Skin Trade delivers on expectations. It does not exactly exceed them, but it does not disappoint, which is a big deal considering what’s at stake here. After all, it is a direct-to-video affair with one hell of a cast, including Expendables luminary Dolph Lundgren, Thai superstar Tony Jaa, former RoboCop Peter Weller, Hellboy star Ron Perlman, and the perpetually reliable Michael Jai White. Luckily, instead of a schlocky waste of time like Blood of Redemption or Ambushed, Skin Trade has the skill and know-how to deliver as a bruising B-movie actioner. It also functions as something of a public service announcement about the hideous human trafficking industry, with the movie giving us something to chew on as we enjoy the carnage, violence, and explosions.
Seeking to take down sinister Siberian human trafficker Viktor Dragovic (Perlman), New York Cop Nick Cassidy (Lundgren) kills Dragovic’s beloved son in a tense shootout. After Dragovic weasels his way out of police custody, he comes after Cassidy, destroying his house and attacking his family. The assault leaves Cassidy shaken and determined to exact revenge, going outside the law in his mission for retribution. Travelling to Cambodia, Cassidy crosses paths with young Thai detective Tony Vitayakul (Jaa), but the pair are reluctant to trust one another.
It’s clear that Skin Trade genuinely is a case of “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Lundgren initially penned the screenplay all the way back in 2007, and when the film finally came together, the actor maintained plenty of responsibility, serving as a producer on his pet project, though he left directorial duties to Thai filmmaker Ekachai Uekrongtham. Skin Trade unfolds pretty much as you would anticipate, fulfilling perfunctory story and character development before getting into the relentless action sequences. There are a few twists and turns throughout the narrative, but it thankfully never devolves into convoluted nonsense. At 90 minutes, this is a beautifully lean movie, and, surprisingly, the ending is not an outright happy one; it’s open-ended, which both reinforces how many souls are lost due to human trafficking, and leaves room for a sequel if one is ever ordered (which would be an enticing prospect).
Today’s action movies are digital all over, with movies like Battle of the Damned and Blood of Redemption even stooping to the offensive level of digital muzzle flashes (no blank rounds are fired anymore), and with CGI blood rearing its ugly head in most every recent action movie. Thankfully, Skin Trade is more old-school; performers are visibly shooting blanks, and bullet hits are practical. It’s such a small thing, but it’s rarely done correctly, hence the effort is very much appreciated. Moreover, while there may be digital touch-ups here and there, nothing looks phoney or outright CGI. Hell, there’s even a helicopter crash during the finale which looks like the result of practical effects! Most of the explosions and flames look real, too. Skin Trade is very much an ’80s movie in spirit, though its tone is perhaps more dour than most productions from that era. While the dialogue doesn’t sparkle as brightly as something like Lethal Weapon, there are a few nice one-liners peppered throughout.
The action as a whole in Skin Trade is satisfying, with shootouts, chases, and some hand-to-hand fights, all of which were pulled off with sufficient panache by director Uekrongtham. We can actually see what’s happening, and the body count is pretty considerable. Unlike the PG-13 family-friendly flicks we see so often, Skin Trade is a hard R, almost effortlessly so, pulling no punches in its depiction of graphic violence or the bleak realities of the human trafficking industry. There are even a few gory deaths that left this reviewer giddy with joy. Furthermore, production values are strong considering the production’s reported $9 million budget, with slick visuals courtesy of cinematographer Ben Nott (Predestination, Daybreakers). Skin Trade is a theatrical quality actioner, and it certainly deserves a wide cinema release more than some guff that has polluted multiplexes recently.
Tony Jaa was grossly misused for his English-language debut in Furious 7, lost amid a congested ensemble cast where he was unable to do much. But Jaa’s second billing here is appropriate, as he is indeed allotted a major role in the proceedings. His acting is admittedly a bit stilted and lacking in confidence like most Asian performers making their English debut, but he compensates for these shortcomings with his insane fighting skills. The Ong-bak sequels and The Protector 2 were unforgivable, with the latter actually featuring some piss-poor fights, but the throwdowns in Skin Trade are awesome. A brawl with Lundgren is admittedly a bit over-edited, but it’s brutal and viscerally exciting nevertheless. But the jewel in the movie’s crown is Jaa’s one-on-one with Michael Jai White – both men are proficient real-life fighters, and their battle is incredible, with smooth camerawork properly showcasing the respective abilities of the two men. It’s certainly better than anything from last year’s The Expendables 3.
Dolph often puts more effort into his performances if he directs the picture as well. Although he only produced Skin Trade, the project was very close to his heart, resulting in a very focused performance here that ranks among his best in the last couple of decades. It’s a suitable role for the Dolphster, and he runs with it. His pain is very evident when he loses his family, and he seems visibly affected as he looks upon the women and children locked up in cages (Dolph has said that, to get into character, he thought about how he would feel if his young daughters were in there). Dolph interacts well with Jaa, and the rest of the actors submit solid contributions across the board. Perlman is a borderline cartoon, but in a good way, and he’s a terrific villain. Rounding out the cast are Weller and White, who are a bit underused but nevertheless hit their marks confidently.
With a bigger budget and an extra hand in the scripting department, Skin Trade could have been a profound action-thriller akin to Blood Diamond. As Dolph himself admits, though, the finished product is vehemently a violent action fiesta, albeit one with a bit more on its mind than your typical B-movie. It fulfils its modest ambitions, and does so without the usual pitfalls associated with modern DTV productions. It’s clichéd and silly, and some moments are a tad awkward, but on the whole it’s a wholesome, entertaining action movie, and that’s exactly what I wanted.