Men of War (UK - DVD R2)
Leigh reviews the Anchor Bay release of this 1994 Dolph Lundgren actioner
Nick Gunar (Dolph Lundgren), a jaded and burnt-out former mercenary struggling with civilian life, is hired by the Nitro Mine Corporation to 'persuade' the natives of a South China Island to hand over their home in order for the company to mine its valuable mineral resources. Reluctantly, Nick accepts, recruiting former mercenary buddies to lend a presence. However, the natives, lead by the charismatic Po (B.D. Wong), prove to be more tenacious than everybody presumed, and over time, Nick and a handful of his group are charmed by the island and their people. However, battle lines are drawn between the group, and along with Nick's old nemesis Keefer, the group fractures, turning the utopia into a war zone in which Nick fights not only for Po and his people, but also to regain his humanity.
Everybody has a film like this in their collection; it's a title that unexpectedly hits a chord with them and becomes a dark horse of a favourite, but is also a film that will make most people take one look at the cover and simply say 'no'. 1994's Men of War is in a way a throwback film, recalling older mercenary films such as Dogs of War and Wild Geese in the respect that although they are hard boiled war films, they also have a strong moral centre that prevents them from becoming a simple bloodbath. That's one element that raises this film above something like Delta Force for instance, but it's worth noting that this has a loftier pedigree than most of the films by Lundgren's contemporaries of the time; Men of War is penned by highly respected indie scribe John Sayles, writer of such highbrow fare as Sunshine State, Men With Guns and Matewan.
There are Sayles apologists who like to insist that the writer's link is tenuous, but it is indeed a bona fide script from him (with action scenes filled out by his friend and working partner, director Perry Lang). Of course, these are also the same people that choose to forget Sayles' extensive early genre output of classic scripts such as 1980's Alligator and The Howling. Men of War is fairly interesting, as the script (dating from 1987) appears to signify a move from genre to more weighty issue-based material, with the film being inspired by a real life newspaper article. It's not Sayles-lite either, as there is enough sardonic wit and amusing asides to raise the film above a generic shoot-'em-up. His influences also extend to the ensemble cast, as a majority of the principal cast come from his various projects. The moral angle obviously piqued Lundgren's interest as well; soon after this, he tackled Angolan landmine issues with Sweepers
The cast is a surprisingly strong one for a film of this type, with Gunar's crew filled with solid character actor talent such as Don Harvey, Tom Wright, Tim Guinee and Kevin Tighe, who all bring their A-games when others of their calibre may have phoned their performances in. The film also has a genuinely superb performance from Tony-winning stage and screen actor B.D. Wong, who grounds the film as the charismatic Po. In the company of such talent, Lundgren comes off better than one might expect, and raises his game to deliver a rather nice low-key and naturalistic performance that is miles away from the camp of Universal Soldier, and surprisingly he doesn't get lost in the ensemble.
Of course we have to have the muscle too, and Tom 'Tiny' Lister provides testosterone and the comic book edge that the film also contains. Unfortunately, the main villain played by the late Trevor Goddard almost capsizes the entire film single-handedly with an atrociously loud and excessively hammy performance that makes his performance as Kano in Mortal Kombat look like a turn for a Bergman film.
One of the most notable things about the film is that it doesn't cut around the characters' change of heart like a lot of star powered action vehicles do; Nick's seduction by the island takes it's time, and isn't sidelined and trimmed to make way simply for action. We also get time to see how lovingly shot the film is by cinematographer Ronn Schmidt, with the stunning widescreen vistas giving the film much more sheen than one might think a Lundgren film might contain. Shot in Thailand, the backdrops give production value money simply cannot buy.
However, you don't buy a Dolph Lundgren film to see a Thai travelogue, and Men of War delivers some meaty action. There are sporadic bursts of activity throughout the film, but Lang really kicks things up a gear in the last forty minutes or so, with some cracking action on show. He might be more at ease with drama, but the final battle shows Lang watches the right references, bearing favourable comparison with the first act siege in Predator.
Not everything is perfect, mind. Aside from the film destroying performance from Goddard, there is an incredibly bungled action climax that lacks geography and coherence, making the film devolve into a cartoonish fudge that makes little visual sense and ends the film on a unsuitably daffy note, despite a hefty punch up Between Goddard and Lundgren. While the film was never Citizen Kane, it's still wasted potential.
It's a shame that the film was buried by Miramax at the time (despite contrary opinion, this was never intended to go straight to home video), because it's superior to output from his contemporaries at the time, such as Steven Seagal's equally issue driven yet embarrassing big budget On Deadly Ground. The bottom line is, Men of War is a sturdy action drama that while not exactly a classic by any stretch of the imagination, is a surprisingly intriguing and entertaining little movie. If those of you that dismiss this because of who stars in the film can get past the fact that it's Dolph, you may actually enjoy yourself.
I've never seen the film in widescreen, so although it's not been remastered, the 2.35:1 transfer is fine by me. As you would imagine from a largely forgotten fifteen year old movie, the image is not exactly even. Occasionally the film is rather sharp, mostly in night-time sequences, at other times everything's rather soft and grainy, with slow motion action sequences in particular exhibiting quite a bit of grain. However, contrast is well balanced, and black levels are nice and deep. Colour is pretty well represented too, with Ronn Schmidt's grand cinematography coming off particularly well. It's not the greatest transfer in the world, but nonetheless the film's never even looked this good before.
Despite the fact that the box art says the disc has a 2.0 Surround track, Anchor Bay offer a Dolby Digital 5.1 track for the film. Men of War was originally released in Ultra Stereo, so the 5.1 mix has a little work to do. Unfortunately, the track's not quite up to it. While the track occasionally has a nice balance between dialogue, score and sound effects, there are several occasions where the whole track shifts entirely to the two rear speakers for a sequence and then back to the fronts for the next scene, and then finally reverts back to 5.1, which is not only highly distracting, but it also robs the scene of any sub woofer action. It's a shame, because in general it's a decent track when it works the way it's supposed to, with good use of surrounds in battle sequences and beefy explosions and whatnot.
The disc is so barebones, I'm surprised the DVD came with a box.
I'm almost positive that ninety percent of the people who read this review will write this off as a cheap and nasty DTV movie, which is a shame because Men of War is far better made and written than you might think. While there are some elements that drag the film down quite a few notches, such as some jarring performances and ill-advised shifts into comic book excesses, in general the film is a surprisingly solid action drama. Make no mistake, it's not Saving Private Ryan, but it's definitely Lundgren's best film by a long shot, and as military actioners go, it's one of the better ones. Fans of the new Rambo should definitely check this one out.
• Many thanks to Jeremie Damoiseau and dolph-ultimate.com for access to previously unseen production notes for Men of War
Review by Leigh Riding
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 23rd February 2009
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Easter Egg: No
Director: Perry Lang
Cast: Dolph Lundgren, B.D. Wong, Trevor Goddard, 'Tiny' Lister, Anthony John Denison
Length: 99 minutes
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