Written by: Jonathan Tydor, Leonard Maas Jr.
Directed by: Craig R. Baxley
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Brian Benben, and Matthias Hues
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I come in peace."
"But you go in pieces, asshole."
"But you go in pieces, asshole."
The War on Drugs was a big deal back in the 80s, but its wackiest cinematic reflection arguably came as a new decade dawned with Dark Angel, a film that imagines a narcotics trafficking scheme that spans entire galaxies. It looks a lot like any other cop flick of the era but noticeably diverges with the presence of a pair of alien beings caught up in their own drug tiff. As you might imagine, this isn’t exactly a nuanced exploration of Reagan-Bush era policy. It does feature a bunch of explosions and a spaceman who can shoot deadly CDs, though, so I guess it evens out.
Dolph Lundgren is Jack Caine, a hard-boiled detective investigating white collar drug lord Victor Manning (Sherman Howard). One night, he finds himself busting up a routine convenience store robbery while his partner gets gunned down in a drug sting gone horribly awry. When the feds come poking around, Caine stays on the case with a new, straight-laced partner (Brian Benben) and begins to suspect that the sting--which also left a few of Manning’s goons splattered all over the place—also featured another, unseen participant. He’s right, but even he could never guess that it’s an albino humanoid (Matthias Hues) going around sucking people’s brains out in order to harvest endorphins that apparently fetch top dollar on his home planet.
Don’t let the 90s release date fool you: Dark Angel is a pure 80s B-movie bliss that blends the Walter Hill/Shane Black buddy cop genre with the less popular but arguably just as awesome killer alien flick. If Lethal Weapon and The Hidden had a smack-fuelled one-night stand, the baby would be Dark Angel, a sort of gloriously malformed mess that unpretentiously delivers everything you’d expect: a cop on the edge butting heads with his nerdy FBI partner, scenery-chewing yuppie bad guys, one-liners, a pumping synth score, and a final freeze frame accompanied by a pop-rock anthem. Hell, there’s even a Christmas setting in the Black tradition. Then it takes all of this stuff and crossbreeds it with the stuff you might not expect, like brain-sucking extraterrestrials that turn it into an impromptu slasher movie.
There are eventually two aliens (a good guy space cop played by former Duke star Jay Bilas shows up to help Dolph), but don’t expect to know exactly what they’re up to for a while. The opening scene finds some yuppie fiddling with the CD player in his car before he careens into a Christmas tree lot and sees something fall out of the sky. Like the trailer says, it ain’t Santa Claus; instead, the evil drug lord extraterrestrial emerges from a wall of flames and declares “I come in peace”. He then spends the rest of the movie repeating that phrase (which inspired the film’s superior alternate title) right before he flings a CD or an endorphin harvester right into their face, so he’s either a liar or has a poor grasp of the English language. Caine attempts to make sense of all the carnage by getting a buddy to analyze one of the killer CDs from a crime scene, but the faint, piecemeal illumination allows Dark Angel to function as a conspiratorial thriller that also happens to feature an alien that occasionally intrudes to blow up stuff and kill people, at least until the good space cop takes refuge in the backseat of Caine’s car to finally spill the beans.
At that point, there’s just about twenty minutes left, so Dark Angel gets out of its own way and keeps on being a meatheaded action flick. Somewhat ironically, it’s headlined by a guy who was likely mistaken as a meathead; Sylvester Stallone didn’t do Lundgren any favors by casting him as monosyllabic brute Ivan Drago since that stone-faced façade has become his legacy. In reality, Lundgren has always been the real deal as an action star with a commanding presence and charm, especially when he gets to play a good guy like he does here. Between this and The Punisher, this time period afforded him the opportunity to also scrounge up some sympathy and dignity as cops just trying to exact true justice. He’s great here at being driven without coming off as insufferable—of course he disagrees with his nerdy partner’s methods, but he mostly just breaks his balls whenever he can. And of course he’s got a girlfriend (Betsy Brantley) that he’s trying to work things out with because he’s non-committal in the face of such a stressful job.
That said, Caine is the type of guy who has fun in the line of duty. Not only does he spit out wisecracks to his partner, but he also knows the value of sending bad guys out with a quip (“fuck you, spaceman” is an obvious highlight). In this sense, Dark Angel is a pure lark with little room for nuance between its frequent pyrotechnics. Director Craig Baxley has had a prolific career in this realm as both a director (Dark Angel was sandwiched between Action Jackson and Stone Cold) and stunt coordinator, so it’s no surprise that he had this era’s particular brand of pulp thriller by the balls. Between the white collar, CEO-style slimeballs and their elaborate drug networking, it’s more like a really edgy episode of Miami Vice, only it features elaborate stunts (seriously, explosions galore) and an even cooler sense of style (I especially love the verve of the scene that captures Hues’s dispatching of a group of goons from the POV of the CD that’s ricocheting all over the room). What the film lacks in complete coherence, it makes up for with rapid-fire pacing and a willingness to be weird and stupid without any pretense of irony.
Until as recently as 2011, Dark Angel was still stuck on VHS, but MGM eventually brought it to DVD via their Limited Edition Collection. While that was a solid, no-frills release, Scream Factory wasn’t content to let it be the final word, so they’ve canonized it in their own collection with a Blu-ray upgrade. Per usual, MGM’s disc carried the disclaimer that their transfer was sourced by the best available materials, but it was actually a solid presentation. Unsurprisingly, Scream’s high-def transfer is even better and doesn’t sacrifice the film’s distinctive grainy, low-budget look in favor of any unnatural post-processing. For whatever reason, Scream (and Shout! Factory) have trouble with advertising the details of their release, and Dark Angel is no exception—the back cover only lists a stereo DTS-MA track when there’s also a 5.1 option that’s mightily impressive. Likewise, the special features only boast interviews with Baxley, Lundgren, and Benben without mentioning that they’re within the context of “A Look Back at Dark Angel,” a 25 minute featurette that features the trio fondly recollecting their experience with the film. Finally, there’s also the requisite promotional material in the form of a trailer and a stills gallery, plus Scream has rightfully included the original I Come in Peace artwork as the reverse cover art that features Lundgren outrunning a bladed CD. Need I really say more? Buy it!
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