BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Feb 14th, 2006 •

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(Sony) 2005. 94 mins. 1.85:1 AR. Rated “R”

Russian Special Forces hitman Nick Cherenko sees his wife and child killed, then hunts down and slays the thugs who did it. The end.

Wait a minute: that’s just the first ten minutes of this film! The real story starts after he’s exacted his vengeance. And that’s not the only unusual aspect of this script by 27-yr-old NYU grad Bryan Edward Hill, who previously worked on comic books (a natural progression in the industry nowadays, it would seem). We catch up with Cherenko (Dolph Lundgren) in the US some time (years?) later, where he works a modest job as an auto mechanic, only to be pressed to return to Russia to find a kidnapped girl. What’s provocative about this scene is the sleaziness of the approach. He is appealed to, then, when unmoved by the offer, he is threatened, and finally he is baited with the knowledge that one of the killers of his family survived and is involved with this kidnapping. Why wouldn’t they have rearranged the order and told him that up front, or at least second, rather than coming off as slimeballs? It almost seems – since Lundgren is in charge of the production – as if he were making some subtextural comment about the foul process of the Hollywood deal.

Anyway, he returns to Russia, stolidly quiet and isolated from his ‘crew’, focused on killing his enemy. What follows is a second act of standard Eastern-European-produced straight-to-video exploitation in the vein of what Van Damme and Segal have been up to for some time now, something Lundgren has been doing for several years as well, except that this time he’s directing. And so some special attention should be paid to see what this alteration in the formula has produced.

One thing that stands out is the use of locations, particularly in the crucial third act. Filmed in Bulgaria, Aussie DP Ross Clarkson, at director Lundgren’s behest, has made the countryside very much a player in this drama, and that’s a lovely decision. Clarkson has been treading these waters for a while – films he’s worked on include Segal and Van Damme projects – and he may be directing a film of his own called OUTBACK even as this review appears. Given what I assume was a limited shooting schedule, he has provided the film with plenty of coverage, creative lighting, and detail shots. The colors, rich and varied, are a pleasure to watch.

The violence is another plus. I always remember with a laugh 1995’s Richard Donner film ASSASSINS, in which Sylvester Stallone played a top hitman, yet he somehow had to convince one of his targets to commit suicide rather than tarnish his good guy image for his fans. Such is the utter foolishess of Hollywood image-protection. No such compromises here. The deaths are brutal and rewarding as befits a revenge for murdered loved ones.

There’s a strange stylistic device on display in THE RUSSIAN SPECIALIST, a disproportionate number of fades-to-black. I couldn’t quite figure the aesthetic design behind them; I frankly hadn’t seen the editorial effect used this much since the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I emailed Scott Coulter, an old friend and former associate who worked on STREET TRASH millennia ago, and who now owns the largest optical effects house in Eastern Europe. He receives a full screen credit on the film, and provided over a hundred effects shots, mainly fixing action scenes (car chases, etc.). His response to my query about the quirky scene transitions was to offer me an introduction to the director himself, who kindly answered the handful of questions I emailed him. He explained that, in trying to give the film a certain ‘feel’, he experimented with a number of editorial choices in post-production and finally arrived at the fades-to-black. Acting and directing, he admitted, ‘is a handful. Basically, a 25-hour day. I chose to do it in order to reverse a falling trend in quality in my recent films. Recent reviews on the net, and added interest from producers/studios, suggests that it’s working. Directing is also a lot more satisfying to me than acting.”

Lundgren’s decision to play his character devoid of soul as a result of the death of his family was motivationally correct, but narratively dicey in the second act, where he is our protagonist and main focus, yet remains pretty much a hulking, reticent, all-business avenger. Ben Cross (CHARIOTS OF FIRE, DARK SHADOWS, Renny Harlin’s EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING), playing Dolph’s field contact, is structured to provide the balancing energy and humor that Lundgren disallows himself. It both works and it doesn’t. Cross is a fairly captivating, craggy presence, but the humor teeters over the top at times. The rest of the cast are well chosen and competent, save for the mission’s goal: Olivia Lee, who, despite a promising resume on IMDB, is neither sympathetic nor memorable.

THE RUSSIAN SPECIALIST is enjoyable straight-to-DVD fare, and it will be interesting to see where Dolph Lundgren’s directorial efforts take him next.

Directed by Dolph Lundgren.
Cinematography by Ross Clarkson.
Screenplay by Bryan Edward Hill.
Story by Dolph Lundgren.
Visual Effects Produced by Scott Coulter.

With: Dolph Lundgren, Ben Cross, Ivan Petrushinov, Olivia Lee, Raicho Vasilev, Assen Blatechki.

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