Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, Ron Perlman, Michael Jai White, Celina Jade, Peter Weller
Hot on the trail of a notorious human trafficker (Ron Perlman), Detective Nick Cassidy (Dolph Lundgren) shoots the gangster’s son in self-defense. Angered at the lost of his child the gangster Viktor Dragovic, orders a revenge killing of Cassidy’s wife and child. Surviving the attack, and with nothing to lose, Cassidy begins a bloody campaign to find Dragovic and get his own brand of vengeance. At the same time, Thai undercover agent Tony Vitayakul (Tony Jaa) is investigating the same traffickers led in Southeast Asia by Dragovic’s youngest son Janko (Leo Rano) using a beautiful mole (Celina Jade) with which perhaps has gotten too involved. When Cassidy discovers that Viktor is headed to Asia, he will have to team up with Vitayakul to defeat the family and crush their “Skin Trade” operation.
Co-financed by Thailand and Canadian film councils, and featuring direction by Ekachai Uekrongtham (Beautiful Boxer), the film is fairly straightforward revenge action with better than average production and much better than average talent than the typical DTV fare making up much of this genre. At its core the plot point concerning prostitution and human trafficking serves as merely a loose thematic tie that attempts to cross bridges and somehow provide an organic way to get these two action stars together. Once the general establishing of character and motivations is done, the film turns into a kind of double revenge film.
The action is bloody, brutal, and at times gratuitous; it never aspires to be anything more than a brawny action thriller and perhaps that is the best thing about it. Lundgren and Jaa are hardly actors known for their thespian abilities, and each gets their fair share on onscreen ass-kicking with which to shine. Lundgren, perhaps poking fun at his elder statesman role in the pantheon of action cinema, tends to fight smarter as opposed to his formerly ‘balls-to-the-wall’ approach in many other recent films. When he does gets down to the up close and personal however, he still handles himself well, if at a slower clip than his spryer and younger days. Jaa is as athletic as ever; he performs most of his trademarked moves with precision, grace, and power. Since the film has him sharing screen time with another lead, it keeps the tease on his abilities for perhaps longer than than those looking at this film primarily because of Jaa would like, but at around the halfway point, Jaa begins to shed his character’s tentativeness and also begins to embrace the carnage that Lundgren’s Cassidy has brought to the continent. There is a reveal early on in the film that delivered the realization of a showdown later on in the film that I was hoping to see, and it did deliver the best sequence of the film. While it isn’t perhaps the action scene to end all, it does feature solid stuntwork, more than competent choreography, and just the sheer joy at seeing two men I admire cinematically punching and kicking each other.
Lundgren takes a more quiet and driven approach in the film while Jaa’s character is much more driven emotionally. It should be noted that Jaa has a number of English lines, the film is primarily in English in fact, and he evidently took intensive English lessons to help his increased profile in Western produced films. It truly shows and while I’d say he isn’t yet ready to hold sterling conversation, he’s definitely taking steps to being a more international talent. The supporting cast does their best with their limited time on screen: Michael Jai White has a handful of action scenes as Cassidy’s federal liaison at the film’s introductory sting; the beautiful Celina Jade is woefully underused, both in terms of her fighting ability and acting capability; and the also scene stealing Perlman just absolutely chews the scenery with the best of them.
The film itself relies too much on the tried and true ‘men on a mission’ archetype to provide any real gravitas, but that is certainly not the point of the picture and not the point of any of these types of films at all. While not the gamechanger some may have hoped for, Skin Trade is a solid and manly film that features a whole lot of dead bodies and a fevered pace that rarely lets up.