Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Mechanik (2005)

aka The Russian Specialist

After taking bloody vengeance on the men who killed his wife and son, former Speznaz soldier Nikolai Cherenko (Dolph Lundgren) leaves Russia to illegally work in the US as a mechanic. After years, a clearly very rich family seeks Nikolai out to convince him to return to Russia and rescue their daughter Julia (Olivia Lee) from the hands of kidnappers. At first, Nikolai isn't interested in doing this kind of thing anymore, but once he is told the leader of the kidnappers is Sasha Popov (Ivan Petrushinov), the guy mainly responsible for his family's death whom Nikolai left for dead in his vengeance spree, he's all in.

Nikolai hires British expatriate William Burton (Ben Cross) for information and organization purposes, grudgingly takes on a group of Russian redshirts as helpers, and off he goes to the rescue.

As it turns out, rescuing Julia isn't that dangerous (unless you're a redshirt) but then getting her over the border to Finland (rural Russia of course being played by Bulgaria) is quite a bit more difficult, particularly with Sasha and his men hot on our heroes' trail.

I'm rather often making fun of Dolph Lundgren but leave it to the often fake-Russian Swede to make a cheap yet excellent little action movie with himself in the leading role like a rather more likeable Kenneth Brannagh (I think I may have mentioned my loathing for that particular one-man-show once or twice, too). As a director, Lundgren isn't particularly showy when it comes to the action sequences. They're all shot with surprising restraint, and few attempts to show off by overusing stupid post-production effects. Lundgren seems to prefer a more direct and straightforward approach to action direction I generally prefer too, with a certain scruffiness in choreography and approach that reminded me of nothing so much as of certain US b-westerns.

That isn't to say Lundgren doesn't do anything beyond pointing the camera in the direction of the action. It's rather the case that Lundgren puts his direction in the service of his (maybe minimal yet pretty effective) plot and not the other way round. From time to time, he even does something subtle (nothing you see every day in a low budget action film) - I particularly liked the contrasting use of the usual bleached out colour scheme all films made after 2002 are bound by law to use and something slightly more colourful to enhance certain emotional moments.

Staying with the theme of subtlety, the director/actor's approach to emotional scenes is also more controlled than you can expect in a cheap action movie. While the film hits the expected emotional beats, it doesn't feel the need to hammer them home, in the clear knowledge that the audience has seen characters and narrative structures like this before and will be able to understand them even if you don't turn your melodrama to eleven. From time to time, I even had the impression the film mildly criticized the rituals of male violence and the dead women following them, though that might be me reading a bit much into a simple and straightforward film. At the very least, this is a film that doesn't go the "kidnap victim falls in love with her rescuer so that we can include a sex scene" road, and prefers a rather more believable moment of basic tenderness between the characters.

Anyway, if Lundgren ever directed a film not about Lundgren killing a lot of people (though he doesn't kill that many here: this is a movie where surviving a one to five shootout is seen as impressive badassery, which is good for the film's budget as well as its believability, really, and keeps the grand finale actually more tense because our heroes feel more human), I'd actually be quite excited to see it.

Until that day, I'll probably keep myself happy re-watching The Mechanik.

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