Lundgren's blond ambition
Impact checks out the career of Sweden's most lethal export.
It's now part of Hollywood mythology that Quentin Tarantino's first real job on a movie set saw him cleaning doggie doo-doo off lawn on which Dolph Lundgren was going to perform for his workout video. Some may argue that the substance Tarantino was shifting was very much akin to many of Lundgren's movie roles, but look closer and you'll see that there are a few bright, shining moments among the, er, garbage. In fact, this former biochemistry student has a better hit/miss ratio than many of his peers. So why does this man get no respect? We decided to check out the Dolphinarium.
Hans Lundgren was born on the 3rd November, 1959, in Stockholm. While studying chemical engineering, he simultaneously pursued a career as a Kyokushinkai karateka, competing in the style's brutal Knockdown tournaments. When his acting career kicked into gear, Lundgren changed his first name to the more melodic 'Dolph'.
It was a fortunate configuration of stars that brought Lundgren into the limelight. He was dating Grace Jones, which got him a bit part in A View To A Kill, and attracted the attention of Sylvester Stallone. The Slyster offered Dolph his choice of Russian bad guy roles in Rambo and Rocky IV. Lundgren wisely chose the latter, and rumbled into cinemas with the words "My name is Ivan Drago. I come from Soviet Union..." Critic Roger Ebert brought the twin sources of Lundgren's success together by observing that Dolph made a better Bond villain than Rocky opponent. He also questioned the way Dolph's screen wife, Brigette Nielsen, did all the talking on her husband's behalf (this was in the days before Tyson married Robin Givens). British karate expert Terry O'Neill observed that Lundgren had the bravery to back up his bulk, training in a ghetto boxing gym prior to the film. (One wag later noted that, whatever the vagaries of Lundgren's subsequent film career, he had, at least, lasted longer than Mr. T.)
Masters Of The Universe had the potential to be a prototype Mortal Kombat. Unfortunately, it had two strikes against it: the film was made by Cannon and released by Cannon. The prolific indie had a reputation for making films on the cheap, and always had trouble getting decent theatrical releases for the movies. Intriguingly, storywise, the film owed more to Jack Kirby's classic New Gods comic book than it did the He-Man cartoon. (incidentally, a proposed sequel metamorphasised into Van Damme's Cyborg.)
The Punisher proved to be another flunked franchise. The original Marvel Comic character was a gritty vigilante, a war hero who took the law into his hands after the his family died in a gangland gundown. The character's standout elements are his distinctive skull chestplate and the urban New York nightmare setting. The producers of the film version elected, in their wisdom, to do away with the costume ("too comic-booky") and shoot on location in Sydney. (In an early draft of the script, The Punisher spray painted the skull on his chest prior to the final showdown.) Lundgren does what he can with a one-note role, and bad guy Jeroen Krabbe gives the material much greater weight than it deserves.
Red Scorpion was reviewed not as a film, but as a political object lesson. The producers (allegedly) broke an artistic boycott by using South African equipment and crews. Today, it's hard to see what the fuss was about, and even more difficult to understand why the film remains so ill-appreciated. Lundgren plays a tougher-than-nails Russian Spetsnatz commando who finds himself forced to survive in the African wilderness. There, he forms a Dersu Uzala-type bond with a native hunter. Unfortunately, most reviewers focussed on the flashes and bangs that open and close the picture, rather than this element. The walkabout sequence is almost a different movie set within this one, and a film well worth watching.
It's hard to see why Dark Angel (a.k.a. I Come In Peace) wasn't more of hit. Producer Mark Damon suggests that a lot of people don't want to go out to the cinema to see a Dolph Lundgren movie, especially in America, but it may be that the lame U.S. title had more to do with it. Dolph forms a fine double act with Dream On star Brian Benben. They're two lawmen on the trail of an alien drug dealer (Matthias Hues). Lundgren's fight scenes here are short and sharp, but more graceful than anything seen in The Punisher. Unlike most B movie America actioners, the film has quirks all its own, from killer CDs to whitecollar gangbangers to a chemical-hyped scientist.
