Junkfood Cinema: Blackjack

By  · Published on August 26th, 2011

Junkfood Cinema: Blackjack

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; your check is almost certainly in the mail. Yes my unfortunate dupes, you’ve stumbled upon the weekly bad movie column that seriously calls into question the acronym TGIF; unless you reassign the letters to mean Tell God I Forfeit.

Every Friday, right before you shuffle off for the weekend, I slap you upside the face with a film that fell well short of greatness long ago and is now selling insurance and renting a double-wide in a little town called Schlocksburgh. My job is to walk the dirt roads of Schlocksburgh under cover of night and hurl rocks of mockery at said double-wide until somebody calls the internet police. But then, just as I’m about to be booked for a hate crime, I tear off my shirt and reveal a crudely drawn homemade tattoo across my chest professing my undying love for said film.

I then offer a disgustingly tasty themed snack as an act of contrition, and in the hopes of avoiding a bothersome restraining order.

This Week’s Target: Blackjack

What Makes It Bad?

Blackjack is directed by John Woo. John Who? No, Woo. Truth be told, if this film were made in Hong Kong in the late 80s, the fact that it was directed by John Woo would be a sterling testament to its greatness. Unfortunately, Blackjack was directed by John Woo…in America…in the late 90s. Those three ingredients culminate into one enormous fecal cupcake. Let’s run down the list of Woo’s American films shall we? Hard Target (Hardly a Film), Broken Arrow (Broken Script), Face/Off (Face/Plant), Mission: Impossible II (Mission: Unwatchable), Windtalkers (Blows), and Paycheck (He’ll Take One, Thanks). And right in the middle of this garbage parade, Woo directed a made-for-TV film starring Dolph Lundgren. Blind howler monkeys engaging in lit match fights on barrels of gunpowder aboard the Hindenburg don’t spell eminent doom like that last sentence.

And Holy Station Identification Break does this thing wear its made-for-TV trappings on its sleeve. The whole thing is lit like the classiest episode of The Red Shoe Diaries (which I’m almost positive exists). As if that’s not enough to justify the film’s working title, Skin-a-Maximum Risk, the whole movie is scored with a single, evidently very angry saxophone. Kenny G SMASH!!! There are ironically only two scenes wherein this music fits: the date-rapey dance number wherein Dolph tries to dance drugs out of a young actress’s system, and the moment in which he presses her up against a wall for a surprise back-crack that has orgasmic sounds leaving her mouth. So when I said, “ironically” I meant “I now desperately need a shower.” Bundle all that up with the “and now to Chip Chipperstein with sports” wipe transitions and you’ve got a movie that seems very comfortable wedged between Ronco Knives infomercials and Matlock reruns.

Sometimes you have to sit down and watch a bad film in its entirety to comprehend its shortcomings, and other times you need only hear the central conceit of the film before you begin laughing uproariously and contemplating the innumerable things you will be doing instead of watching that film. I will now attempt to explain the concept of Blackjack without laughing. Dolph Lundgren plays a U.S. (chortle) Marshal who is (snicker) afraid (chuckle) of the (guffaw) color white (breaks a rib on the coffee table as he falls from his chair and doubles over in what is now a mix of laughter and searing pain). Who the hell is afraid of the color white?! People who lost their virginity to their cousin in a snowbank? People whose parents were eaten by bunnies? People who have been raped by clouds?

Well apparently there is an actual psychological phobia known as leukophobia, which is not, as I would have guessed, the fear of FSR writer’s with enormous beards. The writer tries to shoehorn in some link to Dolph’s childhood and his failure to get his dad out of a scrape while sitting in a white car. Yeah, I believe the car was a ’65 Buick Tenuous. But I don’t care if Betty White shoved an Ajax-coated golf ball up lil Dolph’s nose in Whiteville, Tennessee while The White Stripes played a rousing rendition of White Christmas, it’s still an ill-advised foible for your hero. Dolph ends up facing down the killer at a milk processing plant which sounds like a convenient, hackneyed plot device, but it’s really just an homage to all the countless classic films that feature climactic battles at milk processing plants: Skim Like Flint, There’s Something About Dairy, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Milk Processing Plant.

