I'd like to think I'm pretty well-versed in the world of Direct To Video action, but there are a couple of big blind spots in my viewing curriculum that I've been putting off for one reason or another. This month, a new Blu-Ray release presented the opportunity to finally cover one of those glaring omissions, so I took it upon myself to consume all four entries of The Marine franchise in one fell swoop. Some of you may have passing familiarity with these films (quite literally; you've likely walked right past them on the DVD/Blu-Ray new release rack at Walmart or on the display of the Redbox machine outside your local pharmacy). To be completely honest, I expected this endeavor to be an exercise in masochism. However, the experience yielded some pretty fascinating observations the further down the rabbit hole I went. More importantly I came out of it all having experienced some quality DTV action viewing that provided the commensurate bang for my budget movie buck.
I began with the film that started it all, 2006's The Marine, starring WWE wrestling superstar John Cena. Bottom Line Up Front: The Marine is an ideal DTV action movie, and I was hella surprised to discover how entertaining it is. Cena plays Master Gunnery Sergeant John Triton, who gets discharged for disobeying orders after he rushes in to an Al Qaeda compound in order to single-handedly rescue kidnapped comrades from execution. Forced to readjust to civilian life, he and his wife decide to take a road trip to clear their heads. Unfortunately, the couple cross paths with a crew of deadly diamond thieves led by Robert Patrick. The thieves kidnap his wife and leave him for dead, and Triton uses his tracking, survival and weapons skills to bring them to justice and get his wife back.
The Marine is off the chain. There's some solid gunplay, hard-hitting fist fights between big beefy dudes, over the top vehicular mayhem and a shit load of explosions. It has a silly, almost awkward sense of humor, but it is also sincere in its attempt at a straightforward action story. John Cena was in the midst of his meteoric rise to WWE championship super-stardom when this movie premiered, taking the reigns from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who had just begun a full-fledged film career of his own a few years prior. It's been said that The Rock was the heir apparent to the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, but I'll be damned if Cena doesn't have his go at the crown in this film. The insane opening sequence, in which he goes in guns blazing, is like a beautifully absurd homage to the compound raid in Predator. Cena has terrific screen presence and physicality borne of his charismatic ring persona, and it's more than enough to fulfill the perfunctory action hero role. The Marine was a modest theatrical success with $22 million earned at the box office, but it made its real killing in the home market with over $30 million in home sales and rentals. And just like that, a DTV franchise was born.
The Marine 2
It's quite unfortunate, then, that 2009's The Marine 2 is a substantially inferior stand-alone sequel. In this story, WWE Superstar Ted DiBiase plays Marine scout sniper Joe Linwood. He and his wife are vacationing in a lavish beach resort in Thailand when the hotel suddenly comes under attack by terrorists. Joe escapes the initial onslaught and must find a way to save his wife and the other hostages.
The Marine 2 shares problems common to most DTV films, but the biggest misstep is that it's “inspired by true events." Applying gritty realism is at odds with the silly fun of the original and the implausible action that takes place here. The on-location Thailand scenery is beautiful, but the scenic vistas are squandered as the movie on the whole looks like a cheap basic cable production. The first film had some memorable villains, but in this sequel no one really surpasses their generic Asian stuntman roles. Although the director of the first film, John Bonito, did mainly commercial work and had no feature film experience, there was a sense of dynamic flair to his imagery. In contrast, The Marine 2 is rather uninspired, showcasing only perfunctory fight scenes and shootouts. In the directors chair is Roel Reiné, who would move on to direct other less-than-spectacular DTV sequels such as Death Race 2, The Scorpion King 3 and The Man With The Iron Fists 2.
Ted DiBiase is a serious downgrade from the likes of John Cena, but as with the first film, The WWE corporate economics and long-term creative goals were just as much a factor in the casting as were the standard movie executive boardroom decisions. At the time, Cena was busy back in the ring re-establishing his headline dominance and championship reign after being sidelined by a real-world injury in 2007. Concurrently, the WWE was in the midst of promoting and evolving their expanding roster of newer and younger talent. The storyline faction “The Legacy” in particular was a big hit, comprised of athletes who had famous fathers in the professional wrestling business (Ted of course being the son of the '80s WWF Legend “The Million Dollar Man”). In The Marine 2, DiBiase is a game participant who translates his wrestling physicality to cinematic stunt fighting very well. His character takes a hell of a beating throughout and he knows how to sell the hits. It's just too bad that, along with soaking up damage like a sponge, he also seems to have the personality of one. Thankfully, the venerable Michael Rucker shows up as an ex-pat retired Army ranger to provide backup and punch up the otherwise non-existent character work.
The Marine 3: Homefront
Since their initial films, WWE studios have been fairly successful in their DTV release and theatrical production market. In 2012, they signed a three-film deal with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, so of course another Marine sequel was in the cards. While 2013's The Marine 3: Homefront still doesn't reach the heights of the original, it is definitely a step up from the previous installment. In this entry, WWE Superstar Mike “The Miz” Mizanin plays Marine Special Forces Sergeant Jake Carter, returning home on leave a small rural Seattle town. While visiting, a syndicate of homegrown extremists led by Neal McDonough are plotting a bombing attack in Seattle. Carter's sister happens to run into them near their hideout in an abandoned boat on the outskirts of town. He must do whatever it takes to save his kidnapped sister and stop the terrorist attack, with or without the help of his best friend, police chief or the Federal task force on the case.
