Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hidden Assassin (1995)

aka The Shooter

(This write-up is based on the shorter US cut of the movie that excises about ten minutes of scenes meant to deepen characterization and make the plot clearer).

US Marshal Michael Dane (Dolph Lundgren), one of those people who abduct foreign nationals from countries the USA don’t have extradition treaties with, is doing a small favour for his old friend, CIA agent Alex Reed (John Ashton) and Reed’s boss Dick Powell (Gavan O’Herlihy). The CIA thinks that professional assassin Simone Rosset (Maruschka Detmers) has already killed a Cuban ambassador for kicks, and is now planning to slaughter the participants of a historic peace conference between the US and Cuba in Prague, so they’d be very thankful if Dane could catch her and bring her to the US.

Catching Simone turns out to be quite difficult for Dane, and catching and keeping her even more so, because she is just the decisive bit more competent at the whole cat and mouse game. Consequently, it takes quite some time and effort, and some rather unpleasant lies to Simone’s girlfriend Marta (Assumpta Serna) for Dane to reach this goal. Not that he’s all that happy about it – he neither likes the CIA way of going about things, nor does he seem to like to morally compromise himself; he has also taken quite a shine to Simone until his head and his penis are pulling into very different directions when it comes to her.

At least on an ethical level, Dane’s life becomes easier when people probably working for the CIA are trying to kill Simone before he can bring her out of the Czech Republic.

Ted Kotcheff’s Hidden Assassin is one of the more surprising vehicles for that loveable lug, Dolph Lundgren. As we all know, while Lundgren is one of the more likeable action specialists of his generation (which automatically puts him in a higher league than Seagal and Norris), his thespian skills have their limits mostly in glowering, looking like the nicest guy ever to bash your head in, and two kinds of smiles, which results in a limited repertoire of roles, so much so that most of his films aren’t even trying to get anything else out of him.

Even though Kotcheff’s film isn’t going against the trend completely, its script (by Yves André Martin) does provide Lundgren with a slightly more complex character than usual, as well as with a backstory that is actually connected to what’s going on in the rest of the film on a thematic level. Given his acting limits, Dolph really does comport himself very well here, not exactly giving a subtle performance but a convincing one; that he’s doing his usual good job in the action sequences is a given anyway.

It’s quite interesting to see how well the script’s slightly slicker execution (why, there’s actually a reason for people to do what they do, and it even makes sense in context) turns your generic Lundgren vehicle into, well, an actual movie, the sort of film where the action becomes more exciting because it carries meaning beyond going through the action movie motions. Not that Kotcheff is bad at directing the action sequences – there are some fun cheap chases through the mean streets of Prague (prettier as Sofia - there, I said it), a simple yet pretty great final rooftop chase, as well as some of the always entertaining train top shenanigans (though none including a motorbike), and other moments of the kind of joyful anti-gravitational nonsense that make action cinema so delightful, all of them done with great competence and providing thrills big enough I’m not even going to call them mandatory thrills.

On the other hand, I don’t want to oversell the script’s depth or perceived depth. This is – at least in the shorter US version – still very much an action movie and not a character study, and certainly also not on the level of the rarefied kind of action movie where the action is part of the character study, too. It just knows how to enable the action better. Plus, there’s no hilariously earnest scene where a hallucinatory George Clooney holds a ridiculous pep talk, so it’s already better than Gravity.

Adding to this, there are also all kinds of nice little touches giving Hidden Assassin a distinct personality of its own. I particularly enjoyed Gavan O’Herlihy’s and some of the minor actors’ shameless scenery chewing, as if they had drunkenly stumbled in from one of Lundgren’s later direct-to-DVD films; or how much more competent at the whole action hero business Detmers’s Simone seems to be, at least until the film feels the need to get out the refrigerator.

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