Every inch of 'Skin Trade' feels like a B-movie, but the good thing is that it doesn't try to pretend to be more. A passion project of Dolph Lundgren who started work on its script close to eight years ago, it knows exactly what buttons to push to get its core audience satisfied even as it tries to shed light onto a matter close to his heart, i.e. that of human trafficking. So if you're expecting a very angry Lundgren on a revenge rampage, or a mano-a-mano between Lundgren and Tony Jaa, or a similar one-on-one between Tony Jaa and Michael Jai White, we can reassure you that you won't be disappointed.
A brief prologue establishes the mechanics of Viktor Dragovic's (Ron Perlman) despicable business – under the guise of offering them employment, the former Serbian national's fourth son Janko (Leo Rano) and his accomplices lure gullible village girls from Thailand, Cambodia and Laos to leave their homes and journey to the city, where they are subsequently drugged and shipped to America and Europe to be sold as sex slaves. Lundgren's Newark police detective Nick Cassidy is tracking Viktor's latest shipment in order to apprehend him and his sons, while Jaa plays a Thai police officer Tony who is onto the same case from further down the food chain.
Their paths cross after Viktor is let loose upon diplomatic pressure and skips town, seeking refuge in a corrupt general's mansion near the Cambodian border. Unfortunately for Nick, Viktor's sons manage to get to his family before fleeing town, so after regaining consciousness from an RPG strike on his house, Nick decides to take his quest for revenge to Viktor. Thanks to Michael Jai White's rogue government agent Reed, Nick is framed for the murder of Tony's partner soon after setting foot on Royal Thai soil. Of course, who's good and who's bad will become clear quite quickly, but Lundgren and his co-writers have specifically engineered enough twists and turns precisely to fulfil their audience's expectations to see each one of the marquee action stars have a go at the other.
Much of the heavy lifting here is done by Jaa, whose speed and agility has not dimmed one bit since his 'Tom Yum Goong' and 'Ong Bak' days. While his Hollywood debut in 'Fast and Furious 7' may have been overlooked because of the crowded ensemble, Jaa's lead turn here will definitely not go unnoticed. His one-on-one with Lundgren in an abandoned warehouse is the film's halfway high-water mark, pitting a lean mean warrior against a much hulkier opponent – though there is no question in our minds just who is the one that is the better fighter.
It is no wonder then that Jaa is the one chosen to take on Jai White, the latter a much worthier opponent than Lundgren skilled in the art of kickboxing not unlike Jean Claude Van-Damme in his heydays. The fight between them is brutal and ferocious, choreographed specifically to illustrate the strengths of either actor, and next to the noisy and overblown finale at a remote airstrip that it precedes, is easily the climax that the film deserves to be remembered for. Indeed, while a sizeable amount of the limited budget on which the film is made for has been reserved for explosions and other fireballs, it is the raw thrill of seeing these natural born fighters go at each other knuckle-to-knuckle that is where its charm lies.
And in that regard, Lundgren deserves more credit than what may be apparent. It is no doubt thanks to Lundgren that we get to see Jaa in such a significant capacity – not only in a movie that respects the actor's Oriental roots but also one that gives him a role with both the breadth and depth for Jaa to showcase his abilities as an actor and as an action star. It is probably also thanks to Lundgren that the likes of Jai White, Ron Perlman, Peter Weller and Cary- Hiroyuki Tagawa have come together in the same film, a combination that is any self-professed B-action movie fan's wet dream. And it is Lundgren who manages to pull a movie with so many potential clichés together in a respectable fashion – as the latter scenes demonstrate, its director Ekachai Uekrongtham has a long way to go in learning how to stage a proper action sequence.
Like we said at the beginning, 'Skin Trade' doesn't pretend to be more than what it is – and much as there is a social message in here, it never tries to drive it too hard. Indeed, it is precisely by embracing its B-movie roots that it truly delivers, not just in the fact that it makes no compromises in keeping its action hard- hitting but also by ensuring that its actors are right up there without any doubles performing each and every one of the stunts. More than sex, that is the skin trade which truly matters, and which we suspect its audience will be more than happy to partake in.
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