Review: ULTIMATE JUSTICE (2017) – From the Team That Brought You ‘One Million K(l)icks’ Comes…Another Movie.
To be a fan of Mark Dacascos is to be well acquainted with frustration and disappointment. There’s no doubt that he’s one of the most gifted action stars of his age, but he’s often underutilized or downright miscast in the majority of his filmography. For every Drive, there are five China Strike Forces; for every Brotherhood of the Wolf, there are ten Cradle 2 the Graves. Dacascos was given a chance to be the “next big action star” in the 90s with Only the Strong, but due to some bad career advice (cough, Double Dragon, cough) he missed out on his big break. With every new Dacascos action vehicle, fans are filled with an increasingly faint glimmer of hope that we’ll see him be utilized to his full potential… But more often than not, we walk away disappointed. This is a lamentation that is shared by, of all people, Mark Dacascos himself! Now, fans are presented with yet another glimmer in the form of Ultimate Justice. Will this be the film that finally allows Dacascos to let loose and remind his fans why they became fans in the first place??? (spoiler: the answer is no).
Gus (Dacascos) is the leader/co-owner of an elite private military team. After a job goes south, he forces his co-owner, Commander Sturm (Wolfgang Riehm) to sell the business (or at least the name of the business since the whole team essentially quits) and both men become dedicated civilians. 8 years later, Sturm’s family gets attacked (blah blah), his wife is killed and his daughter is kidnapped (yawn), and now it’s up to Gus to get the old team back together to save the girl. Ultimate Justice tries to position itself as a throwback actioner to a simpler time; a time when “men on a mission” movies were common. Unfortunately, it seems to have forgotten everything that made those movies so popular in the first place. Namely, a team you care about and action that excites.
Ultimate Justice inhabits an ugly little niche in the film market: super low-budget action films with little artistic flourish and a faded action star on the DVD cover. Oftentimes, the action star on the cover is only there for the sake of appealing to sales agents with little thought put toward taking advantage of their talent or even making a movie that is entertaining. Steven Seagal has recently managed to make a tidy living off of this niche with films like The Asian Connection and The Perfect Weapon; and now it looks like Dacascos is getting dragged into this bullshit too.
From the outset, this film looks and feels like a YouTube video that was stretched out to 90 minutes and stamped onto a DVD as a joke. The cinematography is bland and has little to no cinematic quality. The pacing is painfully slow with long stretches of nothing happening aside from characters you don’t care about talking about things you have zero interest in. When the action does kick in… it’s usually alright (with one major exception). The sound is pretty terrible, with painfully obvious dubbing / ADR and poor location sound that brings the whole production down to student film level. Some might try to blame the film’s low budget for these issues, but I call shenanigans. Filmmakers like Eric Jacobus (Death Grip), Vlad Rimburg (Unlucky Stars) and Tom Getty (Rising Fear/America Has Fallen) have proven that you can make dynamic, entertaining action movies with minimal budgets. Oftentimes, it doesn’t feel like lack of money was a problem; it was lack of inspiration.
In case the expert foreshadowing of the first paragraph didn’t give this away, Ultimate Justice is yet another misfire that fails to use Dacascos to even half his potential. On the action front, we have to wait a full 40 minutes before he even throws a punch and even then it’s underwhelming. Make no mistake, the man can still move but the choreography they give him could be performed by anyone. Someone with Mark’s level of physicality could definitely shine brighter than he’s allowed to here (more on that later). When he’s not fighting or shooting at random dudes in balaclavas, Dacascos seems surprisingly miscast as the character of Gus. He may not be the best actor in the business, but Dacascos best work always manages to display his natural likability (the karaoke scene in Drive comes to mind). Here, the material works against him with a character who has two modes of personality: smug asshole and humorless military dude. Neither of which play well to his strengths.
It could be assumed (though rather cynically) that Dacascos’ bland fight choreography was by design so as not to overshadow the film’s intended breakout star: actor/co-producer Mike Moller (One Million K(l)icks). In the role of the team’s point man, Benny, Moller gets to bust out the film’s most dynamic fight scenes. His elaborate, luchadore-inspired choreography is as impressive as it is over the top; a much needed breath of fresh air from the blandness of the rest of the film. Surprisingly, the film’s notoriously dull cinematography steps up its game once Moller starts throwing insane Hurricanranas; making his fight scenes look more like an audition tape for a better movie.
The rest of the cast barely registers. Names like Matthias Hues get tossed around despite his character being little more than the “team giant” who throws people through walls. Mike Leeder (Pound of Flesh), Brandon Rhea (Fearless), Verena Konietschke (One Million K(l)icks)… None of them make enough of an impression to be memorable or make their deaths tragic in any way. Their characters are sparse, even by archetype standards. Even worse are the anonymous villains who are little more than punching bags and meat shields. The movie attempts to pull out a villain in the fourth act as if it realized “oh shit! We still don’t have a big bad guy!” The film’s ultimate “villain” makes even the blandest MCU villain look like The Joker by comparison.
Alas, my fellow Dacascos fans, this is not the film you’ve been waiting for. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Drive (arguably his greatest cinematic achievement) and Ultimate Justice only serves as a painful reminder of his squandered potential. Don’t waste your $10 on this film; give it to a crowdfund campaign for a (potentially better) indie action film. In a just world, a film this aggressively lifeless would have never seen the light of day; but because it has the star of Brotherhood of the Wolf (or the Chairman from Iron Chef America, no judgement) firing two guns on the cover, it gets to be stamped on a DVD and sold to unsuspecting customers and desperate fans at Walmart. Honestly, if you want to see a better display of Mark Dacascos’ charm and physicality you can just rewatch Season 9 of Dancing with the Stars…. Seriously, skip this film.