Dolph Lundgren, the big Swede with the jawline that looks like it could break a fist, seems born to play a pulp hero. In Skin Trade, he socks and whops and booms his way through the back streets of Bangkok, a nasty burn scar spread over his right temple. He’s a rogue cop with a family to avenge and a sex trafficking ring to take down. In a warehouse where kidnapped girls are kept in cages, he presses his cheek into the butt of an AK-47 as grates throw a grid of shadows over his face.
Lundgren, the hardest-working man in the direct-to-video business, has aged well, and, if nothing else, Skin Trade knows how to frame him. Directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham (Beautiful Boxer, Pleasure Factory), the movie is a no-frills, no-winks throwback to the mid-1980s heyday of the American-style action movie, crossed with the one-on-one, mixed-martial-arts sensibilities of today’s direct-to-video action flicks. Here, heroes shoot first and often in the back, and when a bad guy dangles from a balcony, they let him fall, the splat on the sidewalk accompanied by a groan-worthy one-liner. In the days of Commando, this sort of thing was taken for granted.
Lundgren is Nick Cassidy, one of Newark’s finest. Serbian gangsters blew his house up with a rocket launcher, and now he’s tracked them all the way to Thailand. The Serbs, led by Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman), are in the human trafficking business; they kidnap country girls with the help of a Thai pimp (Sahajak Boonthanakit, in a neckerchief and white shoes that scream “mincing sexual predator”) and ship them by the container-load to the United States. When it comes to the issue of sex trafficking, Skin Trade is hamfisted and very sincere, though its message-movie-isms—complete with an ending title card of statistics—are undercut by Ekachai’s ever-so-slightly leering angles of strippers and bar girls.
Having escaped a New Jersey hospital and making it all the way to Bangkok, Nick crosses paths with a local undercover detective, played by Tony Jaa and named Tony. Pairing up the two—big and broad with fast and wiry—would seem like a coup, if only Jaa were more of an actor. Here, in a role specifically conceived for him by producer-co-writer Lundgren, he seems miscast. He warbles his lines in phonetic English, his voice making weird music against his co-star’s deep, exhausted murmuring.
Which is a shame, because Skin Trade’s big draw lies in its B-movie star power: Lundgren, Jaa, Perlman, Michael Jai White. A viewer can’t help but read the cast list as fight card, which is essentially what it is: Jaa vs. Lundgren, Jaa vs. White, Lundgren vs. Perlman, all staged in those corrugated warehouses and hangars that seem to make up half of any given B-action-movie’s universe. Flimsy wooden partitions are knocked over, pipes hiss out bursts of steam, and parked trucks are ducked under. These fight scenes—and the chases that often precede them—are neither ingenious nor novel, but they’re fun and cleanly shot; the fact that this can be considered a major virtue probably says more about the state of the big-budget action movie than about Skin Trade itself.