I am a big fan of action movies. It doesn't matter if it's The Fate of the Furious, a blockbuster movie that was made for $250 million, that's taken almost a billion worldwide in under 2 weeks or if it's a straight to video martial arts fest, starring an aging star from the 80s, that's made for $500,000 and makes that back in overseas sales to countries with names I can't spell properly. Either way, I'm your core audience.
For those who follow these things, and indie movie reviewers like myself, you'll know that a new batch of straight to video movies come out every week, normally in and around the action genre and often starring Eric Roberts or Danny Trejo.
Black Rose, that starts its limited cinema release today and goes to VOD and DVD on May 2nd comes from the minds of Russian bodybuilder, Alexander Nevsky (sort of the cyrillic Schwarzenegger), George Saunders (who has written a few of these types of low budget action thrillers) and Brent Huff. It is that last name that should've given me pause.
I first became aware of the Huff-ster as a fan of Sho Kosugi. He appears as one of the legendary ninja's sidekicks in, gloriously daft and borderline surreal comedy actioner, 9 Deaths of a Ninja. However Brent Huff really left a mark on my psyche forever when Dr.Action and myself - on our podcast Dr.Action and the Kick Ass Kid - decided to cover a film called The Bad Pack. It's an ensemble, Pre-Expendables style men-on-a-mission movie headed up by Robert Davi and Rowdy Roddy Piper, what could go wrong?
Having watched 100s of 80s and 90s lower budget action fare, The Bad Pack (also a Huff-joint), remains the low benchmark by which all bad action films are now measured. It committed the cardinal sin of simply being boring and a horribly wasted opportunity considering they had the cast, the locations and the budget, at least, to pull off a few fights.
Now, some years later, a review copy of Huff's latest brain waft lands in my inbox. At first I wasn't aware of Huff's involvement and so I proceeded normally. I watched the trailer, read the press release and thought that this would be a film, at the very least, worth taking a look at.
It had a Red Heat/Cobra vibe with an aviator shades wearing, take no shit, plays by his own rules Russian cop in cowboy boots coming to California to help track down a serial killer who is targeting Russian women/mail-order wives/prostitutes. It co-starred Robert Davi, had an appearance by Matthias Hues and, although I had not seen a film with him before, I am always willing to give a new action star like Alexander Nevsky a chance.
So the movie started and I was actually going with it. It was fairly well paced, fairly well acted and apart from a few cringe-worthy lines, it was, at the very least, watchable.
The first thing that rang a warning bell with me was the preponderance of city-establishing montages. The movie is barley 1hr 20mins long and at least 10mins of that is various shots of L.A. or Moscow with library score music over the top of them. One of them in particular seems to go on and on and on with even more shaky camera work and erratic, epileptic editing.
Secondly, despite a Cobra like opening where Nevsky breaks up the most inept bank robbery/hostage situation ever, the rest of the film continues with little to no action. There is one other scene, to establish his cop-without-a-care persona, where he blows away a handbag snatcher but, apart from that, the film continues as a ponderous and, quite frankly, ludicrously convoluted serial killer procedural.
So the film isn't an action film and when I realised that I decided to change tack and view it as a serial killer/cop drama. The reason why action would've helped a film like this is that it isn't consistent, well written or intelligent enough to be a gripping serial killer film.
In a low budget action film, much like (and pardon this analogy) porn, you're not in it for the plot. Nevsky should've gone round roughing up and karate chopping perps, biting the heads off violent badgers and kicking down doors with his big boots. It's not so much that Nevsky doesn't have the charisma or acting talent to pull off the part of a sharp detective - though he most assuredly does not - it's that the script was laughably all over the place.
Stripped of any exciting shoot outs or car chases the film plods ever forward like a lost puppy in the snow. There are even frustratingly promising moments where it looks like a short, uninspired gun fight might at least lead to a crazy car chase but instead the two detectives run down the fire escape to find their tires slashed and just give up. The film cuts to another painful "dialogue" scene. No running out into the street and commandeering an old woman's 1994 Peugeot and giving chase through obviously eastern european streets doubling for Los Angeles and no humourously stealing a bike off a street kid and pedaling like fury through mad traffic to finally capture the perp at a warehouse using sheer force of will and chop socky violence... none of it. Just a shot where two actors, who are confused as to why they're even there, looking down at a slashed tire and saying "oh well".
This is a killer who has already bumped off six women and shows no sign of slowing down and our two "heroes" are defeated by a deflated tire. Man I long for the 80s...
There's also a scene where the cast sit around a table and give us the stats and history of other serial killers. The reason for this scene, I presume, is because Kristanna Loken is apparently playing a psychological profiler. This would be fine if any of the information from this copied-from-wikipedia scene actually furthered the plot or brought up some information that might pertain to our angry Russian woman throat slitter but it doesn't. Cut to yet another inexplicable scene that leads us nowhere.
When Arnie started his cinematic reign filmmakers knew that the best way to use him was as a robot from the future, an ancient bizarre warrior or a monosyllabic Russian policeman. He had the presence, the occasional glimmer of a personality and the impressive bulk to be an action star. Nevsky is pretty similar right now, he's not really that bad but Sherlock Holmes he is not, he's not even John McClaine! I would've loved to see him nutting thugs and flipping cars with his teeth but alas, it was not to be.
Talking about Terminators, Kristanna Loken isn't bad at all but definitely deserves better than lunacy like this. She's a strong performer and didn't give away once the struggle it must've been to deliver some of the lines she had to in Black Rose.
Robert Davi, who I always enjoy on screen, has a, clearly filmed over 2 days - all in the same location - while he was passing through Bulgaria, kind of a part but is distributed pretty well throughout the film so he feels like a legitimate third lead. I can only assume Davi and Huff remained friends since making The Bad Pack, either that or Huff caught Davi strangling a kitten, dancing naked in cocaine or something on the set of that movie and the price of Huff's silence is that Davi agreed to appear in this. That is, of course, completely humourous and non-factual speculation but I can only imagine what trail of skeletons leads one to appear in anything Brent Huff touches.
In conclusion, I honestly would love to be able to endorse The Black Rose and tell you all to track it down because there needs to be weird and imaginative gems amongst the deluge of VOD movies we have to wade through week in week out. I take no pleasure in stating that the film was pretty awful, competently made, certainly but sadly not worth your time. I want this site to be a champion of movies like this but once in a while you come across one that just doesn't cut the mustard. I would definitely watch another Nevsky or Loken flick as they were very enjoyable in their own way but only if Huff's grubby finger prints are nowhere near it.
I'm sorry Brent, I don't know you, you're probably a lovely chap but not a screenwriter.
Just because you've watched some movies, are aware of genre tropes and put pen to paper, it doesn't make a screenplay. Much like the flowers in this film, a rose stuck in a bottle of black ink does not a real black rose make.