Tom Jolliffe looks back at the career of Mark Dacascos…
Sometimes there is someone who flirts with the big time, but for one reason or another, never quite makes it. In the grand pantheon of action star legends, you will remember such luminaries as Arnold, Sly, Jean Claude, Steven and Dolph. They forged lasting careers, gaining popularity on the big screen and/or the video market. It’s down to luck, the package they offer, and durability, that means a film can still be pre-sold to all the major territories, for the big screen or the major video market by the name one of the big boys. Whether it was a breakout role that held them in good stead for the lengthy careers which followed, or a string of successes that were enough to override any subsequent failures, the likes of Stallone are big business. In the action genre, there are a number of templates that any new star breaking through would fit themselves to, or be fitted to perhaps. In the case of Mark Dacascos, who broke out in the martial arts genre, he would probably seen as someone who could rival Jean Claude Van Damme. Ultimately though, Dacascos never came close to matching Van Damme’s following.
Dacascos can count himself as one of the most unfortunate action stars of recent times. His talents deserved more longevity, more star status and more impact. By no means has his career been a total washout though. Dacascos has leant his name to a number of cult favourites, while gaining a respectable level of fandom. But the potential he possessed to have a purple patch in multi-plexes like JC, or become a video king like JC or Lundgren, has not been fulfilled.
He first rose to prominence in Only The Strong. The film featured Dacascos as a soldier who returns to his old neighbourhood to find it’s been taken over by drug dealers, and to find his old school has become a breeding ground for future prison fodder. He is hired to teach the kids Capoeira (Brazilian martial arts) to help them with discipline and focus. At the same time he clashes with the local drug lord, who’s nephew is one of his students. The film, directed by a regular Van Damme collaborator, Sheldon Lettich was an enjoyable slice of video action, not least because of its fairly unique martial art. Dacascos comes across as likeable, and it also showcases his talent for on screen fighting.
At this time he also appeared in the truly woeful video game adaptation, Double Dragon. A terrible idea to start with, not before it’s horrific execution. Despite the games popularity (though hardly a rival to Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat), pretty much no one watched it, and the few who did found it dire. Dacascos then truly followed in Jean Claude’s footsteps by headlining Kickboxer 5. Like Double Dragon, the film was woeful, and not the launch pad he’d have hoped for.
Dacascos hit a break next up, with Manga live action adaption Crying Freeman. The film was artistically ambitious. It looked far beyond its modest budget thanks to the young, visually stylistic director Christophe Gans. The film was beautifully shot and well edited by David Wu (who edited most of John Woo’s Hong Kong shoot em ups). This film showcased Dacascos’s arsenal of talents. Why should he have hit it big? Well, on screen, in action, he moves with almost unmatched grace. His gymnastic ability looks great on screen and combine well with his svelte frame, agility and flexibility. In addition he’s a highly accomplished martial artist. Furthermore he’s able to give his performances a sense of vulnerability and sensitivity that many of his peers can’t. In part this may be why he hasn’t hit it as big. But his ability to be different could have played in his favour with better casting and more luck in his career. As an actor, he’s by no means Olivier, but he’s not bad when his strengths are played to and he connects with a director. With Gan’s he found a director who could get the best out of him. Freeman to this day hasn’t been officially released in the US. It was however hugely popular in France, and also did well in Europe.
The two re-teamed later on with the popular French hit, Brotherhood of the Wolf. The film was a bizarre concoction of influences, genres and styles but proved popular with fans and critics. Dacascos was given a thumbs up by critics as the standout role of the film. As Mani he’s enigmatic, other-wordly, and physically impressive at the same time. Dacascos’s eyes always tell a story when his characters are more quietly natured. Indeed, when his characters are of a quietly sensitive nature, he’s at his best. Again, genre buffs tend to be more inclined to enjoy the silent but grizzled and tough act that Arnie and co have perfected. Brotherhood of the Wolf thrust Dacascos briefly under the radar. It was at this point that his follow on needed to be right for him to gain some momentum. Unfortunately it wasn’t. He secured bad guy duties in Cradle 2 The Grave. It was an opportunity to go toe to toe with action legend Jet Li. The film was poor, though reasonably successful, and the showdown was disappointing. Since that time his career hasn’t stagnated mostly in the video realms. Not even that moment in the sun with Brotherhood allowed him to take place amongst the A-list of the video realm, such as Lundgren. And of late, Dacascos’s film projects have fallen from C-grade, almost down to Z-grade. Budgets have gone from thin to anorexic.
His cult status is cemented thanks to underground hit, Drive. A straight to video, low budget, martial arts flick may sound like a dime a dozen affair, but Drive is a film that is immensely enjoyable, and something of a pleasant and delightful discovery to those who stumble on it. Offering fight fans the sort of choreographed martial arts normally reserved for Hong Kong cinema, Drive is a riot! The action is fantastic, featuring some of the best fight scenes put to film, not just outside Hong Kong, but full-stop. Loaded with imagination and fantastic stunt-work, Drive kicks ass, and Dacascos is majestic in full flow. As well as the fight scenes, the film is very funny. There’s very little plot, but the film has that air of being a production that all involved in it, enjoyed immensely. There’s a sense of creative expression, not least because of the allowance for ad-libbing (which was put to good use by Kadeem Hardison as Dacasco’s comedy side-kick). The film has wonderful chemistry between all involved, whilst the late Brittany Murphy is a joy to watch and has actually never been better than she is here. In Dacasco’s part he plays his role with some poignancy (at least in the Director’s Cut version) and also shows himself able with comedy, playing straight man to Hardison very well.
Of late Dacascos has had some success in TV, he’s been the Chairman in Iron Chef America, appeared on Dancing With The Stars, and guested as a recurring villain in the reboot of Hawaii Five-0. Earlier too he followed in Brandon Lee’s footsteps by starring as Eric Draven in the TV series The Crow: Stairway To Heaven (the show was mid-range, neither good/bad, success/failure). He’s now 47 (though doesn’t like a day over 30), so another shot at the big time is unlikely, but what with the sudden surge in popularity for the action stars of the 80s and early 90s, he may find himself popping up in The Expendables 2, if he’s lucky. There’s always the possibility of joining up with Gan’s again, or perhaps finally getting round to the long gestating Drive sequel, but until then, he needs someone to use him right in a film. Dacascos isn’t the out and out tough guy. He’s not the stoic, stone faced killing machine. He’s a hero altogether different. He has neither the imposing presence or gruffness to be as menacing as guys like Steven Seagal. He’s been given roles like that, and it hasn’t worked. Whether he gets another shot, remains to be seen, but he certainly deserves it.