It’s hard to tell if Skin Trade should be taken seriously. Because it’s a movie about sex trafficking that ends with a title card displaying sobering sex trafficking statistics, but it’s also a movie that stars and is co-written by Dolph Lundgren. This ambiguity is the film’s most plangent trait: long before we ever get to the credits, it indulges in industry reenactment while engaging in its own exploitation. There isn’t a ton of nudity here, but the camera tours through enough strip clubs to totally undercut the message of Ekachai Uekrongtham’s action extravaganza. Gaze at this exhibition of the flesh, the movie says, but have the common decency to feel guilty afterwards.
That probably tells you Skin Trade’s exact measure of sincerity, though the fact that Uekrongtham kneecaps his agenda doesn’t necessarily make the movie bad. Instead, it just makes it sort of basic. If Lundgren’s towering figure doesn’t provide enough of a hint, this is the sort of modern day genre exercise that we’d look back on endearingly had it actually come out during the Swedish god’s heyday. For a man creeping up on his 60s, Lundgren is still in terrific shape, though paired against his co-star, Thai martial arts dynamo Tony Jaa, his age can’t help but show. Jaa treats every fight and every chase as a sort of ballet, while Lundgren can only galumph to keep up. They’re an odd couple. The way that Skin Trade uses them is odder.
Lundgren plays Nick Cassidy, a New Jersey cop out to crush the criminal empire of Serbian mobster Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman). Jaa is Tony, a Bangkok cop who—surprise!—has the exact same goal. In between them there’s Dragovic, whom Nick arrests after a police raid on one of his operations. During the fracas, he also kills Dragovic’s son, leading Dragovic to go with the nuclear option and order the deaths of all of Nick’s family members. It’s standard issue stuff we’ve seen in countless Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks, and Nick, who is able to survive having a missile launched at his home because of his excess muscle, swears to bring down Dragovic without the help of the law.
The problem is that Dragovic has fled the country to Bangkok. Thus do Nick’s and Tony’s paths cross, though by Action Movie Law, they must have a Manly Fight before they can team up and become bros. That’s Skin Trade’s big stumbling block: it’s obvious, and it goes to entirely too much effort to explain itself. Do we really need there to be an explication of Tony’s budding relationship with one of his CIs (Arrow’s Celina Jade)? Does Nick really need to jump through hoops to figure out where Dragovic has skedaddled to? Do Peter Weller and Michael Jai White both have to tell Lundgren twice in succession that his wife and daughter are dead? Getting Jaa and Lundgren together faster might have served nicely (and so would more Perlman, who savors his villainy so much that he makes the movie better just by being on screen). As the story spins its wheels, the audience grows bloodthirsty, and we must slake our cravings.
Here, Skin Trade delivers. Lundgren has never really been one for big, flashy beatdowns, but he can very convincingly plant a foot in a dude’s chest and swing an AK47. It’s Jaa who really brings it, of course, and though his style of high-flying ass-kicking is old hat, he wears it so well that it never loses its appeal. He goes from zero to knee-to-your-face in the blink of an eye, a perpetually coiled tiger with no qualms about busting ribs. The violence here is often surprisingly bloody, and even when it’s not, the sound editing lends the impression of grue anyways. Plus, for a main event, we get to see Jaa go at it with White, which is enough to recommend Skin Trade by itself. It’s just too bad that it takes an hour to get there, and that Uekrongtham fusses so much with the gravity of the script, oscillating between social import and strong action. At least he’s able to make good on the latter.
Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Writers: Dolph Lundgren, Gabriel Dowrick, Steven Elder, John Hyams
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, Michael Jai White, Ron Perlman, Celina Jade, Peter Weller
Release Dates: April 23, 2015 (On Demand and iTunes); May 8, 2015 (theatrical)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently he has given up on shaving.