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Blackjack
Tonight's Feature Presentation

BLACKJACK (1998)

Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Kate Vernon, Phillip MacKenzie, Kam Heskin, Padraigin Murphy, Fred Williamson

Written By: Peter Lance Directed By: John Woo

The Short Version

This could have been the start of Dolph Lundgren on weekly TV.  Oops.

As happens with most Dolph headliners, Dolph is far and away the best thing about Blackjack.

The overall plot and especially the villain are infuriating.

Come to think of it, so is John Woo’s direction.

There’s potential here, but Blackjack looks very much like the unfinished business it is, so in the end, it’s for Dolph Lundgren fans only.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEESE CURDS.

Also known as unfinished cheese.


Pairs Well With...

WHITE ELEPHANT.

One part each vodka and white crème de cacoa, four parts cream.  If you need sunglasses to look at it, you may need some help.

“Marshmallows… big fluffy clouds… bunny rabbits… sugar…”


When is a movie not really a movie?

Okay, there are lots of correct answers to this riddle, but the one I’m thinking of here is “when it started life as a television pilot that didn’t take.”

Guess what that makes Blackjack?

That’s right, folks; once upon a time, this could have been the first stone on the path that started the television career of Dolph Lundgren.  I think I join many, many people in breathing a sigh of relief that this didn’t actually happen; however, I also bet that I’m not sighing for the same reason most people are.  I’m reasonably glad it didn’t happen for Dolph Lundgren’s sake, because even though I do think he could have been good on TV, I think he’s better in movies.

And yet… just maybe…

As out story begins, we meet Atlantic City casino owner Bobby Stern (Peter Keleghan, Ginger Snaps).  Business is booming, but unfortunately for him, the Russian mob wants in, and they’re willing to threaten his daughter, Casey (Padraigin Murphy, “Goosebumps”), to make Stern cave in.  Fearing for Casey’s safety, he calls in a favor from an old friend, former US Marshall Jack Devlin (Dolph Lundgren, The Expendables).

Devlin (who also happens to be handy with card tricks) agrees to protect the precocious Casey, and the timing couldn’t have been cut any closer.  As soon as he drives her home the first time, a gang of killers storms the house, guns blazing.  Devlin is able to keep Casey safe after a massive firefight in the extremely white house, despite being temporarily blinded by a flash grenade and getting shot in the leg halfway through the fight.  Little does he know that this incident will have much farther reaching consequences…

Flash forward at least a year, likely more.  We learn that since we last saw him, Jack became addicted to and managed to come off of Percodan, and he’s also developed an even more debilitating problem.  Ever since the firefight back at the Stern house, he can’t go anywhere without wearing sunglasses.  It’s not a fashion statement or the result of an eye injury, but rather, as he tells his shrink, Rachel Stein (Kate Vernon, Pretty in Pink), it’s because he has suddenly developed a phobia toward the color white.  If he focuses on anything white, he becomes dizzy and almost faints, and is nearly unable to move.

As if that weren’t a big enough problem, he’s about to get two more.  Tim Hastings (Fred Williamson, Active Stealth), an old Marshall buddy who runs a security service, needs Jack’s help protecting a high profile client who’s been getting death threats, and it also turns out that Jack’s other old buddy, Bobby, has been killed in an accident along with his wife, and somebody needs to take care of Casey now…

Let’s get the easy (and unfortunate) part out of the way first, shall we?  Taken as the stand alone action movie that it ultimately became, Blackjack is pretty awful.

Even if you didn’t know it in advance, it doesn’t take much in the way of observational prowess to figure out that Blackjack started its life as something made for commercial television.  (This, of course, pretty much automatically makes the “R” rating on the box ridiculous; there’s more graphic violence in many TV cop shows.)  Fades and cuts look suspiciously like commercial breaks, nobody swears even lightly, blood and gore are effectively nonexistent (you see blood twice, in eyedropper quantities only), and the overall look is just far too clean.  None of this bodes well.  Nor, for that matter, does the light elevator jazz soundtrack, because let’s face it: Dolph just isn’t going to kick a whole lot of ass to the tune of elevator jazz.

At this point, I think it goes without saying that the all-caps box blurb promise that Blackjack is “LOADED WITH NONSTOP ACTION!” is a flat-out lie. 