There’s a veritable potpourri of absurdity in Blackjack that defies conventional methods of categorization. Dolph, in addition to his signature line mumbling, also manages to throw cards at high speed, salsa dance, and bounce on a trampoline during a gunfight. Try to digest all that! It’s like watching Ivan Drago audition to play Gambit for Marvel Comic’s Circus of the Stars. He is also randomly placed in charge of a precocious little girl whom you will spend the whole film wishing he would just go ahead and kick in the mouth already and get it over with. Not enough? How about Saul Rubinek as an eye-patch-donning butler with an indefinable European accent? An assassin who preforms Shakespeare for an audience of haystack dolls? I sound like I’m having a stroke in the middle of this paragraph, but I assure you I was almost completely sober while watching this film and all these things…pretty much definitely happened. The tone was set early on when Dolph dropped action cinema’s all time worst one-liner. The little girl is holding a carton of milk (at this point I’m willing to believe that the movie was produced by the Dairy Farmers of America) while a thug is holding a gun to her head. But uncle Dolph assures her, “don’t worry, Casey, you’ve got milk.” She then proceeds to pour it on the thug’s arm which, surprisingly, is completely ineffective. Is lactophiliac a thing? If so, the writer of this film is that.

The biggest problem with Blackjack, apart from its being afflicted with a raging case of stupid, is that it is waaaaaaaay toooooooo loooooooong! Dolph runs afoul of the villainous assassin in a climactic battle, not once, not twice, not even three times but…oh wait no, it is three times. But still, three final showdowns? Was this movie written by Tolkien? If so, is Dolph a cave troll? That would actually explain a lot. After a while it’s like watching the filmed version of a small child trying to tell a story; continually returning to previous plot points because they think they’ve forgotten something and then having not the foggiest idea of where they were going or how the story was supposed to end. Seriously, is there anything worse than children?

Why I Love It!

Not to overstate it, but Blackjack may be mankind’s single greatest contribution to existence. All joking aside…is something I never say. But for realsies, Blackjack is in many ways John Woo’s best American film. Now given the slate of material we have to choose from, this statement is akin to saying “this pile of old wigs and broken glass is the best pile of old wigs and broken glass.” However, I stand by my assertion as Blackjack, more so than any of his other American films, effectively plays to Woo’s sensibilities and the action sequences are substantially badass. There is one particular stunt wherein Dolph slides sideways on a motorcycle under a leaping motorcycle which then bursts into flames and crashes into a parked car. Dolph then rides his own motorcycle backwards down a ramp and fires at his pursuer until the pursuer’s motorcycle explodes and the stunt man rides down the ramp fully ablaze in one long take. Aghast at the awesomeness of these stunts, I began choking on the popcorn I wasn’t even eating. Hell, even the trampoline stunt was cool and sort of a throwback to the wacky morgue drawer sequence in Hard Boiled.

This movie is an absolute blast; pun only slightly intended given the amount of combustible motorcyclists there contained. When it succeeds, we get some killer action sequences. When it fails, it fails hard with a vengeance. You therefore spend the entire film trading off between laughing uproariously and grunt-cheering with macho delight be ye man, woman, or Brigitte Nielsen. This movie exemplifies everything I love about what I like to call VHS roulette. I go to one of Austin’s phenomenal local video stores, rent something on VHS solely based on the cover and hope for the best. Many times, I crap out. But every once in a while I find an ace on the flop, double down, and hit the jackpot! I’ve officially forgotten which gambling metaphor I started with. In any event, Blackjack is better than Broken Arrow.

So by now you’re probably asking yourself, “why the hell do I subject myself to this awful column week in and week out?” Wait, what? No, the other question: “is there any actor more manly than Dolph Lundgren?” Of course, you fools! That walking battleship of testosterone goes by the name Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. Williamson was a staple of blaxploitation and is quite possibly one of the coolest melon farmers on the planet. The Hammer represents one of this film’s greatest attributes and most glaring weakness: The attribute is that the film features Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. The weakness is that it doesn’t feature enough Fred “The Hammer” Williamson.

He’s a secondary character who merely bookends the movie, but he still manages to steal the show from a perpetually confused Lundgren. I have to say I admire the racial progressiveness at play here in that Fred “The Hammer” Williamson is in this film and yet Dolph Lundgren is the one called Blackjack.

Junkfood Pairing: Black Jack Chewing Gum

This snack may seem a bit on-the-nose, but that’s only because this snack is extremely on-the-nose. My other option was John Woo’s Violent Chewing Product for Gargantuan Swedes With Idiotic Phobias, so I would like a little credit for my commitment to subtlety.

Pick your will to live off the ground and read more Junkfood Cinema

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.