Dolph Lundgren hasn’t enjoyed the same continued prominence as many of his equally hulking, stone-jawed peers – unlike Arnie, who has a new Terminator out this summer, or Sylvester Stallone, who’ll play Rocky again for fall spinoff Creed, the towering Swede has been contained to bargain-bin fare and occasional cameos in The Expendables. And though no one is contesting his ability to throw a punch, Lundgren still hasn’t had his True Lies moment, so to speak.
I wish I could report that Skin Trade was that watershed for the actor, that perfect part to elevate him from man-mountain to dramatic heavyweight – but it’s just not the case. As vengeful New Jersey cop Nick Cassidy, Lundgren is working well within his wheelhouse, and the ease with which the performer manages his dialogue speaks to how standard a part Skin Trade gives him. That shouldn’t come as a surprise – after all, the actor had a hand in writing the screenplay, and he knows how to play to his strengths. Out of everything in Skin Trade, he’s the most known quantity.
Much more interestingly, the film tackles the troubling real-life issue of human trafficking, and does so with unexpected frankness. The action picks up when Cassidy shoots and kills the son of Serbian mobster Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman), who had been running a large-scale trafficking operation on the Jersey docks, during a raid. The girls in one shipping container, we see, have suffocated during the journey (a similar real-life incident spurred Lundgren to write the script). The movie dwells on that plot point, trying to emphasize its horror.
Skin Trade has a lot of nasty moments like that, certainly more than Taken, but all of the violence and unpleasantness is enacted to condemn trafficking and draw attention to the real skin trade – an atypically commendable goal for an action pic like this. It’s meathead mayhem with a message, albeit one undercut by gratuitous and consistently icky female nudity. I’m inclined to give it a reluctant pass for at least trying.
The pic doesn’t keep its wits about it for too long, pushing away from the grim, horror-tinged actioner it could have been around the half-hour mark, when Dragovic takes revenge on Cassidy by murdering his wife and daughter. Devastated and determined to take revenge, Cassidy goes rogue and travels to Thailand, where Dragovic is hiding out after dodging incarceration in the United States. His mission of vengeance is complicated by a treacherous co-worker (Michael Jai White) and undercover officer Tony Vitayakul (Tony Jaa), who has been fooled into thinking that Cassidy slaughtered his partner upon arrival in Asia. By the point all of them intersect, Skin Trade has devolved into standard genre fare, with gruffly barked one-liners and lots of flying fists.
By action standards, Skin Trade is actually pretty big news, which you wouldn’t get from the minimal marketing push. It boasts a thoroughly solid lineup of stars, all of whom inevitably come to blows in dingy warehouses that seem to have sat unused since Reservoir Dogs. That’s the main attraction here – watching the cast engage in battle after battle, destroying all the scenery around them as they do so. The fight card includes Lundgren facing off against Jaa, Jaa trading blows with White, and Lundgren duking it out with Perlman. Based on the range of fighting styles alone, most action aficionados won’t have a problem plunking down a few dollars for Skin Trade, and it’s a particular kick to watch the graceful Jaa bounce from wall to wall, only to end up steam-rolled by Lundgren’s Frankenstein’s Monster battle charge.
Helping matters is the fact that director Ekachai Uekrongtham keeps his action sequences both entertaining and free from disorienting cuts. In that sense, Skin Trade plays more like a relic left over from the ’80s than the kind of action movie you see more often today. The punches connect with bone-crunching force, blood spurts forth in gloriously gory arcs, one-liners are always at the ready, and the heroes dispense with the pleasantries in favor of getting the job done as fast as possible (when Tony drops a mobster off a high-up hotel balcony, he looks down at the mess and quips, “The vacation… is over” – I think, it’s hard to interpret much he says). In the age of frenetic camerawork and cuts so frequent that it’s hard to even tell whether the same actor who started a punch is finishing it, this kind of simple-minded action flick is very welcome.
No one who checks out Skin Trade is there for the acting, which is good, because Jaa is far more convincing as a martial artist than as a performer. He’s working in English here, and it’s easy to tell which lines gave him trouble during production. Lundgren is much more effective, but the scenes where the two of them are trading lines instead of knuckle sandwiches are so slow that you’ll be checking your watch before they’ve even gotten to talking about anything of value. Luckily, those scenes are few and far between, especially because the oddly structured first act keeps the pair on separate continents.
In supporting roles, Perlman inexplicably retains his dignity beneath a heavy Serbian accent and Jai White doesn’t really do much to leave an impression but more than holds his own in some oddly light-footed fight sequences. Oh, and Peter Weller shows up. I don’t know why, because he’s gone almost before you can say, “Hey, it’s Peter Weller,” never to return. Add it to the list of unanswerable questions Skin Trade begs, like how Lundgren’s character can get shot in the back and be barreling through city streets within the next ten minutes of screen time, or why no single bad guy can aim to save his life.
Oh well – Skin Trade isn’t about to abide by mere guidelines of internal logic, or serve as an inspiration to budding screenwriters. It’s sturdily built for late-night viewing with a group of friends and an open six-pack, and although no one is likely to remember it with particular fondness in a few days, there are far less agreeable ways to kill 96 minutes.
It's an undeniable kick to watch Jaa, ever graceful and balletic, getting thrown around like a puny rag doll by his man-mountain co-star, even if Skin Trade is a little too ham-fisted to pack any serious punch.