever Dolph Lundgren dishes out the martial arts, the director uses camera angles and editing tricks to cover up his lack of mobility. This makes him look bad next to what Jaa is doing, but their fight together was actually fairly enjoyable too. I’d say it’s at least comparable to the ‘Dolph Lundgren Vs Jet Li’ fight from “The Expendables“. There is quite a bit of action, whether it’s using guns or fists and most of it is delightfully violent. But I can’t say that this is a fast paced experience, as it does sometimes drag. How many love scenes do we need in such a short period of time? Does anyone want to see Dolph Lundgren have sex? I would’ve been content with that being off-screen, thank you very much…Now if Lundgren and Jaa had a love scene together, that would be different.
As for the acting, Lundgren does good…or at least the best he can with his lines. There are a few moments where he is forced to carry the emotional weight of the scene and he actually accomplishes this with flying colors. Everyone has criticized Tony Jaa’s english, but I don’t see the problem as he delivered his dialogue like someone who is speaking a second language and his character isn’t an American or English, so this should be the way he talks. He reminded me of Jet Li when he first broke into the U.S Market, in that he uses his intensity to make up for the language barrier. I personally thought Jaa did fine and the material never required much from him. Ron Perlman adds depth to his character and probably gave the best performance of this entire cast. Michael Jai White was the biggest disappointment in the acting department, as he seemed to be phoning it in. But the role didn’t demand a lot of emotion or charm, which leads to one of the films failures. The dialogue is bad, but it seems to think it’s profound and deep. When describing someone who perished in fire, Michael Jai White utters the line: “They were consumed by the blaze“. Who talks like that? But generally, the dialogue is just mawkishly melodramatic or preachy, as if I need to be reminded why sexual slavery is bad. Much like “One in the Chamber” though, I have to concede that at least the writers were trying to make these lines stand out and leave an impression. Most action movies, especially of the lower budget variety, usually just use dialogue entirely for exposition. I always admire effort, even if it sometimes backfires.
But the biggest failure of “Skin Trade” is…well, its story- or at least the presentation of the story. It’s insanely predictable to where you immediately start guessing all of the twists during the first five minutes. As soon as Michael Jai White’s character walked onto the screen, you know he’s going to turn out to be a villain. We know that the main antagonist’s son will die the moment he’s introduced. We know Dolph Lundgren’s wife will meet a similar fate even before she’s introduced and can deduce that the daughter will be kidnapped. Even though they say she’s killed early on, it’s too ambiguous to accept that possibility, so we know she’s alive. When it’s mentioned that Tony Jaa’s partner has a wife, kids and a ‘bun in the oven’, the audience realizes that he doesn’t have very long either. There will always be those cliches where a villain will hold the hero at gunpoint and not shoot him, because how else will the hero survive? There’s even a “We’re not so different, you and I” speech! But what makes this even worse is that the script contains these cliches, but doesn’t seem to understand them. How was the villain and *Insert character here* alike and why would he say that? I saw no comparisons between the two. Did Michael Jai White become dirty later in the movie? Because he’s fighting the villains henchman during the first major action scene (and didn’t warn the antagonist of the raid). This narrative contains too much material and yet rushes through it, not allowing any of its ideas to breathe…and then it slows to a crawl whenever the love or sleaze scenes occur- which is often during the first half. Dolph Lungdren and Tony Jaa do fine, but there isn’t any opportunity to develop any chemistry or repertoire between them. They generally just follow their individual storylines, which take too long to intersect. Why did they feel the need to humanize the villains when we’re supposed to hate them? This could’ve been done efficiently, but it didn’t work within this context. I want to yearn for their destruction, but these emotions would deflate as soon as they did something kind of admirable or heartfelt. How did NO ONE notice that Tony Jaa’s girlfriend seemed to have connections? The bad guys know that there is a leak, so this girl who openly ease drops and has a bad-ass boyfriend who attacks them whenever she is in peril is never considered a suspect? Finally, I thought there was too much sexuality and nudity for a film that condemns the exploitation of women. I felt like there were conflicting visions, where some of the filmmakers wanted to do a sleazy action movie and others wanted to a gritty drama about human trafficking. The ending was very unsatisfying too.
In the end, “Skin Trade” tries to be an engaging actioner with complex characters, an ambitious storyline and an important message- complete with martial arts, shoot-outs, vehicular chases and violence. Furthermore, it understood its target audience enough to make the fans get excited as we’d really want to see the likes of Jaa, White and Lundgren take each-other on. Yet I think the filmmakers wanted to do too much and it constricted the narrative. Most of the subplots, whether it’s Tony Jaa’s relationship with Celina Jade or the family dynamic amongst the villains, are given enough time to resonate. This is a spectacle-over-substance project, so underdeveloped characters and relationships can be expected, but the failed attempts at substance tended to get in the way of the spectacle. Nevertheless, I got enough good stuff to be mostly satisfied. The fight choreography and stunt work are above average, with the technical aspects of film-making being much grander than what I would’ve expected. The editing is crummy, but how often can I praise the direction and cinematography within the realm of direct-to-DVD cinema? “Skin Trade” isn’t bad, but it also could’ve been a lot better. I’d say it was mostly a step up for Lundgren, while NOT being a step down for Jaa.
Violence: Rated R. It’s pretty violent!
Nudity: There is a fair amount of it, including some love scenes, along with some rape implications.
Overall: “Skin Trade” is okay…worth watching for the novelty of the casting, while not being anything exceptional.