Thursday, February 2, 2012


Pentathlon (1994)
Dir. Bruce Malmuth
Starring Dolph Lundgren, David Soul, Roger E. Mosely

I hesitate to call this 1994 time capsule featuring Dolph Lundgren as a Down-On-His-Luck-East-German-Pentathlon-Gold-Medalist-Defector/Fry-Cook an action movie, for one reason and one reason only. There’s virtually no action in it. There’s one chase scene at the very beginning of the film, a short sword fight halfway through, and a small explosion near the end, but that’s all you get. I’m betting the real Dolph Lundgren sees more action before breakfast than he does in the entire runtime of this thing. But that’s OK, because it’s kind of a nice reminder that one year before Michael Bay landed on the American movie scene like a albatross bowel movement from 1000 feet, there was a place for action movies that were actually pretty much dramas about macho men. I vividly remember being extremely confused by all the crying and talking the first time I watched FIRST BLOOD in my youth. Why are they telling us a story when they should be exploding?

    The answer is --gather round, boys and girls, ol’ grandpa Subtlety is gonna tell you a story -- that long, long ago, people were actually entertained by stories which are interesting. I understand that now a youtube video which doesn’t demonstrate the cruel depths of human suffering or cats doing funny things within the first nanosecond qualifies as a crime against humanity, worthy of writing an impassioned, strongly worded 100 characters. But back in the time of the dinosaurs, sometimes you could get your brain to focus for a period of many minutes in a row on Dolph Lundgren’s quest to get his life back together with the help of his tough but zany former Fry Cook Manager (Roger E. Mosely, who played Leadbelly in LEADBELLY).

    Basically, Dolph is an East German kid, coached to Olympic greatness by his brutal neo-Nazi coach Muller* (David Soul, who I guess was Hutch from “Starksy and Hutch.” Turns out Mosely was a guest star on that show, too, so happy birthday to you Starsky and Hutch reunion fans**). Fed up with the win-at-all-costs tactics of his team (his coach is furious at him for refusing to take steroids), Dolph defects to America right after his gold metal win, but gets himself shot in the leg in the process. Also his best friend gets shot and his ex-coach goes crazy and beats his father to death. But then a gorgeous American Olympian takes him in and presumably fucks him into next week (it's called loving freedom. Deal with it, fascists!). So, a real roller coaster of a day.

    Anyway, Dolph is flaunting his cartoonish teutonic charm all over the Free World (just like Neil Young would do), when suddenly he happens to glance at the TV and, holy shit, the Berlin wall is down. He could have waited two fucking months and been out anyway! That fucks him up pretty bad, and he goes on a downward spiral for a few off-screen years until we catch up with him as a fuckup irresponsible alchoholic loner doing a shitty job as a cook at a dive diner in LA (in other words, he bottomed out with a setup that pretty much describes the pinnacle of my life so far).

In order to emphasize this character transition, Dolph underwent a startling physical transformation. He lived the part off-stage, eating poorly, getting drunk, sitting on the couch, growing a beard, and gaining 60 pounds of pure gut. Just kidding, he’s still Dolph so even with a dirty apron on he looks like such a hilariously exaggerated ubermensch that even Nietzche would have to laugh. When his manager (Dolph’s, not Neitzche’s) discovers that his surly, unreliable employee is an ex-Olympic gold medalist, he resolved to pull his German ass out of its current funk and get him back to the top of his game. But little does he realize that Muller is now in America, ostensibly to do some kind of neo-Nazi chicanery, but possibly also to settle a personal score with his old pupil.

  The film would be pretty forgettable were it not for the surprisingly strong performances by Dolph and David Soul. There’s not a lot of action here, so the tension has to come from the characters themselves, and whaddayaknow, they actually deliver. Dolph isn’t going to win an Olympic gold (maybe a bronze) for his acting, but he has a certain disarming charm which makes us root for him. It’s not exactly a layered performance, but then again, it’s not exactly a layered character anyway -- he’s a big chiseled lunkhead who happens to have some weird drama happen to him and always tries to do the right thing. Opposite that is David Soul as the psychotic obsessed Nazi coach. Would you believe that it’s a great fucking performance? As twisted as he is, Muller considers himself a father to Dolph’s Eric, and feels both deeply betrayed and fiercely proud of him. Soul somehow manages to convey all that with his performance, making you sort of feel for Muller even as you are repulsed by him. Soul’s manic, conflicted intensity makes him a pretty compelling screen villain and ups the tension considerably. And putting him at odds with Dolph’s simplistic nice-guy hunk makes him seem all the more perverse. It’s a seriously good performance and dynamic which decisively elevates an OK film to a pretty good one.

Director Bruce Malmuth (who directed one of Seagal’s more entertaining joints, HARD TO KILL, and the classic Sylvester Stallone cross-dressing terrorist epic NIGHTHAWKS) doesn’t do anything too special here, but the whole thing is professionally assembled. It’s a silly film, but he shoots it like a real movie and, with the help of the actors, finds the right tone of somewhat cartoonish earnestness. It may be a sports movie with almost no sports and an action movie with almost no action, but it sort of has heart. And for this old luddite, that counts for a lot.

*That’s actually Mu:ller with an umlaut, just in case you had any doubts that he was evil. Not sure how to format that, so use your imagination, and maybe even throw in an extra umlaut or two just to really drive the point home. 

**Wouldn't it be great if they also got Starsky as Dolph's murdered father? I'd definitely buy a special edition where they went back and put him in there, kind of a setting-history-right thing. Inventor of the time machine, do this before you worry about stopping Hitler (besides, if you stopped Hitler Soul wouldn't be able to play a psychotic Neo-Nazi here, and then this movie wouldn't be as great. So let's just fix this casting Starsky thing and then leave causality to the pros).

Vern reviewed this one awhile back, and as usual puts all other reviews to shame -- Read it here

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