Tom Jolliffe discusses the ins and outs, ups and downs, past, present and future of Ivan Drago…
One of the Reagan era children, from the taut, muscular womb of 80’s action cinema, Dolph Lundgren never quite hit the big league. In the shadow of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis were Van Damme, Seagal, and Norris. Then you’d say next in line was Dolph Lundgren. So why, off the back of hitting it big, and hitting it fast, did Lundgren never achieve a sustained career in the multiplexes?
Lundgren is a genuine, bonafide genius. Having studied chemical engineering in his younger days, obtaining a masters, he was offered a Fulbright scholarship at MIT. However the lure of acting was too much and a career in Hollywood beckoned. In fact he did not have long to wait for his big break at all. That break of course, being Rocky IV (1985). Aside from Lundgren being, unbeknownst and never assumed by people, as highly intelligent (often, like his action contemporaries is “gifted” the meathead tag), he is also the real deal when it comes to being a tough guy. Lundgren is a 3rd degree black belt in Karate, and a former European Champion to boot. He was also a former Swedish Marine. So in conjunction with his 6ft5 frame of mostly bulging muscle, he’s a guy that could kick most asses he’d so choose to kick. He was also a former model by the time he was punching Stallone in Rocky IV, even being photographed by Andy Warhol. Further more, Lundgren never carried quite the dialogue chomping accent of some of his fellow Euro contemporaries, and was able to slip reasonably comfortably into American lead roles.
It boils down to a mixture of bad luck and bad choices. Following Rocky IV’s huge success and exposure, Lundgren signed up to play He-Man in Masters of the Universe (1987). This should have been the spring board to launch himself as a solo act, and leading man. Trouble was, the film came out 2 years after Rocky IV, with not quite so much wave to ride on. In addition, the ailing Cannon, who produced the film, trimmed the budget and the film failed to live up to it’s potential. In the end, for all Lundgren’s efforts, running around Chicago in a costume that was just a gimp mask short of an S&M lover’s ideal clobber, the film whimpered at the box office, doing reasonable but unspectacular numbers. On video, it was huge (a statement that would eventually define Lundgren’s career). Red Scorpion was next up. Now infamous as being the pet project of future lobbyist Jack Abramoff (who was recently jailed for fraud and tax evasion), the film tanked at the box-office, eventually finding a strong audience on video. It was a film destined for failure though, with Lundgren playing a heroic Russian lead off the back of the cold war, and the tail end of your classic villainous Ruski’s in every action film period in the mid-late 80’s. It was never going to work, even before adding a poor script into the mix. Alternate possibilities at the time of Masters and Red Scorpion were reportedly a Captain America film and The Running Man, which eventually went to Arnold.
Two theatrical flops meant the next movie in line was crucial. Lundgren opted to attempt the comic book genre with The Punisher. The film was low budget and New World Pictures own financial difficulties meant the film went straight to video in the US. Initially the film was also derided by fans and critics, though at least in recent times it has a new found appreciation amongst action and cult film aficionados, while many still rate Lundgren as the definitive Mr P. from all three (thus far) failed movie attempts. Again, bad luck. Lundgren couldn’t have known something with a ready made fan base would underwhelm so much. Again, budgetary problems (a Lundgren byword) meant the film wasn’t as good as it could have been, and played a factor.
Slowly the big screen gate receipts were beginning to suggest the Lundgren ship had run its course. A couple more theatrical flops, rescued by strong video numbers, saw Lundgren then face off against up and coming action star Jean Claude Van Damme. A star on the rise against a star on the decline. The film was a big success. Lundgren’s first theatrical hit since Rocky IV. This would suggest he was the number 2, the bad guy extraordinaire, and perhaps not the theatrical leading man. Once again though, Lundgren was riding the crest of a wave. The next choice was essential. For one reason or another his next batch of films didn’t find their way (or audience) to the big screen in the states, whilst at the same time Van Damme would go on to make Timecop and push himself right in the slipstream of Sly and Arnie, alongside his own arch nemesis, Steven Seagal. While many attain that Lundgren steals the show in Universal Soldier, it was the short Belgian bloke who came out with the bigger smile.
Aside from his supporting role in the disastrous Johnny Mnemonic (he was probably the only one to come out of that film with any credit), Lundgren from then on was relegated to headlining straight-to-video films. Budgets dwindled from low, down to positively anaemic. By the time the millennium was coming to an end and the noughties were around the corner, Lundgren had tried and failed to get a couple of TV projects off the ground including Blackjack, a pilot that was directed by John Woo (THE John Woo, and out of contractual obligation), and began starring in films of such low quality, that in 2002, rumours circulated about his retirement from the movie business. Indeed films such as Agent Red, Last Patrol and Storm Catcher were utterly woeful. The ultimate indignity for Lundgren was to make Agent Red and Storm Catcher, two films written around what stock footage they could use (in order to fool the audience into believing they weren’t made for peanuts, by showing jet fighters etc.). In fact the use of stock footage got so bad, that one of the few action scenes actually filmed on location for Storm Catcher was used AGAIN in Agent Red.
