Even the DTV (or mostly DTV) action world has its big event films. Skin Trade counts as one of these whether it’s actually good or not. If the film only presented us with a Dolph Lundgren and Tony Jaa team-up, it would probably be required viewing. The inclusion of Michael Jai White, Ron Perlman, and Peter Weller bumps it up into the relative big leagues. Even the bad guy from Mortal Kombat shows up. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that this appears to be a real labor of love for Lundgren, who co-wrote and co-produced the film.
That’ll get a lot of people in the door, but it doesn’t necessarily make the film a slam dunk. Luckily, Skin Trade is about as good as you’d hope. It doesn’t enter that upper pantheon reserved for stuff like Ninja II or the later Universal Soldier movies, but it doesn’t waste its potential either. If you like this sort of thing, you’re going to have plenty to enjoy here.
Skin Trade’s first half is paced a bit oddly, which means it takes a while for us to learn exactly what kind of film it really is. Initially, we follow two separate plots, one starring Lundgren as a typical gruff American cop, the other starring Jaa as a badass who saves women from sexual slavery. Lundgren’s after a kingpin (Ron Perlman) who we know will end up with direct ties to Jaa’s escapades, but the way the two stories meet is ultimately way different and way cooler than we expect.
About thirty minutes in, Skin Trade becomes a rather brutal revenge film, and this is where it really begins to shine. Lundgren isn’t messing around when it comes to vengeance, and director Ekachai Uekrongtham doesn’t hold back any of the violence to make him more likable.
The real white hat here is Jaa, who tries so hard to deliver English lines that you want to give him a pat on the back just for the attempt. This is especially true when it comes to his action guy quips. They are rough. And even if Lundgren were saying them, they wouldn’t match the film’s dour tone.
But he looks good fighting! Jaa doesn’t really Jaa it up as much as you’d hope, but there is one really funny fight where Dolph keeps picking him up like a rag doll and slamming him onto things. Of course, Jaa responds by beating the shit out of him in really painful looking ways. It’s kind of a twink vs. bear thing. This is also true of the big Tony Jaa - Michael Jai White fight. Both are a lot of fun.
Like many recent B-action films, everything looks relatively clean with understandable action. There’s one big chase sequence with Lundgren that actually looks great and has all kinds of interesting camera choices. The film was clearly made with care.
That extends beyond visuals to the story itself. Skin Trade does not just use the existence of sex slavery as some dark international plot device, as often happens (the Daredevil series offers just one recent example). It actually focuses on the problem and wants to raise awareness. This is an admirable trait for a B-action film, made more so by Lundgren’s behind the camera involvement with the film and sincerity overall.
Not all DTV-type action movies are good. Some are truly awful. Skin Trade is one of the good ones but not in an overly showy or obvious way. It’s just solid and fun from beginning to end.