Not that director John Woo (Face/Off) would actually allow nonstop action to exist even if the script called for it.  His overblown trademark touches abound here, from twin guns (which works) to random (and I do mean random) moments of slow motion (hasn’t anyone ever told Mr. Woo that too much slow motion by definition kills pacing and stops action?) to trenchcoat and cape flourishes for no apparent reason.  He directs as though he is less interested in telling the story than he is in making his mark on it.  As a result, Blackjack is aimless to the point of feeling like there’s no real director at all at times, and that the stunt coordinator was left to run the show with the handicap of commercial TV censorship guidelines.  I’d say that it’s a train wreck, but a train wreck implies action that for the most part just isn’t there.  (You get one ten second burst at the beginning, one decent in-home firefight shortly after, and a stutteringly aimless motorcycle-oriented sequence about halfway through that leads into one of the bigger facepalm moments of the movie.  That’s it.  There may be more gunplay, but nothing else active enough to really be called an action sequence.)

The audience doesn’t even get a decent villain as compensation.  After murdering two people just so he can use their hotel room balcony as a sniper nest, our horrendously named bad guy, Rory (Phillip MacKenzie, Hollywoodland), then takes up his position, shoots, misses… and cries like a baby.  Uh-oh.

Badass villains do many things, but they never cry like a baby.

The fact that this idiot can continually confound a team of 25 security professionals is, frankly, more suspension of disbelief than I can stand.  Rory also suffers from being written as a melodramatic Shakespearean wannabe (the actual words from the script are “failed actor;” sounds about right) who has the misfortune of sounding like a character from a bad Jeff Foxworthy joke the moment he opens his mouth.  (I suspect that this is why you don’t hear him talk for the first half of the movie.)  But hey, he flourishes one mean slow motion trenchcoat.

I seriously think that Dolph faced a more worthy opponent when he was set up against a My Little Pony in an online advertisement for antivirus software.  How sad is that?

As if commercial television standards, bad direction, and pitiful villain didn’t make for enough bad news, there’s also all of the baggage that comes from the fact that Blackjack isn’t just a failed TV movie, but also a failed TV pilot.  This means that our story is loaded with character and story arc introductions that either end up going nowhere because they were meant to be explored or resolved as the wished-for television series went on or that get wrapped up way too quickly after someone figured out that there wasn’t going to be a tomorrow.  All of this just serves to bog down a movie that already feels way too long, and makes the end result that much less satisfying.

It’s too bad, too, because there’s potential here.  Setting the action part of the equation aside as a lost cause, there is some potential to this story.  The therapist angle is interesting, and with an actress of Kate Vernon’s caliber, it could have really gone somewhere.  But then again, Devlin seems to magically resolve his deep phobia just in time for the climax, so it’s not like she’d have had much to do afterward save pine for a date.  (And as for the phobia thing, it actually has more potential than many people give it credit for, but the fact that John Woo and company conveniently ignore it whenever they feel like doing so – notice how often Devlin is surrounded by white without his glasses on – pretty much ruins the whole thing.)  I’m dubious about Devlin’s majordomo, Thomas, but I like Saul Rubinek enough as an actor to give that a pass.  Kids usually ruin everything, but I have to admit, I liked the interactions between Casey and Jack, which leads us to what is far and away the best thing about Blackjack.

That, of course, would be Dolph Lundgren.

Dolph Lundgren has noted that he got to be a movie star first and an actor second, and there’s some decent truth to that.  With that said, while he does his best as usual with the action component of this movie – any complaints about the action scenes have nothing to do with Lundgren – where he really shines here is as an actor.  For all of its failures, Blackjack does give Lundgren the chance to put the gun down and show the audience what he can do playing the part of a real human being… and he does damn well.  Who would have ever thought that Dolph Lundgren could play a father figure, even a reluctant one?  Well here you go; he does, and the chemistry is great.  He also shows real fear and vulnerability in his early scenes in the shrink’s office, and later when he again confronts his phobia and falls short.  Surprise, sports fans!  Our favorite badass can play someone who shows weakness.  If there’s anything good to be said about Blackjack, it is that it truly gives Dolph Lundgren a chance to show off his range as an actor, and the fact that he has that wide of a range is something that too few people give him credit for.

Unfortunately, though, the advice given by Devlin’s shrink in this movie turns out to be all-too-true: one man can’t do it alone, and all one can ask of him is to do his best.  In the case of Blackjack, Dolph Lundgren does his best, but it’s not enough to save the movie for anyone but his own loyal fans.  Circumstances beyond his control drive this one into the ground, and there’s not even a spectacular crash to mark the occasion.

Bottom line, Blackjack just has too many things wrong with it to succeed as an action movie, many of which derive from the fact that it was never really meant to be one.  John Woo phones it in from the director’s chair save for the parts where he signs his autograph, and commercial television standards and a pathetic villain take care of the rest.  Dolph Lundgren does his own part well, though, and for his loyal fans, Blackjack is still worth picking up on the cheap just for the chance to see a bit more of Dolph’s dramatic side… and to see him cut off a dude’s tie with nothing but a pair of playing cards.  For everyone else, though, it’s just plain bad, and there’s no reason to go out of your way to see this.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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