Boiled down to its basic narrative constituents, Men of War is The Dirty Dozen meets Dances with Wolves – or, for a more contemporary audience, Avatar meets Rambo. One has to admit, it seems almost superfluous to review action flicks featuring such stars as Dolph Lundgren due to how bad and distinctly unremarkable they usually are, but Men of War is a different specimen. Against all odds, this entry to the mercenary-on-a-mission subgenre delivers exceptional action attached to a well-written script and an interesting story that’s not half-bad by generic action flick standards. This is not high art, nor is it Best Picture material, but that matters not – this is a badass, technically sound and infinitely enjoyable instance of action cinema.
Dolph Lundgren’s role here is burnt-out, jaded former mercenary Nick Gunar who’s encountering difficulties adjusting to civilian life. Not long into the film, Nick is hired by the Nitro Mine Corporation to persuade the natives of a South China Sea island to give up their home in order for the corporation to mine the island’s valuable resources. Nick reluctantly accepts, and heads to the island with a team of mercenaries. However, the natives prove to be more tenacious than the team presumed, and, over time, Nick and a few of his friends become charmed by the natives and their way of life. The group is soon fractured, as each man is forced to choose sides. Needless to say, it isn’t long before the utopia is transformed into an all-out war zone.
Men of War is in many ways a throwback movie, as it recalls older mercenary flicks such as The Dogs of War and The Wild Geese which possessed a strong moral centre that prevented them from being simple bloodbaths. The screenplay for Men of War does not rush through the characters’ change of heart like some action vehicles do; Nick’s seduction by the island takes time, and the action is sidelined until the explosive climax. This alone raises Men of War above something like The Delta Force (a Chuck Norris vehicle). Perhaps the successful fusion of action and drama can be attributed to highly respected scribe John Sayles (Sunshine State, Eight Men Out, The Howling) who had a hand in writing the script. Men of War is not exactly Sayles-lite, as there is a satisfying amount of sardonic wit and amusing asides. The cinematography by Ronn Schmidt is easy to admire as well; the stunning vistas afford the film a sheen that belies its status as a straight-to-video action vehicle.
Yet, do not get the wrong impression: Men of War also delivers in the action department with a wallop. There are sporadic bursts of action throughout the film, with the first third featuring a great Muay Thai boxing match as well as a fun barroom brawl sequence. Granted, there are pacing and tonal problems during the middle third when the team are shown bonding with the natives, but the movie gets back on track with a rousing climactic battle in which people are dispatched with bullets, grenades and bazookas. It all culminates with an exceptional one-on-one scuffle between Dolph as Nick and Trevor Goddard as Nick’s rival Keefer (who appears to recall Vernon Wells’ Bennett from Commando). Director Perry Lang did an impressive job with the action; it’s gritty, hard-hitting, violent and coherent, despite a few technical goofs (a man shot with a bazooka literally explodes into paper confetti). A lot of blood is spilt during the climax, which should satiate action enthusiasts and gore hounds.
In the acting department, Dolph delivered an amiable performance that provides the picture with a solid core and a protagonist you can care about. This is not Oscar-worthy stuff, but it’s above the usual standard for the genre. The cast is loaded with several other badass performers, including Kevin Tighe (Road House), Tiny “Zeus” Lister, Tom Wright and Don Harvey among others. Trevor Goddard is suitably hammy and over-the-top as the villain, while B.D. Wong is impressive as the native who helps Dolph and his men kick some ass. Also worth mentioning is Catherine Bell – she’s terrific eye candy, and her acting is sound. For a straight-to-video motion picture, the acting is highly impressive – in fact, it’s difficult to believe that this is a STV movie. On the other hand, for all this praise, Men of War is not perfect. It’s a perfectly acceptable diversion which rises above the ordinary, but it’s nothing too substantial, and the storyline is both clichéd and predictable no matter where you turn. The characters lack depth, as well.
In spite of its shortcomings, Men of War is far better than expected. I’m positive that most, if not all people will write off the film as a cheap and nasty time waster, but it’s more skilful than you may initially think, and it’s a shame the film was buried by Miramax at the time of its release (reportedly, the film was not initially intended to go straight-to-video). If you can get your hands on a copy of this movie, it’s definitely worth it. It is actually available to import from the United States on Blu-ray in a double pack with the Sean Bean war movie Bravo Two Zero. Rather than a cheap transfer, it presents Men of War in widescreen with an above-average video/audio presentation. It’s a smart buy, and you can probably get it for $10 shipped.