Blackjack (1998)
By: Stuart Giesel on July 21, 2013 | Comments
Dimension | Region 1, NTSC | 4:3 | English 2.0 | 112 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: John Woo
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Kate Vernon, Kam Heskin, Fred Williamson, Phillip MacKenzie
Screenplay: Peter Lance
Country: USA, Canada
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Dolph Lundgren + John Woo = awesome. At least, that's what should have been the case. Fresh from the critical and box-office success of Face/Off (his second-best U.S. film, fact), I had expected Woo to do great things. Unfortunately he directed this middling TV pilot that feels like a pale imitation of his cinematic outings, despite what charisma Lundgren is able to bring to his role.

Blackjack's concept is crap in a bucket. Dolph plays federal agent-turned-bodyguard Jack Devlin who, whilst defending the daughter of a casino operator, is exposed to a flashbang and for some reason ends up fearing the colour white. Yep, that's right - Devlin has a fear of white, which proves crippling in a number of situations. He is recruited by old pal Tim Hastings (Fred Williamson) as personal bodyguard to overpriced fashion model Cinder James (a horribly wooden Kam Heskin) who is stalked by psycho Rory Gaines (Phillip MacKenzie) who might well be the world's worst sniper, and is certainly a pretentious tosspot if nothing else.

Blackjack has the typical John Woo flair for action scenes: stylish gunplay usually involving dives with two handguns brandished, multi-angles, tons of slow motion, motorcycles, guns that never need reloading -- it's all there except for his trademark doves. Unfortunately gone is the bloody flair and suave of The Killer, the go-for-broke craziness of Hard Boiled, the brutality and pathos of Bullet in the Head, or even the cinematic devastation as seen in his best U.S. efforts Face/Off and Hard Target. The action scenes in Blackjack are pared-down for TV, and quite bloodless despite what the DVD's inexplicable US R rating might imply. The bad guys wear thick jackets which eject padding, rather than blood. Still, it's a thrill to see Dolph Lundgren go John Woo-style -- see him jump off a balcony shooting guns! See him jump off a trampoline shooting guns! See him do other shit and look cool!

As dumb a concept as it is, it would have been interesting to see where the Blackjack TV series went from this pilot. Granted, it has none of the budget afforded by your typical HBO or AMC series that we're blessed with these days, but for the late 90's it would have been a blessed relief from the generic medical/cop/sitcom shows that littered the airwaves. The main problem I see for an extended series based on this pilot is its main premise, that of a man who is afraid of the colour white. See, we already have Dolph fight it out in a hospital and a milk factory (truly), so where can this ludicrous premise go from here? What other predominantly-white settings could he be placed in? A freshly painted house? A gallery consisting of black and white photography? Flying through the clouds? Anywhere in Mykonos? It would have been interesting to put Lundgren in other situations where he had to protect certain VIPs, but that couldn't have gone on for too many episodes before the formula got stale.

Another big negative has to be the awful sax-infused score which cheapens the film and sounds like it belongs in a soft-core skin flick rather than a John Woo effort. When it's not blaring sax, it sounds like the score from any number of Steven Seagal late-80's to early-90's efforts - i.e. unmemorable shit. The excessive running time is another factor - presumably the pilot had to meet a specific time, which in this case is close to two hours, way too long for such thin material. And the wait between the action scenes feels interminable. The performance of Heskin as the fashion model is akin to watching Paul Walker portray a housebrick - not since that blonde guy from Troll 2 has a performance so fiercely soiled the screen with utter ineptness.

The bad guy is not only a shit shot with a sniper rifle, but a complete fucking idiot. For some reason when an assassination on Cinder goes wrong and Hastings is wounded, he decides to kill off Hastings in the hospital for some unknown reason. Why the hell would he bother? The man's out of action, and doing so only puts more heat on Gaines himself. Yet, he tries, under the ID of a nurse named Brooke (!). Despite this, the moronic police guard lets him through regardless of whatever name he had on his ID - it might as well have been Nutcase McKillsalot. And of course Gaines listens to classical music and likes all the finest things in life like art because he's a psycho. And it turns out he's the ex-husband of Cinder and apparently works alone (using ultimate technology like disintegrating bullets) even though there's a scene where he has a bunch of guys on motorbikes help him out. Blackjack also contains a barrage of dumb scenes: Dolph fixing Cinder's back such that she practically has an orgasm on the spot, an impromptu dance number, Jack's psychiatrist smoking a big phallic cigar in front of him - it's like taking a course in dumb.

Certainly, Blackjack has some solid action done the way only Woo can - even if it's neutered for TV - and a strong central lead in Dolph Lundgren who's usually better than the stuff he appears in, this being no exception. But, dammit, it's not enough. Williamson's got nothing to do. Imagine a violent, profane buddy pic with Lundgren and Williamson, directed by Woo - now that's entertainment! But no, we're stuck with a dumb plot and dull characters, even taking into account Saul Rubinek's assistant to Devlin, who shows up with an eyepatch, a colourful vest and some even more colourful stories. Combined with a dumb premise, routine dialogue, some hammy performances from some (bad guy) and cardboard performances from others (love interest) you have to wonder what attracted Lundgren and Woo to the material in the first place.

It kills me. I love classic John Woo. The Killer, Hard-Boiled and Bullet In The Head are some of my favourite movies and contain a few of the greatest action scenes ever filmed. Even his lesser flicks like Once A Thief, Just Heroes, A Better Tomorrow I and II, Face/Off and Hard Target contain elements of greatness. But here it feels like he's merely going through the motions, giving us stuff we've seen before and done better to boot. Lundgren always makes a project worth watching, even when the results are usually beneath him, but he can only do so much. Perhaps if given a chance the TV series might have gone somewhere interesting, but it's hard to see where given such a lame concept. Chalk this one up as a pretty big disappointment.
The Disc
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Blackjack looks pretty crummy. The picture is extremely soft and lacks detail and vibrancy, and there is some pretty bad aliasing to add insult to injury. Plus it has that "made-for-TV" cheap look because it was most certainly made for TV before HBO came along and proved you could make a show that looks terrific. The audio is a mixed bag. Sound effects are admirable and bolster the pyrotechnics well. Dialogue is clear. But the terrible score makes Blackjack sound like either an 80's porno film or stock background noise for a generic TV crime-procedural drama. Special features? Fricking none.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Blackjack is John Woo-lite, sanitised for TV and even Dolph Lundgren can't save this floating turd. Honestly, I'd watch John Woo direct a seagull shitting on a wharf, but this is a tough sell. Some nice action scenes and the presence of Lundgren save this from utter misery, but it's recommended only to die-hard Woo or Lundgren completists.
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