A twist of fate occurred in 2004’s Lundgren opus The Defender. Director Sidney J. Furie was taken ill and a replacement director was needed. Lundgren was offered the gig, and accepted, despite mere weeks of prep time before cameras rolled. The result was his best film in a long time. From then on, Lundgren caught the directing bug, and seemingly a new found enthusiasm for movie making. He went on to direct his sophomore effort The Mechanik, a thoroughly enjoyable 70’s style revenge film. It does what it says on the tin, and delivers what the fans want. The key being that Lundgren has more clout as director than any hired hand (though gets far from having his own way sadly), and a sense of pride about what he does. He’s admitted it stings him when some of his films turn out well under the expected genre minimum.
Come the tail end of 2008, Lundgren was plugging away developing his own projects. Still suffering at the hands of narrow minded producers, budget problems, and broken promises, his directorial efforts at the very least felt like “efforts.” Even if you sometimes felt Lundgren was fighting a losing battle on set, in films like Missionary Man and Icarus. Sometimes the films delivered the simple direct-to-video, switch off the brain, mayhem expected such as The Mechanik and Command Performance. He also revisited Universal Soldier alongside Van Damme in the straight-to-video Universal Soldier: Regeneration. The film was well made with some pride and imagination, with cracking action scenes, and again, Lundgren stole the movie from under Jean Claude’s nose. Then that spine tingling announcement from Sly Stallone! The Expendables with Stallone, Jason Statham and Jet Li! An action fans lucid cheese dream brought to life! But things got better, for fans, but particularly for Dolph Lundgren! He was next to join the cast. Suddenly this was becoming an action geeks delight. By the time the film wrapped it had added Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Jean Claude turned it down. This time, Lundgren had made the better decision by putting his hat into the ring for this gig. It’s a decision which has paid off. Since its announcement to the promo in the weeks before release, Lundgren has had more exposure than he’s had since first donning gloves against the Italian Stallion. Interview upon interview, article upon article, “I remember him!” upon “I remember him!” In addition, while the film polarised critics, Lundgren’s performance was one of the most praised in the film. He manages to steal his scenes, having been given one of the few characters with an arc in the movie. Once again though, as antagonist he seems to shine.
So what’s next? There’s a wave now for Lundgren to surf, and maybe this time he’s learned how to stay on the board. He’s a guy who comes across as very modest and humble in interviews. Someone who comes across as immensely likeable, whereas for example, Steven Seagal can often come across as extremely arrogant and narrow minded, or Van Damme a little bit loony. Already, Lundgren has found himself taking a guest role on popular TV show Chuck, playing as he calls it “Ivan Drago in a suit.” He’s also recently appeared in ads for Norton Anti-virus software (“Protect your PC from Dolph Lundgren!”). His name is already attached to the almost set in stone Expendables 2 and he has his own directing projects still to do, including Skin Trade, with early rumours involving him teaming up with Seagal to take down human sex-traffickers (which ironically, Seagal was recently accused of being himself). There’s also another Universal Soldier film on the cards for Lundgren, rumoured to be in 3D. There’s many possibilities, from getting his name on board a film from stunt-casting directors like Tarantino, Rodriguez, or Nolan perhaps? Or a Bond henchman? Lundgren adding some Robert Shaw-esque menace and facing off with fellow grizzled blond, Daniel Craig’s Bond. There’s a role as a Viking somewhere with Dolph Lundgren’s name written all over it too I’m sure.
While it may be abundantly obvious that I know more about Dolph Lundgren than perhaps anyone really should, bar the man himself, I will say, given he’s my childhood hero (having played He-Man, and I was a huge He-Man fan) I’m delighted to see him back in the limelight, and hoping to see just a few more films on the big screen with Lundgren involved. And as an action aficionado, I can say with great conviction, that the new wave of action heroes just don’t have the same clout as the 80’s crew. They were genuine tough guys, the real deal. Matt Damon could not kick Dolph Lundgren’s ass. No way no how! At least for the next couple of years, there’s time for Sly and the boys to have a last hurrah, and show the youngsters how to be a real badass! It takes more than a 6 pack.
Five Essential… Dolph Lundgren Films