Tom Jolliffe looks at Dolph Lundgren’s prolific output of Die Hard-style movies…
Following on from my look at some action icons taking on the Die Hard formula with Under Siege (Steven Seagal), Cliffhanger (Sylvester Stallone) and Sudden Death (Jean-Claude Van Damme), now is the time to look through the illustrious CV of Mr Dolph Lundgren (and I say illustrious with genuine affection for an action legend).
If you need a quick sales pitch while punting an action film to potential investors or selling a star vehicle at a film market, then rustling up a ‘Die Hard in/at a…’ concept seems to be a popular go to. Even of late, a number of other action heroes have done just that with the likes of Dave Bautista and Antonio Banderas getting in on the action, and even Dwayne Johnson on a larger scale with Skyscraper which was unabashedly full blown Die Hard rip off, down to the originals skyscraper setting. You might call it lazy, but hell, isn’t the action genre all about repackaging these days? Almost every Marvel film is virtually the same, and I’m sure we’ll see an array of more Die Hard-esque films on the horizon (actually, guilty confession – I may be working on one myself soon).
Many an action man has done the Die Hard thing. Dolph has been pretty prolific. I guess this was in part not having a regular trait. Van Damme had a thing for the Enter The Dragon style film that suited his unique on screen fighting. Steven Seagal’s regular go to was playing a cop or former spec ops military man or government spook (of some vague, undefined background usually). Arnie did larger than life cartoon heroics. Dolph, who is still most iconic for his villain work probably, kind of experimented a little more, but progressively seemed to return to Die Hard formula.
First came Peacekeeper. Now the rub here was that it was more focused on following in the slipstream of The Rock (Michael Bay’s masterwork) but that film of course, owed a debt to Die Hard. In Peacekeeper, Dolph is a presidential bodyguard (a role he takes as an alternative to being court marshalled for a rogue humanitarian mission) who is tethered to ‘the black bag (this is a case containing nuclear arms launch codes).’ He loses it of course, and then sets about tracking the terrorists to retrieve it. Said terrorists infiltrate a nuclear arms site about to be decommissioned and lay out their intent to use the codes and launch missiles. This is way better than it could have been. At the same time, it’s a film that never quite gets talked of in Lundgren fan circles as one of his best, because it drops the ball here and there (or drops the black bag), and can’t live up to its first 30 minutes.
Peacekeeper does in retrospect need more love (and I need to see a pristine Blu-ray as opposed my rather ropy DVD edition). A rooftop car chase is great. Dolph has some more interesting character traits and some comedic moments (not overtly, but in a Willis/Gibson kind of level). It feels like it has a budget, but once we’re confined in the nuclear bunker, the action set pieces aren’t quite as exciting (though do provide good moments). Throw in Roy Scheider as the president and a very committed villain from Michael Sarrazin and the cast is solid, though the inclusion of chat show host Montel Williams never quite works (he’s okay, but he kind of gets in the way).
Interestingly Peacekeeper was a bridge between a more experimental phase in Dolph’s career, to a point where his career was slaloming from low budget hell to anaemic budget. One of those low points was Agent Red, a.k.a. Die Hard on a Submarine. Terrorists take over the sub having already secured chemical agents, and intend using them. Only Dolph and his ex girlfriend can stop them. Agent Red has some level of infamy in Dolph world. The original cut was allegedly so horrendous that huge chunks of the film were re-shot, and then pieced together with stock footage. A rumour in 2002 circulated Dolph was calling time on his career. After a string of films like Agent Red, Stormcatcher, Jill The Ripper (though this actually has good moments, amongst a muddled tone and delivery) and The Last Patrol (between 99-00), it didn’t seem unlikely. Thankfully he didn’t.
In 2003 after a two year hiatus (he’d made 6 films from 99-01 by comparison) he revisited the Die Hard model with Detention. Not a great film, but Dolph had a little more dramatic inspiration being afforded the opportunity to work with a veteran director like Sidney Furie. They would have better collaboration with Direct Action (Dolph does Serpico). Detention was Die Hard in a School, with every high school cliche character thrown in, and rogue thieves camping it up and taking over the school after hours to orchestrate an elaborate (though slightly inconceivable) heist. It’s actually quite a fun film for the fact the villains are played with a certain theatricality (notably Alex Karzis) and there were some interesting set pieces (a car driving through a school corridor, a motorbike/motorised scooter chase inside school corridors etc). Dolph seemed re-energised, lithe and kicked it old school.
