JOSHUA TREE Blu-ray Review: Early ‘90s Action Encapsulated

For anyone who ever wanted to see Dolph Lundgren kick and punch a WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? cast member, this movie will answer your prayers.

There are a lot of things I'll never understand, but the fact that Dolph Lundgren's Joshua Tree (more commonly known as Army of One here in the States) was sent DTV here instead of given the theatrical release it got everywhere else is a particularly frustrating head-scratcher. Coming off one of his biggest hits (Universal Soldier) a few months before, Dolph was primed to enjoy the same sort of success Van Damme and Seagal had enjoyed around that time (indeed, Van Damme's stock continued to rise for a while post-Universal Soldier) with this enjoyable shoot em up action flick - but he never got that chance. Apart from his villain role in Johnny Mnemonic (a film that helped absolutely no one's career), after Soldier his next wide release was Expendables - nearly 20 years later.

Would he have fared better than the others? Hard to tell. I think he's a better actor than those two, but he also never seemed to catch on with our audiences when he was playing the hero - his biggest pre-Expendables hits (and we can hardly attribute those films' success to him) were Universal Soldier and Rocky IV - where he was the villain. Still, he should have at least gotten the chance to try with this one, which is like a cinematic checklist of how action movies were during that period: a bit of "homage" to John Woo, a respectable actor as the slimy villain, a warehouse shootout and of course, an out of nowhere, largely illogical love scene between the hero and the woman who hated him just hours before.

And this one's for the record books - not only is she technically his hostage, but she's a cop as well! Early on, shortly after escaping from his prison van, Dolph's character Santee carjacks Rita (Kristian Alfonso) and keeps her as a human shield, essentially, as he makes his way to Joshua Tree to get revenge on the guys who framed him and had him sent to prison (and also killed his best friend, another stock plot point from the era). He jabs a gun in her back every four minutes, puts her in harm's way, destroys her awesome truck and inadvertently gets her boyfriend killed - yet as soon as she realizes he's innocent, she's all over him. It's not the finest moment for the feminist movement, but it's all part of the silly charm that these movies have, and I sort of miss how unpretentious and fairly simple action flicks used to be. Dolph's pretty much the only Expendables cast member who hasn't tanked in the past few weeks (Last Stand, Parker and Bullet to the Head never even got out of the gate; Die Hard 5 crashed hard after a not great opening), so it's safe to say that unless they're all together, folks just don't want to see these kind of movies anymore. I of course saw all of them on opening weekend and had a lot of fun (well, not Die Hard 5), but nowadays folks prefer watered-down, CGI-driven nonsense like Total Recall (which lost money, but still sold more tickets than Statham, Arnold and Sly's movies did combined).

Thankfully, CGI barely existed when this movie was produced (and certainly couldn't be afforded by this kind of production). So you get lots and lots of squibs and real stunts, especially during the ludicrous/awesome sequence where Dolph wipes out what seems to be 30 guys in a warehouse, despite the fact that only about 8 of them were seen arriving there to begin with. At one point his gun runs out of ammo and he merely places it down and picks up another as he endlessly rolls along on a creeper, laying waste to everyone without ever getting hit despite the fact that they have machine guns and Uzis. He also makes an impromptu flamethrower, immolates a guy (producer Andy Armstrong, in fact), and then kicks him into a bunch of boxes of paint thinner, where the lot of them proceed to explode. It is, without a doubt, the best thing I've ever seen in a George Segal movie.

Oh yeah, Segal. For anyone who ever wanted to see Dolph Lundgren kick and punch a Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? cast member (with a bonus Beau Starr - Sheriff Meeker! - as Segal's omnipresent partner), this movie will answer your prayers. It actually breaks the norm from a lot of action movies of the time, where the main bad guy would have very little hand to hand fighting with the hero, who would usually be worn down from the bad guy's kickass henchman (think Karl from Die Hard, or the Everett McGill character in Under Siege 2), but Segal doesn't really have anyone like that. There's an Asian dude named Jimmy Shoeshine who might have fit the bill, but Starr and Segal kill him themselves when their cover (they're dirty cops) is about to be blown. Actually, apart from a brief skirmish with one of Shoeshine's goons, Dolph doesn't have any real extended fights in the movie with anyone except Segal, which is kind of funny. It'd be like if Tango & Cash just had all shootouts and then at the end they beat the shit out of Jack Palance with their bare hands.

Add in the multiple explosions and a pretty great car chase near the end, plus the usual Fugitive style stuff with Dolph as an innocent man trying to evade capture, and you have a pretty solid movie, one that didn't deserve its fate. And I'm not just talking about the lack of a US theatrical release - it was also never released on DVD in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio until now. Director Vic Armstrong isn't exactly John Carpenter when it comes to utilizing the frame for maximum impact, but it certainly helps during the action scenes. Kudos to Shout Factory for doing right by this one, and adding in a few bonus features for good measure, though I wish it had given the option to watch the alternate ending (which I am positive was the one that I saw back when this aired on HBO or whatever it was in 1994 or so) with the rest of the feature. Not only does it have an extended fight at the end and more explanation for how Segal's character is brought down, it also loses the goofy epilogue that the current ending has, and is thus the superior climax. The Armstrongs disagree, however - they chat a bit over it in an optional commentary, one you might as well just listen to on your first time since they barely talk and you can always hear the (minimal) dialogue anyway.

They do the same for the movie itself, sometimes going two or three minutes without really saying anything. When they are chatty they're discussing the stunts and locations, and commenting on the cast (a lot of praise for Alfonso, who is a pretty decent action heroine), plus talking about other guys in their field who they have a lot of respect for - that sort of stuff. If you're into stunts and their process, the track will be of much interest, but otherwise it comes off more like a couple of guys watching a movie for the first time and acknowledging what they read about it elsewhere. The two and Dolph also provide new interviews which run about a half hour and cover the rest of the cast, shooting in Joshua Tree, Dolph talking about being an inexperienced actor (he inexplicably says he had only done three or for movies before this - it was his tenth), etc. If you don't have time for the commentary, this covers the highlights and adds Dolph, making it the best of the supplements. The trailer is also included, and as is usually the case with Shout's combo releases, all of the extras are available on the included DVD disc as well, making it an attractive purchase even if you haven't upgraded to the superior format yet.

Obviously your tolerance for late '80s/early '90s action will determine how you feel about this one. If you think they're cheesy and too dumb to enjoy, then it won't change your mind any - if anything it lovingly embraces those cliches. But if you do have an affinity for those you should find a lot to love here, and if you're a Dolph fan few of his movies have been much better. The solid transfer and bonus features are icing on the cake - it's great to finally have this one properly shown with its title restored here in the States.

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