Every inch of 'Skin Trade' feels like a B-movie, but the good thing is
that it doesn't try to pretend to be more. A passion project of Dolph
Lundgren who started work on its script close to eight years ago, it
knows exactly what buttons to push to get its core audience satisfied
even as it tries to shed light onto a matter close to his heart, i.e.
that of human trafficking. So if you're expecting a very angry Lundgren
on a revenge rampage, or a mano-a-mano between Lundgren and Tony Jaa,
or a similar one-on-one between Tony Jaa and Michael Jai White, we can
reassure you that you won't be disappointed.
A brief prologue establishes the mechanics of Viktor Dragovic's (Ron
Perlman) despicable business under the guise of offering them
employment, the former Serbian national's fourth son Janko (Leo Rano)
and his accomplices lure gullible village girls from Thailand, Cambodia
and Laos to leave their homes and journey to the city, where they are
subsequently drugged and shipped to America and Europe to be sold as
sex slaves. Lundgren's Newark police detective Nick Cassidy is tracking
Viktor's latest shipment in order to apprehend him and his sons, while
Jaa plays a Thai police officer Tony who is onto the same case from
further down the food chain.
Their paths cross after Viktor is let loose upon diplomatic pressure
and skips town, seeking refuge in a corrupt general's mansion near the
Cambodian border. Unfortunately for Nick, Viktor's sons manage to get
to his family before fleeing town, so after regaining consciousness
from an RPG strike on his house, Nick decides to take his quest for
revenge to Viktor. Thanks to Michael Jai White's rogue government agent
Reed, Nick is framed for the murder of Tony's partner soon after
setting foot on Royal Thai soil. Of course, who's good and who's bad
will become clear quite quickly, but Lundgren and his co-writers have
specifically engineered enough twists and turns precisely to fulfil
their audience's expectations to see each one of the marquee action
stars have a go at the other.
Much of the heavy lifting here is done by Jaa, whose speed and agility
has not dimmed one bit since his 'Tom Yum Goong' and 'Ong Bak' days.
While his Hollywood debut in 'Fast and Furious 7' may have been
overlooked because of the crowded ensemble, Jaa's lead turn here will
definitely not go unnoticed. His one-on-one with Lundgren in an
abandoned warehouse is the film's halfway high-water mark, pitting a
lean mean warrior against a much hulkier opponent though there is no
question in our minds just who is the one that is the better fighter.
It is no wonder then that Jaa is the one chosen to take on Jai White,
the latter a much worthier opponent than Lundgren skilled in the art of
kickboxing not unlike Jean Claude Van-Damme in his heydays. The fight
between them is brutal and ferocious, choreographed specifically to
illustrate the strengths of either actor, and next to the noisy and
overblown finale at a remote airstrip that it precedes, is easily the
climax that the film deserves to be remembered for. Indeed, while a
sizeable amount of the limited budget on which the film is made for has
been reserved for explosions and other fireballs, it is the raw thrill
of seeing these natural born fighters go at each other
knuckle-to-knuckle that is where its charm lies.
And in that regard, Lundgren deserves more credit than what may be
apparent. It is no doubt thanks to Lundgren that we get to see Jaa in
such a significant capacity not only in a movie that respects the
actor's Oriental roots but also one that gives him a role with both the
breadth and depth for Jaa to showcase his abilities as an actor and as
an action star. It is probably also thanks to Lundgren that the likes
of Jai White, Ron Perlman, Peter Weller and Cary- Hiroyuki Tagawa have
come together in the same film, a combination that is any
self-professed B-action movie fan's wet dream. And it is Lundgren who
manages to pull a movie with so many potential clichés together in a
respectable fashion as the latter scenes demonstrate, its director
Ekachai Uekrongtham has a long way to go in learning how to stage a
proper action sequence.
Like we said at the beginning, 'Skin Trade' doesn't pretend to be more
than what it is and much as there is a social message in here, it
never tries to drive it too hard. Indeed, it is precisely by embracing
its B-movie roots that it truly delivers, not just in the fact that it
makes no compromises in keeping its action hard- hitting but also by
ensuring that its actors are right up there without any doubles
performing each and every one of the stunts. More than sex, that is the
skin trade which truly matters, and which we suspect its audience will
be more than happy to partake in.