Dolph turned to directing after his stints with Furie, ironically taking over from the director who dropped out of The Defender due to illness. Dolph stepped in. The Defender in fact, is Die-Hard-esque. Dolph does an Assault on Precinct 13 job in this one, playing the head of a special ops team tasked with overseeing a meeting with an unnamed client (who turns out to be an international terrorist…apparently…). Terrorists siege the location and Dolph and his team must survive and keep the client in tact. There’s a lot of espionage and twists, that begin getting a little blurred by one too many turns (and contrived) but actually this was a real step forward for Lundgren at the time and it’s a very well paced and put together siege movie (despite the lack of budget). It’s aided by a good score from Adam Norden and great photography from Maxime Alexandre (known for Shazam, The Nun and his work with Alexandra Aja). Plus… Jerry Springer stars too, as the President (stranger things have happened on that front, let’s be honest).
A few years after, Dolph was directing his third film when he made Command Performance. Die Hard at a Rock Concert. Lundgren played a rock drummer and convincingly so (he plays the drums, and performs in the film). Does he kill someone with drumstricks? Of course he does. It’s a fun film, even if the budget hampers a lagging middle where there’s not much action. Still, Dolph plays a good mix of wry and haunted.
What comes next? Well…this is kind of in the ballpark. Not entirely but a bit, with Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Terrorists with their own private universal soldier (and the kidnapped kids of the Russian PM) take over an old nuclear power station and threaten to blow up the reactor (which would have devastating consequences). So who could possibly save the day? An old decommissioned Unisol that happens to be Luc Deveraux (the returning Van Damme). Luc has struggled to control his aggressive instincts and become civilised. He’s like a wild fighting dog that can’t quite be retrained. However when they need him to fight, they reawaken his instincts fully and let him loose. Problem? A renegade Doctor, who broke away from the Unisol program and is sell the tech to the highest bidder, has an ace in the whole…a clone of Luc’s old nemesis, Andrew Scott (Lundgren). It sounds ludicrous. It’s played completely straight, yet it absolutely works, and it does so because it’s directed with proper vision by John Hyams.
Universal Soldier: Regeneration has an issue, in that the schedules of its two name stars only allowed for minimal screen time (we don’t see JCVD until well into the film, and Dolph toward the end). Subsequently we don’t quite feel we have a present protagonist. That said, it’s brilliantly shot, the Carpenter inspired score works well and the action is exceptional. A stunning opening car chase is one of the best in recent times, whilst the brutal MMA inspired super soldier brawls are bone crunching. A standout Van Damme vs Lundgren showdown is a destructive masterpiece of a fight sequence. Lundgren meanwhile completely steals the film in his short amount of screen-time, channelling his inner Roy Batty.
Coming into somewhat of a grim period in Dolph’s straight to video career (conversely, his big screen comebacks in Expendables 1-3, Aquaman and Creed 2 certainly counterbalance), we have a few more examples of Die Hard riff. First there’s Dolph playing the Hans Gruber part, in Altitude. Instead of Bruce Willis we have Denise Richards. In fairness to her she’s not bad in this, and certainly not as inconceivable in her part as she was in The World is Not Enough. This marks one of Dolph’s easiest roles. He spends much of his part sitting in a cockpit. Dolph and Van Damme then re-teamed for Black Water.
Another Die Hard in a Submarine where everything is competently put together, but not nearly enough happens. Van Damme is a little uninspired here which is disappointing. Dolph actually has a lot of fun but his part is limited as he didn’t have much time on set to shoot due to scheduling. He flits in and out of the film rather clumsily as far as the writing and certainly the editing. It’s unfortunate as a Dolph and Van Damme team up should have been more of a showpiece. A promising opening seemed to suggest so, but once we become trapped in a sub, there’s not many places to take it nor much variety in the action. Interestingly, the film did very good business theatrically in China.
More recently, Dolph made Hard Night Falling which marks probably his lowest point in the Die Hard spins (and that’s saying something when compared with Agent Red). A film that remarkably, for the first time in cinematic history, manages to make Italy look dull on screen.
Have you seen any of Dolph’s Die Hard riffs? Which is your favourite? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
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 here.