Avenging Force

Director: Sam Firstenberg
Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, James Booth

There's no doubt about it - the American public, as well as the public of pretty much every other country in this world - loves stars. Though what I have just said could apply to the kind of luminous sphere of plasma you see in the night sky, I am of course really talking about the human kind of stars. Indeed, it's fun and a kind of comfort to see the same people in multiple movies. And realizing that these stars are probably making a lot of money and having fun at the same time inevitably gets Joe Public thinking it would be great to become a megastar. But as you probably know, there are only so many people who become megastars in their lifetime. Why is that? Well, there are a number of reasons why. One of the obivous reasons is that most people who go into acting aren't that very good at it, and the public has little tolerance towards watching inept thespians. Other obvious reasons include hard facts like that there is not only a limited number of big roles to go around, there is only so much publicity the press can churn out that can go towards making a lowly star into a megastar. But there are many other reasons why some actors never become big stars. One of the most interesting cases I've come across is with actor Dennis Christopher. Christopher, as you may know, made a big impression with his appearance in the 1979 movie Breaking Away. It sure seemed at the time he would go on to bigger things. But within a few years, he was down to appearing in minor movies - if appearing in movies at all. I was puzzled about this for long time until a few years ago when I read an interview with him. During the interview, he stated that during the next few years after Breaking Away, he observed "the cult of celebrity", and found that it turned him off. This led him to search instead for roles that were interesting and memorable, even if they weren't in major Hollywood movies.

But I have learned over the years that actors who make a conscious choice to not become megastars are fairly rare. Most actors would like to make it big for their ego and their wallet. However, circumstances are more often than not against them. Take the case of the many actors who appeared in movies from The Cannon Group in the 1980s. As you may know, Cannon was a studio that helped to kill some actors' careers in motion pictures. For example, Charles Bronson's theatrical career, which was already starting to wane when he signed with Cannon, soon got eroded to nothing, and he spent the last years of his acting career in made for television movies. Chuck Norris is another example. While his first Cannon movie (Missing In Action) was a substantial hit, within a few years he was appearing in direct to video productions. But I really want to talk about Cannon's attempts to make their own megastars. Off the top of my head, I think the only time it could be considered they succeeded was with Jean Claude Van Damme. (Though on closer examination, Cannon just made two B movies with Van Damme, and other studios subsequently took Van Damme and really made him into a megastar.) The rest of the time they didn't get very far. Take the case of Michael Dudikoff. Cannon got off to a good start when they plucked Dudikoff out of obscurity to appear in the 1985 movie American Ninja. Although Cannon did not end up giving the movie a truly wide release, the movie grossed close to eight million dollars in North America, which was a pretty good gross for a 1980s movie with a half hearted release.

It seemed that Dudikoff was on his way to becoming a megastar. But that did not happen. The main reason for this was that Cannon started to have financial problems, and the lack of funds made it harder to push Dudikoff to the press and the public. When American Ninja 2 was Avenging Forcereleased two years later, it only got released to about half the number of theaters the first movie in the series got, and only grossed about half the amount of money the first movie made. Subsequent films Dudikoff made for Cannon (like Platoon Leader and River Of Death) got smaller and smaller releases and started to make less and less money, and eventually Dudikoff found himself working in direct to video product. Truth be told, the bad quality of most of Dudikoff's Cannon movies probably is another big reason why he never became a megastar. But there was one - Avenging Force - that had it been handled by a major Hollywood studio could have pushed Dudikoff into the big time. Before I start to explain why, a plot synopsis. Dudikoff plays a fellow by the name of Matt Hunter, who was once a former secret agent for the United States government. But after his parents were killed, he resigned in order to take care of his kid sister Sara (Allison Gereighty). Currently, he is supporting his good friend Larry Richards (James, Riverbend), who is a rising politician. Larry's involvement in politics has caught the eye of an extreme right wing organization called "Pentangle". Pentangle doesn't relish the idea the African-American Richards in a high position of power, and they are determined to eliminate him. But thanks in part to Matt's determination to protect his friend, a couple of attempts by Pentangle to assassinate Richards are foiled. Pentangle then decides to get even tougher. They end up kidnapping Sara after an assault on Matt's ranch, leaving the wounded Matt a message that if he wants to get Sara back, he'll have to play a game Pentangle plays on a regular basis with various other people trying to stop their organization. The game is basically what happened in the classic short story The Most Dangerous Game, only played in the Louisiana swamp country. And to date, Pentangle has won the game every time.

