With the Olympics in full swing, Tom Jolliffe looks back at a forgotten Olympics themed movie, Pentathlon…
The Olympics are well underway. Gold medals are flying around and national pride for respective nations is at a high. Whether it’s the expected medals glut for Olympic heavy hitters like China, Japan and the USA, or first ever Gold for the Philippines, there’s a brimming sense of optimism in the air and a sudden interest in things you never had a passing thought about (Brits are temporarily interested in Olympic synchronised diving after Tom Daley’s triumph). For the most part the tournament spreads positivity, and in current circumstances represents a welcome feeling of tradition and normality after 18 months of lockdowns etc.
There have been a number of films over the years which had Olympic themes running through the main plot, or as a backdrop. Chariots of Fire may well be the most iconic film of its ilk. In more recent times, Steven Spielberg’s Munich, based on a true story, was set in the wake of the 1972 Olympics when a terrorist organisation killed 11 Israeli athletes. The Olympic themed film tends to veer more into the sport of it and the games themselves, like Chariots of Fire. There are exceptions. There’s also an odd addition to Dolph Lundgren’s CV from 1994.
Lundgren, no stranger himself to competitive sport having been a European Karate Champion (As well as having a Masters in Chemical engineering), would become synonymous with action cinema. In comparison to some of his contemporaries who found a tried and trusted formula which worked, he found himself veering to some interesting (if arguably ill-advised) projects in his early attempts to show diversity.
As well as Lundgren’s penchant for run and gun cinema like Red Scorpion and The Punisher, he made a more thoughtful riff on Pocahontas/Heart of Darkness called Men of War (written by John Sayles, at least in earlier stages). He made a Euro set thriller inspired by the Euro-Thrillers of the 60’s and 70’s, with The Shooter, and an odd existential hit-man film called Silent Trigger. None of them would do much other than cement him as sellable on video, but not on the big screen (at least as the heroic lead). There was also the largely forgotten Cover Up (a conspiracy thriller where Dolph had more dialogue than punches thrown, playing an investigative journalist). In among this selection was Pentathlon.
Take something of an Olympic afterthought in modern pentathlon and make our hero a pentathlete. It’s a strange choice as a sales pitch, but not when you consider the star. Sure, there were other events, but when you’ve got Dolph Lundgren in the mix, the five discipline event happens to include fencing and shooting, which of course provide key action elements in the mix (the others being swimming, running and show-jumping). Modern Pentathlon has been teetering on the edge of being removed from the Olympics for a number of years, but has managed to remain.
In the film, Dolph plays Eric, an East German Pentathlon supremo working under the iron fist of a maniacal head coach (played by David Soul). Said coach is a leftover relic of Nazi occupied Germany and in the film becomes a key orchestrator of a neo-Nazi terrorist movement. After winning Olympic gold, Eric flees to America with the US team. There he descends into depression and isolation, eventually becoming a grill chef for a sympathetic diner owner. It’s in the US Eric witnesses the fall of the wall, but has this lingering sense of listlessness. He’s no longer interested in competition, getting drunk and out of shape. That is, until he is persuaded to compete again, for the US. At this point his past catches up with him and his sadistic former coach returns to make Eric’s life hell (whilst conducting his own nefarious terrorist activities).
It sounds a little bizarre, but also a little unique in its mix of elements. There’s dashes of Die Hard among Rocky underdog comeback, with Lundgren blending sports film hero with his action man persona. Given most won’t have heard of the film, it’s safe to say it didn’t quite take off. It would prove popular on video as most of Lundgren’s films did at the time but the title did little more than confuse. It’s not a widely known event, whilst the idea of Lundgren as an Olympian didn’t quite have the appeal that some of his straight up action films did (despite Lundgren’s breakout film being a sports film). Additionally, the film was greeted with largely negative reviews. In time and retrospect though, this little oddity is becoming an interesting watch though.
There’s a lot to enjoy here. The film opens on the Pentathlon event itself, with Lundgren working his way to Gold. Then it kicks right into his airport escape and defection to America, leaving his enraged, psychotic coach behind. Eric’s descent to self-loathing and destruction also provides an interesting variation on the characters Lundgren was playing at the time. It comes across a little more TV soap than fine cinema, but regardless, it marked a change. When the film skews into the Rocky style training and then further into an action film as Lundgren has the small matter of a terrorist plot to quell, the mixture of elements feels enjoyably different (those even converge in the films finale Olympic sequences as Eric’s run for gold is interrupted by David Soul).
Throughout the film we have an array of enjoyable sequences, not least Dolph getting into a fencing duel with a former teammate/rival. It does play out like one of those TV movie specials, but almost feels better because of it. A slightly cheesy mix of elements make it more engaging than had it been treated with grim seriousness (and still fallen flat), and whilst Lundgren did work with some excellent directors around the era (notably Ted Kotcheff and Russell Mulcahy), Bruce Malmuth was almost fiercely efficient if nothing else (interestingly, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal and Lundgren who all made action pictures with Malmuth were less than complimentary on his abilities within the genre, though in each case, retrospectively were probably a little harsh).
Pentathlon is one of those flawed, nay bad but enjoyable oddities. The fact it was green-lit smacks of an era of strange studio gambles in low budget action. It even got itself sandwiched between two Olympics, as opposed to releasing closer to 1992 or 1996 (incidentally, off the back of this film Lundgren was invited to Atlanta 96 as team leader of the US Modern Pentathlon team). The timing was certainly off. Lundgren was trying at this juncture to branch himself out as an actor, not to be dismissed as a grunter, or one of the European heroes occasionally chewing awkwardly through their English dialogue. He could do an American accent, allowing him to play American characters or European. As it happens, some of his better attempts at pushing his range came in a few of his lesser known films of the era, meaning only his fans or genre aficionados were the ones seeing this work.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Pentathlon lies in its villain, played with absolutely no restraint by David Soul. There’s chewing scenery and then there’s annihilating it with the verve of a sugar high toddler who’s just found a trampoline. He just goes for it, acting as if he’s on a stage somewhere performing a Shakespearean villain. It’s a world away from Hutch and crooning. This strange amalgamation of ingredients make up for a clearly constrictive budget, and some of the soapier aspects in the film-making and acting (certainly from some of the support cast). The film has since benefitted from reasonably handled Blu-ray releases, sprucing up its tired and jaded video aesthetics. As far as failed projects go, it still marks one of Lundgren’s more interesting misfires and definitely not without its odd charms.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/