There is even less budget this time around and the action takes place primarily in one location, but there are several twists and turns in the plot that manage to keep things from going stale. There is a weak attempt at relevant commentary involving the housing market crash and recession, but the film decides to focus more on interpersonal conflicts as things move on. At the helm this time is director Scott Wiper. I didn't recognize the name at first, but an IMDB search revealed he was responsible for an old premium cable favorite feature of mine called A Better Way To Die that starred Andre Braugher and Natasha Henstridge. It also turns out he directed The Cold Light Of Day starring Bruce Willis and New Superman, which got less than favorable reviews. Fortunately for The Marine 3, he keeps the action decidedly more focused this time around; it's very violent but not as over the top as the last two. The supporting cast is better this time, and as whole it benefits from playing things straight and not getting too fantastical.
Randy Orton of the aforementioned Legacy faction was originally selected to take on the starring role, likely in an attempt to replicate the star power effect of Cena and the first film. However, those plans were canceled in response to outcry against Orton, who actually served in the Marines as a youth but received a Bad Conduct Discharge and served confinement time for desertion and disobeying an officer. The Miz wasn't a huge step down, however, as he grew to be a viable superstar in his own right. Notably, he began his rise to fame as a cast member on the hit MTV series The Real World, the progenitor to our modern form of reality TV. As opposed to the DudeBro/ManChild aesthetic of Cena and the entitled upstart persona of Orton, The Miz's persona reflects the current generation's self(ie)-obsession with the pursuit of fame by sheer force of will (over any apparent unique talent.) He makes a great turn as a heel in the ring (evidenced by one of the best promo/walk-in videos in recent memory), but what's really surprising is what he brings to this role. There's nothing spectacular about his acting chops, but he brings a real sense of palpable rage not present in the other Marine films. Whereas Dibiase seemed like a brainwashed blank slate killing machine, Miz's Marine actually conveys emotion in every punch and trigger pull. Of course, the only emotion actually exhibited is anger, but it feels honest to the character he portrays; a high speed Type-A personality frustrated with the slackers and lowered expectations of his hometown, incompetent law enforcement and government officials, and the crazy murderous assholes of the world both foreign and domestic that he took an oath to eliminate.
The Marine 4: Moving Target
And now we arrive at the latest entry, The Marine 4: Moving Target, just released this month. The Miz returns as Jake Carter, no longer on active duty and now working as a private security agent. On his first day at the job, he is assigned to protect a whistle-blower super hacker who wishes to expose a corrupt military defense contractor. The corrupt corporation hires a heavily armed team of mercenaries to put an end to her life, along with anyone else who gets in their way, and it's up to Carter to stop them at any cost. Having witnessed the tonal arc of the series in one sitting, this latest entry feels decidedly different - darker, nastier, more grounded - from the original film. Ultimately, I think it works in its favor. Rather than repeated attempts at replicating the magic of the first film to diminishing returns, they've keyed in on the sensibilities of more contemporary DTV films and their associated aesthetics. Or to put it another way, if The Marine felt like a throwback to '90s action movies like Universal Soldier, The Marine 4 is much more in line with the revamped Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Day of Reckoning entries.
Behind the camera this time is William Kaufman, writer and director of the excellent DTV feature Sinners and Saints. Once the first ten minutes or so of introduction and exposition are complete, the film essentially becomes one sequence of gunfights, car chases and facial contusions. I'm not kidding; the film is a constant cycle of combat followed by a chase followed by an escape, with no real character development or plot turns to speak of. Any surprises or double crosses to uncover occur within the first 20 minutes. One could say the action is repetitive, and I don't disagree. However, I didn't mind because the action overall was damn well made. The gunfight geography is concise and discernible, the henchmen are appropriately menacing, and best of all the fights are terrific. I don't know if The Miz took some extra martial arts classes after the last film, but he puts in the work for real here. The final fight with the main bad guy in particular is a standout and legitimately one of my favorite movie fights so far this year.
When all is said and done, I enjoyed my experience with The Marine franchise. There were a bit too many lows compared to the unexpected highs, but as a whole, the movies delivered. The one thing that these films absolutely deserve credit for, beyond any doubt, is their commitment to good old-fashioned violence. The first film had a PG-13 theatrical release, but its unrated DVD version and all subsequent sequels are pretty nasty, with lots of stabbings, broken limbs, bludgeoning with heavy objects and all manner of snapped necks.
I love DTV action. Truth be told, I was considering writing even more pieces about films that got a series of extended sequels for this months “Sequelized” theme. I could easily dig through all five (!) Sniper films or the venerated Undisputed trilogy. On the other hand....it's weird to say, but if I simply told you they were good, I feel like that would deplete part of the magic of it all. Back when video stores were a thing, part of the awesomeness of DTV movies was picking something up off the shelf that you had no clue about. Choosing it based solely off the cover or because it looked vaguely familiar or had an actor or director you recognized. Now with video on demand and the various paid streaming services, we can experience the surprise of unexpected enjoyment once again, browsing through the Netflix list and picking something for the hell of it. More than simply singing the praises of The Marine series, I want to sing the praises of the magic of DTV movies as a whole, and I implore you to give them a chance. You might find something pretty dumb and waste an hour and a half of your life, or you might find yourself transported down a magical well of dead bodies, jump kicks and explosions. Those seem like pretty good odds to me.