Human trafficking is the window dressing for standard revenge-driven action in “Skin Trade,” a B-grade hybrid of “Taken,” “Commando” and “Rush Hour” that pairs star-producer-co-writer Dolph Lundgren with Thai martial-arts superstar Tony Jaa. Exhibiting little cinematographic flair but an exasperating fondness for hack-and-slash editing during combat scenes, director Ekachai Uekrongtham casts his material as a series of gunfights, fistfights, and emotionally overwrought dramatic scenes, the last of which are marked by Lundgren’s perpetually grimaced brooding and yelling (and rickety-knees gait), and Jaa’s blatant inability to speak more than a few words of intelligible English at a time. The East-meets-West saga opened May 8 in limited release.
Lundgren plays Nick, a Newark, N.J., cop intent on bringing down Serbian sex-slavery bigwig Viktor (Ron Perlman). When he finally does arrest Viktor, he also kills the man’s son, thus driving Viktor to murder Nick’s wife and daughter, and to leave him for dead with two point-blank bullets in his back. That’s no problem for Nick, however, who shakes off his seemingly mortal wounds — a feat he’ll repeat again toward film’s conclusion — and tracks Viktor to Cambodia. There, thanks to the nefarious machinations of turncoat U.S. agent Reed (Michael Jai White), he winds up being pursued by Thai cop Tony (Jaa), who thinks Nick is a murderous psychopath instead of a man who shares his own disgust for trafficking.
As convoluted as that plot sounds, “Skin Trade” actually proves as straightforward as one of Jaa’s trademark flying-knee attacks. If there’s little in the way of great acting to be found throughout the film, though, that shortcoming can be at least partially blamed on a script (by Lundgren, Steven Elder and Gabriel Dowrick) that stuffs one wooden, functional line of dialogue after another into its characters’ mouths, all while ignoring basic logic or coherence in the process.
Old-school action is what a film like “Skin Trade” itself trades in, and to that end, there’s something mildly refreshing about the unfussy way in which it stages its brutal skirmishes (in both the U.S. and Thailand) between Lundgren and hordes of faceless adversaries, as well as hand-to-hand showdowns between Lundgren and Jaa, Jaa and Jai White, and Lundgren and Perlman. Yet even those centerpiece throwdowns feel more obligatory than inspired. That’s in large part thanks to dull camerawork and choreography that’s devoid of any eye-popping feats (save for the sight of Jaa leaping from the ground to flip-kick a man in the back of an army truck), as well as to the nonsensicality of key moments, including Lundgren’s ability to shrug off fatal injuries as if he were some sort of anti-trafficking Terminator, and a chase sequence in which Jaa, on foot, is able to successfully keep up with a motorcycle and a car.
While just as one-note as Lundgren and Jaa, Perlman and Peter Weller (as Nick’s law enforcement boss) at least seize their opportunities to chew scenery via over-enunciated accents. Unfortunately, their cartoon-archetype turns can’t compensate for the torpid earnestness with which “Skin Trade” tackles its subject matter. For all the pained agonizing over sex slavery, Uekrongtham’s film isn’t interested in investigating how, or why, such a wretched industry exists; rather, it uses it as merely the nominal evil-scheme pretext for the noble heroics of superhuman saviors. Snapping necks and shooting limbs have rarely been carried out in service of such a principled cause — or been executed with such formulaic tedium.