By Chuck Wilson
Guaranteed to make most men feel woefully unprepared for a fistfight to the death, these five action flicks from After Dark Films -- each of which will play once a day as part of a one-week festival -- might vary in quality, but a low testosterone count is never the problem.
In director Antonio Negret's absurd but fast-paced Transit, Jim Caviezel stars as a man trying to reconnect with his wife and kids after being imprisoned for real estate fraud. In the Louisiana bayou, the family crosses paths with a ruthless gang of bank robbers, and soon, Caviezel is slogging through the swamps, channeling his inner Rambo.
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As plotlines go, there's nothing new to The Philly Kid, directed by Jason Connery, but a compelling lead performance by newcomer Wes Chatham makes the clichés feel fresh. He stars as a college wrestling champ who's sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. Newly released a decade later, he's forced to fight in three Mixed Martial Arts contests in order to relieve his best friend's debt to a loan shark. There's not a single surprising moment, but the fights feel fiercely authentic.
Poor Sean Faris literally can't throw a punch to save his life in Eduardo Rodriguez's Stash House, which finds Faris and Briana Evigan trapped in a mansion that has been tricked out to become one giant panic room. Outside, two bad guys, led by an older but still handsome Dolph Lundgren, are desperate to get inside, but it's not the house's hidden stash of heroin they're after. Faris and Evigan don't have much romantic chemistry, but their characters' rainy-night showdown with Lundgren takes some clever turns.
In El Gringo, an L.A. cop (Scott Adkins) with a bagful of drug loot stumbles into a tiny Mexican town that isn't too keen on strangers. All he wants is a glass of water and a bus outta town, but both prove comically elusive. Director Eduardo Rodriguez, with his second film in this series, ultimately wears us out with his awkward juggling of multiple subplots, including one that has Christian Slater as a cop on the money trail, but a long, late-film street fight between Adkins and dozens of machine gun-toting gang members is pretty kickass (in more ways than one).
Also kickass: Cung Le, a Vietnamese American martial arts champion, who stars as yet another ex-con who can't avoid trouble in Dragon Eyes, directed by John Hyams. For reasons that flashbacks gradually reveal, Le's character infiltrates a drug ring run by a crooked cop, a role played with nasty precision by Peter Weller. The film features a number of impressive old-school beat-downs, but the sadness within Le's character makes the movie oddly depressing. Still, who can resist the sight of Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing Le's mentor and uttering such wisdom as: "If you get shot, it's only because you didn't understand the man who shot you. Don't think about the gun. Think about the man." Words to live by.