The Mercenary

Director: Avi Nesher             
Olivier Gruner, John Ritter, Robert Culp

Despite some bad acting, one thick French accent, and some cheap special effects, this movie has more than enough compensation to please action fans. As well, the film is also one of the more violent action movies this reviewer has seen for quite some time.

There is also some novelty value in seeing Ritter cast in an action movie. He plays Jonas Amber, a happily married millionaire. At the beginning of the movie, he throws a party for an Iraqi dissident author at his mansion. While the party progresses, a group of well-armed terrorists (Islamic, as it usually is in these movies), lead by a leader known simply as "The Phoenix", arrive outside and break through the security at the perimeter. Blasting their weapons, they cause chaos, and manage to kill the author and Jonas' wife, and badly wounding Jonas himself.

Recovering in the hospital, Jonas swears revenge and gets his yes-men to find him the best mercenaries for his disposal. They find Alex Hawks (Gruner), former secret agent during the cold war now doing mostly bag exchanges. When Alex is offered the job of eliminating his former cold war opponent, Alex refuses, mainly due to the fact Jonas insists on joining Alex's team in the mission so he can personally kill his target. However, during a later bag pickup, Alex's friend and partner Mack (Culp) is searched by customs and found to have cocaine in his luggage. Knowing that Jonas has political friends who can free Mack, Alex reluctantly takes the job offer.

Did Jonas plant the cocaine in Mack's bag? Jonas insists he didn't, though anyone would find it hard to swallow this coincidence. Neverless, Jonas then travels to Turkey with Alex and his team to start training. Though it is clear that Jonas is over his head, he still insists on going with the team across the border. After extensive planning and locating Phoenix's hideout, the team parachutes into enemy territory, following their plan successfully at first...then suddenly, the plan gets shot to hell.

As I said before, there is an incredible amount of violence in the movie. Throughout the movie, there are martial arts fights, a swordfight, broken necks, other broken bones, explosions, and countless shootings. Plus, this violence is pretty harsh at times, including at least two pierced eyeballs and a frenzied multiple stabbing. Even when the violence takes a break, the atmosphere is still charged with intensity. It should be noted that although this isn't violent like a movie such as Robocop, but most viewers will find it has a brutal edge that many action movies don't have.

I'd put off watching this movie for several months, because of the presence of John Ritter and the fact Avi Nesher hasn't had exactly a good record at directing and producing. When I discovered that the screenwriter of Automatic had written this one, I decided to take a chance. As to my expectations, the script was acceptable, with some good dialogue and off-beat situations. One scene has a prisoner stuck in a cell with chained dogs snapping at him inches away - and beakers of acid are slowly dripping on the chains. Nesher managed to take this scene and the others - action or not - and create a fast-paced actioner that is pretty coherent and not quite as stupid as usual. The locations (shot in Israel) are eye-catching and various, covering snow-covered mountains, deserts, canyons, etc.

Unfortunately, he wasn't able to do much with the special effects, which are pretty cheesy. Fortunately, such sequences are limited to a handful, and are mainly quick shots of missiles flying, etc. Nor was he able to successfully bring out good performances in Gruner and Ritter. But apparently, he recognized Gruner's limitation, and has Gruner's characters say very little during the course of the movie - a wise move. Ritter is...well, Ritter. Although his role does have a few comic sequences, overall Ritter seems very out of place, and seemingly knows this. It's as if he was dragged off immediately after the end of a "Three's Company" season and told in a few minutes what he was going to do over the next six weeks starting NOW. Viewers expecting campy stuff like Ritter blasting away a machine gun and screaming will be disappointed.

But if it's action you want, then you'll certainly get it here. The second half of the movie will especially live up to this, providing enough suspense and bodies to give action junkies their fix. I've long accepted that Olivier Gruner can't act. As long as he can keep hooking himself up with professional movie vehicles like this, I won't be complaining about his movies - except for the acting.

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See also: Automatic, T.N.T., Behind Enemy Lines