Alexander Nevsky (nee Kuritsyn) is, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, a three-time winner of the Mr. Universe contest. But his film vehicles to date have been of a considerably less prize-winning nature, and if he’s going to achieve the international stardom he’s clearly aiming for, he’s got to do a lot better — certainly better than “Showdown in Manila.” His latest effort has taken a couple years to reach the U.S. after its Russian release, despite an American co-star and rampant imitation of Western action-movie tropes.
Officially the feature directorial debut for Mark Dacascos (prior Russian-funded production “Changing Lives” apparently went unreleased), an onscreen action veteran himself, this multinational co-production tips its hat toward the title and buddy-comedy gist of 1991 Dolph Lundgren-Brandon Lee fightfest “Showdown in Little Tokyo,” though the last third here suddenly veers into “Expendables” terrain. But “Manila” is really a hash of B-pic cliches from the VHS epoch, with a lineup of direct-to-video C-list stars for further nostalgia value.
That would be a fair recipe for fun if this “Showdown” — unlike guilty-pleasure-king Mark L. Lester’s earlier one — weren’t so pedestrian (at best) in content and execution, including listless, sometimes inept staging of key action elements. Add to that the hulking Nevky’s block-of-cement personality, which provides zero support for co-star Casper Van Dien’s attempts at bantering chemistry, and you’ve got a klutzy adventure whose welcome spasms of unintentional humor are swamped by haplessness.
The film looks promisingly ridiculous at the outset, with actors’ names looming like zeppelins over the Manila skyline before a title graphic smashes into the side of a building, causing cracks in its cement edifice. We get it: Maximum knucklehead machismo will be the main attraction here. There follows a stock shootout setpiece in which the Violent Crime Unit team headed by Sgt. Nick Peyton (Nevsky) is ambushed while trying to apprehend the drug- and human-trafficker known as the Wraith (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Many die in the resulting fracas, but the target escapes, bringing about the scapegoated Nick’s suspension from the police force.
Two years later he’s running a private detective agency with skirt-chasing, wisecracking American expat Charlie (Van Dien). They get a new client in Mrs. Wells (Tia Carrere, who, like Tagawa, was featured in “Little Tokyo”), newly widowed since local gangsters assassinated her FBI agent husband (Dacascos) during a Philippines vacation. She wants the snooping duo to deliver those unidentified killers to her. The trail soon points in the direction of Cole, aka the Wraith, with many dangerously big lugs blocking the way, notably the ponytailed blond Dorn (Matthias Hues).
The patchwork script calls for a foot chase through the streets of a crowded market (underwhelming), then suddenly turns things into an opus about raiding a machine-gun infested jungle compound. That endeavor requires a highly “Expendable” reunion with four of Nick’s old colleagues: figures played by faded fight-film favorites Cynthia Rothrock, Olivier Gruner and Don “The Dragon” Wilson, plus younger Russian thesp Dmitriy Dyuzhev.
There’s a lot of (not very good) high-body-count action in this climactic stretch. Given the director’s own ample onscreen experience as well as that of his actors, it’s rather odd that Decascos (let alone his father Al Dacascos, credited as fight choreographer) doesn’t better compensate for the performers’ past-peak physical form with more convincing stuntwork, not to mention more dynamic editing and staging. Alas, many of the would-be thrills here are laughable, with too-clearly feinted body blows, cheesy explosion FX, and people being knocked into piles of empty cardboard boxes.
Nor is there much help from dialogue that’s on the level of “Let’s kick some ass” and “You’re about to lose your balls, man,” rendered still more lame by being delivered largely in phonetic English by the polyglot cast. Nobody is at their best, though Van Dien deserves credit for trying to provide the antic energy Nevsky lacks. The latter, whose bio claims he studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre, exerts the stony mystique of a nightclub bouncer.
Its intrigue and action neither very well developed nor integrated, “Showdown in Manila” feels like a checklist of elements typical of such movies — hey, where’s our training montage?!? — with arthritic-level connective tissue. Likewise, packaging elements rotely aspire toward bare competence and often fall short, despite acceptable locations and evidence of adequate budgetary resources.