Cover Up is a film that deserves a review worthy of its name. It re-teamed Dolph with his Punisher co-star, Lou Gossett Jnr, but offers little chance for Lundgren to show off his action or acting skills.
Showdown In Little Tokyo got short thrift from most reviewers, and even die-hard action fans, when first released, but the Mark Lester film has since taken on a camp cult quality all its own. Where else can you see Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee take on zoot-suited yakuza? Tia Carrere in a hot-tub? Lundgren going into battle in a sushi chef outfit? Lee and Lundgren provide fine comic foils for each other, even if the plot is ludicrous.
Universal Soldier saw Lundgren cast as the antagonist opposite fellow martial-artist-turned-actor Jean-Claude Van Damme. Dolph's definitely the showier of the two roles. Van The Man walks through it like he's on downers. Lundgren gets the best lines ("I'm all ears.") as the manic Jackson. This tale of reanimated Vietnam vets could have been a contender if it had heart to match its muscle. (Incidentally, the Cannes premiere shoving match between the two stars was about as genuine as a WWF bout.)
Universal Soldier stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong invited Lundgren to star in his feature directing debut with Joshua Tree. Though the story never quite hangs together, Armstrong crafts some memorable action set-pieces for Dolph, most memorably the chop sequence, in which Lundgren does the Chow Yun-fat par excellence. (The movie was released in the U.S. as Army Of One.)
You have to respect Lundgren's courage more than his judgement when you see his extended cameo in the ghastly Johnny Mnemonic. This failed attempt at a Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk actioner fails from the outset, and manages to misuse an eclectic cast led by Keanu Reeves. You have to wonder what Lundgren saw in this bearded pseudo-messiah Street Preacher, while admiring his willingness to take a chance. The end result proved that Val Kilmer was smart to pull out from the lead at the last minute, and that first-time director Robert Longo should stick to photography.
Dolph's most unlikely movie appearance may be his performance, as himself, in the German comedy Sunny Side Up, shot in 1994.
Though no great shakes as a thriller, Pentathlon was a memorable Lundgren movie for a number of reasons. It saw him claim his first producer credit, and it opened the door for him to become official spokesperson for the American pentahlon team, a role which saw him get a far more media coverage than his acting career had attracted.
Men Of War is another Dolph movie that has never been given the respect it deserves. A slickly directed actioner, its script is far more literate than most of those written for the genre, due in part to the hand indie legend John Sayles had in it. Lundgren plays the leader of a mercenary unit sent to conquer a remote island who ends up defending the place. Former stage actor B.D. Wong plays the conscience of the film, a canny islander who helps Lundgren's heart away from war. Unfortunately, the movie was marketed as a straight actioner, meaning that the wider audience never really discovered it.
The problem with Lundgren's latest vehicles is that from the publicity materials, anyway, they all look like the same film. The Shooter, Silent Trigger and The Peacekeeper. All three are thrillers set in eastern Europe. For Silent Trigger, Lundgren shot in Prague, playing a special agent sent to Czechoslovakia to abduct an assassin. Unlike most of Dolph's films, which go straight to video, Silent Trigger enjoyed a brief theatrical release in the U.K..
Lundgren married Anette Qviberg in Sweden, and recently returned to Stockholm, claiming that he didn't want to make any more films. (Hot on the tail of his annoucement comes news that he's making Hellbent, with Roy Scheider, so who knows?)
In terms of achieving superstar status as a theatrical action lead, Dolph Lundgren may not have fulfilled his ambitions. However, in terms of the range and quality of the material he's worked on, the performer has had a more interesting career than most people realize. You get a sense that he has constantly been looking for quality material that will win him respect as an actor's actor. Despite his claims of retirement, we're certain not to have seen the last of his hulking presence, and undoubtedly the unpredictable Swede will present futher surprises.