Star bodybuilder, journalist, author and crossover film producer and action star Alexander Nevsky refuses to be pigeonholed into playing the stereotypical Russian bad guy in movies. This is a campaign he’s been on for the better part of the last twenty years or so in the course of his growing film career and it’s a worthy effort to pursue in an industry rife with a constant need for change and improvement in many ways. Characteristically, that fact plays well into filmic vision and direction despite the cult fondness of a genre or a given period of cinema. Nevsky’s latest lead role in the new ensemble action thriller, Showdown In Manila, makes for a worthwhile case in point as we approach its upcoming North American release from ITN Distribution. Granted, Nevsky’s screen presence isn’t the most weighted in drama, while one can argue in favor of his ability to tell stories as equally strong as his beefy action star screen presence.
His preceding pic, Black Rose, demonstrates this accordingly: a mix of elements that still presented an entertaining thriller with a good cast and ample script despite not being mechanically or filmically perfect. By comparison, sadly, and without mincing words here, Showdown In Manila is a step backward in the action genre that benefits little in its nostalgic nod to the glory of 80’s and 90’s cinemafare. Boasting as a blend of buddy-style action adventure that mostly enlists a who’s-who cast of martial arts and action star heroes and villains from the bygone days of direct-to-video ballyhoo, Craig Hamann’s script accomodates Nevsky who leads the narrative as Nick Peyton, a down-and-out former Violent Crimes Unit squad leader living and working in the Philippines. In the two years since his last mission went awry with his target leaving him for dead, his employment now sees him living with his girlfriend – played by actress Maria Bravikova – and working as a private investigator alongside Charlie Benz, played by Starship Troopers franchise star and Mortal Kombat: Legacy series co-star Casper Van Dien.
Following the deadly murder of an FBI agent on vacation with his wife, the widow seeks aid from the police only to be whisked away and into the care of Peyton and Benz. A rough sketch of the assailant she pulls from her purse immediately points Peyton into the direction of “The Wraith”, a notorious and elusive crime boss whose strength grows in numbers and influence, and evidently, the man responsible for landing Peyton on the edge of near-death just a few years earlier. The two set out find our infamous antagonist, offsetting a raucous investigation on the streets of Manila in search of as many leads as possible, and ultimately, taking their fight into the Wraith’s hidden jungle fortress with the help of a few heavy-hitting friends who know their way around a war zone.
Despite all intents and purposes in his first attempt at the helm, Ultimate Justice star Mark Dacascos’s follow-up – a concerted attempt to craft an enjoyable thriller for action junkies falls inevitably flat, even for its intended audience. From the farthest backseat in the room, Showdown In Manila is easily a film you’ve already seen as the story plays almost beat-for-beat with storytelling tropes pulled straight from the Golan-Globus playbook – a notable effort as it tries to harken back to old-school action movie roots. Indeed it treads on that kind of aesthetic, although a lot of what is offered here would otherwise be tolerable and/or even watchable were it not for the continual presence of bit roles performed by unskilled local acting talent, forced humor and chemistry, and absurd plot thickening… or better yet, if this movie were released anytime before 1995 from Vidmark.
Juxtaposed with the role of Peyton is Van Dien’s portrayal as the handsome, albeit self-depricating Benz who bodes as much as he can as the charming comedy relief between the two, even though this effort comes up short per Nevsky’s imposing, near emotionless on-screen persona. Joining Van Dien in the category of the film’s few stronger acting presences is actress Tia Carrere who plays Mrs. Wells, and equally to our delight, also gets in a few punchy seconds of her own in the first half-hour of the film next to Mulawin and My Candidate co-star, local award-winning Filipina actress Iza Calzado. Noted thespian Cary Tagawa impresses whilst scantly appearing as our scowling villain, “The Wraith” with just enough screentime to give Nevsky the evil eye, kill one character, pop some shots off at our protagonists and finally chew more than a few words and sentences of dialogue in the third act.
The film is mostly in its element when the talking ends and the action commences, although these scenes themselves still leave a lot to be desired in most cases. The introductory action sequence serves its purpose with the usual machine gun bulletfare until it hits a fever pitch as Nevsky’s Peyton picks up a knife in a tight shot before walking into the bright distance of a corridor, seemingly killing three soldiers with zero effort and doing next to nothing in meeting screenfighting expectations. Later in the film in what is meant to be a thrilling and dramatic footchase with Nevsky’s fellow Black Rose cohort, actor Matthias Hues, is clumsily treated with the pointless, irritating addition of a young, female exchange student/aspiring Olympian who helps Benz find his way throughout the Manila sidestreets. What is meant here largely as comedic addenum leaves you feeling annoyed and your patience tested as you wait out the badly acted impromptu teen jest for things to get back to normal.
The third act eventually brings us full circle with our plentily-hyped B-movie “Expendables” cast pairing Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock of Bloodfist, China O’Brien and recent The Martial Arts Kid fame back together on screen, along with Nemesis and The Circuit star Olivier Gruner, and with Russian import, actor Dmitriy Dyuzhev. Stunt director Sonny Sison and fight choreographer, celebrated martial artist and author Al Dacascos make the most out of what’s possible in a shootout where trees are impervious to bullets and at one point, Nevsky needn’t avert getting shot while firing from one position without moving. Everyone gets their shining moment, including Rothrock who dodges enemy bullets and whips out a pair of billy clubs to pepper things up; There are fun segments for all of our stars, but you can’t help that nearly none of it will be memorable by the end of the movie for want of better angles, choreography and editing.
Rudy Harbon’s cinematography and Sean Murray’s scoring are nothing special in Showdown In Manila
, if only to serve their respective functions and low expectations of the average action flick stoner. Realistically however, today’s moviegoer has grown a keener eye and appreciation for contemporary work from filmmakers and actors who’ve ascended and progressed in the last decade, and it would have served Dacascos well in his directorial debut to take note. Instead, an adherence to old constitutions in the name of fondness for the action genre of yesteryear are, in part, what appear to be at the wheel for this particular vehicle. For this, it may be enough for lesser-expecting types who just wanna see famous martial arts stars kick ass together, thus filling the appetites of only a certain few. Consequently, it simply does not do enough for audiences and concious fans who expect better… even on a low-budget scale.
It is an unmistakable truth that making these kinds of films can be VERY hard, and it is reasonable to believe that Showdown In Manila had its fare share of hurdles in trying to be better than what it has become. That said, it is unclear as of this review just when Dacascos will be directing again if he so chooses to, and hopefully his second outing will see him acquiesce to the standards long-lived and preset by some of today’s strongest, young and hungry cinema creatives. Until then, Showdown In Manila should serve as a lesson on what not to do when it comes to making an action movie. Nevsky’s own career vision is a meaningful one for setting a new, creative precedent with better filmmaking prospects in mind, but that vision is still one that needs to be met with concurrence, even in the name of fandom.
Dacascos, who appears with Nevsky in returning filmmaker Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Maximum Impact this year, still has a fan base well sustained in the years since Only The Strong, Drive and Cradle 2 The Grave, and yet its current momentum runs off whatever fans can squeeze out of low brow actioners like Martin Bode’s Ultimate Justice. Hopefully that pattern will change further in addition with Pedring Lopez’s Breach once it gets off of the ground, as well as whatever lies ahead for Dacascos’s long-awaited Capoeira project which he teased on social media in April of 2015 in a photo with Mestre Amen Santo. As for his directing hopes and other continued work behind the camera, he has a lot to learn quite the way to go after Showdown In Manila. This was a disappointment, and one that consumers should aspire to see him learn from as all directors and film professionals should, industry politics notwithstanding.
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Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.