As the pumped-up action stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s deflate into obscurity, the reverse transition from headliner to direct-to-video grinder can be hard to manage. When you’ve already made sequels to your most forgettable movies, when Dennis Rodman and Ja Rule won’t return your calls, when nobody will pay to watch you kickbox a bear, where do you go next? Is there more to life than inflicting and receiving pain? How does one resolve being a man of action with nothing to do?
In the mid- to late ‘90s Steven Seagal blazed a middle way promoting Buddhist philosophy, political activism, and large-scale destruction starring in movies like On Deadly Ground (the environment, oil), The Patriot (the environment, biological weaponry), and Fire Down Below (the environment, toxic waste).
Swedish pillar of granite Dolph Lundgren has updated these spiritual and sociological concerns for 21st century born-agains directing, co-writing, and starring in Missionary Man, about a tequila-swilling Christian spreading God’s word with a Bible in one hand and a pump action rifle in the other.
The movie is lot less entertaining than the box cover led me to expect. I don’t blame Lundgren for attempting to forge a professional identity more developed than Ivan Drago, but he fails miserably in this overly self-serious quest for maturity.
Lundgren’s character, Ryder, enters the screen in an excruciating establishing shot showing his motorcycle approaching from the horizon line to the camera from about 30 miles away. His character is duly established: he’s a loner, he rides, and he takes five times as long to do anything as any other action star.
Ryder is traveling to a Native American reservation for the funeral of an army buddy where he decides in his laconic, drawn-out way to clean up the town from the grips of thug John Reno (Matthew Tompkins). After befriending the alcoholic sheriff (James Chalke) and saucy inn keeper (Morgana Shaw), the promise of a Billy Jack meets Rio Bravo set-up is subsequently abandoned. Likewise, plot strands involving a murder, a drug ring, and some characters in hiding flutter then drift away so that you’re not certain they ever existed.
The most sustained storyline has Reno wanting to build a casino on the Native American lands. The good-hearted folks on the reservation also want to build the casino, they would just distribute the profits differently. It all comes to a head in town council meeting I couldn’t follow. This riles up Reno’s pro wrestler henchmen, who show up from time to time to inject some much-needed crotch kicking into the otherwise stale proceedings.
Eventually, Reno’s boss Jarfe (John Enos III) rolls into town, and Reno kind of disappears. This is a good thing as Reno’s defining characteristic is that he drinks beer. [Nancy Drew character: “You know he didn’t drink. Who was the beer for then? Reno? Cause Reno drinks beer!” (ominous thumping)]
Nothing interesting happens for a long time. Then Ryder sleeps with his dead friend’s wife, reads the Bible to a gaggle of school children on a gazebo, a little bit of flying eagle Native American hoodoo is tossed around, and Ryder beats up all the bad guys with one good punch line and a wild spurting of blood. All of this could have been taken care of in half an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.
Whatever cheesy joy is contained in the story is smothered by the funereal air that hangs over the telling. Lundgren apparently thought he’d been hired to make his personal Unforgiven. To that end he developed a consistent visual style primarily made up of back-lit only characters and endless insert shots that makes the action hard to follow, and made even harder still by the gruel gray color scheme that gives it the mopey patina of a Staind video. In his performance, Ryder comes across as the avenging angel of an angry yet heavily medicated god.
Lundgren’s distinctively cold chiseled features have held up. He could possibly make a decent career as a character actor or colorful supporting player in better movies. That is, smarter movies than this, that don’t get bogged down in his triple threat aspirations.