Since I took the time to write about Michael Dudikoff in the opening of this review, it's only natural that the first thing I should discuss about Avenging Force is how Michael Dudikoff comes across in the movie. Well, as I think I have stated before in past reviews on this web site, I have usually not found Dudikoff to be a great actor. In many of his other movies, he comes across as somewhat stiff and having as much emotion as Chuck Norris. But with this movie, Dudikoff comes across significantly better than usual. He does the physical side of his role well, coming across as relaxed and not stiff in the quieter moments, but going all out when the bullets start to fly. (More on this later.) While he isn't very emotional, Dudikoff here puts on the air of someone who is usually very easygoing and casual, which helps mask his limited acting range. And Dudikoff does manage to put in some conviction in when the situation is serious. When his character tells his friend Larry, "You need me, I'm here," and later, "Your fight is my fight," you believe his words. Also, when Dudikoff's character is paired in a scene with his kid sister, you do get a real sense that as reserved as this guy is, he does love his sister and is devoted to making it sure she gets out of trouble. Speaking of the kid sister, the actress playing her in the movie without doubt prevents Dudikoff from being branded with the worst performance in the movie. Child actress Allison Gereighty is absolutely terrible in her role, absolutely flat and stiff with both her voice and how she moves about onscreen. She is so bad that even Chuck Norris' acting looks good compared to hers. (Note: On the commentary track for the DVD of the movie, it's mentioned that Gereighty was dubbed when her true voice proved unsatisfying. If true, it's pretty hard to believe that her true voice was worse than what we get to hear.)

Dudikoff does pretty well onscreen, though there are two other actors in Avenging Force that especially deserve kudos. It will probably come as no surprise that Steve James once again showed he had the right stuff and deserved to be a big star. He is extremely charismatic, and commands the screen in all of his scenes. Even when he does a totally gratuitous somersault in an action scene, or takes off his shirt to show his impressive build, you don't laugh, because you can believe this particular character would do that. When it comes to the antagonists, the bad guys are headed by actor John P. Ryan (Eternity), who gives a wild performance as the Pentangle leader. Even when his character is spouting disgusting filth and racist philosophies, Ryan chews the scenery in a manner that is so entertaining that he's a villain you'll love to hate. So much so, that it's a little surprising that the screenplay doesn't have him make as many appearances as you might think (he only shows up a few brief times in the first half of the movie.) That was not the only issue that I had with Avenging Force's screenplay. The inner workings of the Pentangle organization are sometimes inconsistent - for example, they are pro-American, but they throw Kendo tournaments and Ryan's character collects exotic weapons from all over the world. Also, the organization is said to be extremely big, but somehow existence of this organization has not been known by the general public. And while Matt Hunter's former intelligence agency knows how Pentangle works and what other businesses and organizations it runs, the fact that they haven't been able to pin down the identities of the leaders of the organization is somewhat hard to swallow.

But when an action movie has problems like this with its script, they often can be overlooked if the movie delivers in other areas. Avenging Force manages to do this, and do it very well. Made just before Golan and Globus started to dramatically slash the budgets of their movies, the movie looks great. It's well photographed, has good production values, and was shot in a number of actual Louisiana locations. Some of these locations help to make for some great action setpieces, like the tangled and rusting harbor where Matt and Larry fight Pentangle agents. While the backdrop of the action sequences add some definite spark, I think the action sequences would still be great had the locations been more generic. Dudikoff, for one thing, is clearly doing a lot of the stuntwork himself; seeing him throw himself into the action is very exciting, and you'll see that he must have got hurt to some degree many times during filming. But director Sam Firstenberg (American Samurai) certainly deserves a lot of the credit. Certainly he keeps the action coming on a fairly regular basis, so the movie never gets dull. He also stages the fisticuffs, shootings, car chases, and people bursting into flames so that there is a raw and unstaged feeling to it all. You can feel the agony, brutality, and the pain the participants are going through or dishing out. Fighting is made to not be easy for both the good guys and the bad guys, so much so that at one point I wondered if the character of Matt would make it out alive - that doesn't often happen to me when I watch an action movie. The well done (and plentiful) action alone makes Avenging Force well worth a look for action movie junkies. Though I did have one quibble concerning the action. When Matt is going through the whole replay of The Most Dangerous Game in the last third of the movie, he makes the same dumb decision that protagonists constantly do in other movies of this ilk - not picking up the weapons of the bad guys he kills. Well, come to think of it, he does do it once. That is better than you usually get to witness in these dangerous game movies.

(Posted February 18, 2021)

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See also: Overkill, Raw Courage, The Shooter