Jarfe: "That's impossible, it can't be you..."
Ryde: "It's me."
As washed-up '80s action stars churn out an endless selection of below-par, low-budget, direct-to-DVD action flicks, you can at least admire them for their persistence. In recent years, Dolph Lundgren has demonstrated his competence as not only an actor but also a director. Following the astonishingly positive reception of his second directorial outing, The Mechanik (also known as The Russian Specialist), in 2005, Dolph went on to helm Missionary Man - this stylish, albeit unoriginal and mundane contemporary Western that pays tribute to such classics as High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider. It's your conventional "tough guy rides in to clean up a corrupt town" story, primarily following the DTD formula to the letter. On the cover/poster for Missionary Man Dolph Lundgren is heavily armed, there's an explosion in the background, and the tagline reads "No sin shall go unpunished" - judge the book by its cover, as what you see is pretty much what you get.
The story is set on a Native American Indian reservation where a gang of sadistic palefaces rule through violence and corruption. An enigmatic stranger known only as Ryder (Lundgren), rolls into town with a Bible and a score to settle. Ryder's character is unmistakably established as being some sort of enigmatic badass after he drinks straight tequila (no salt, no lime) and reads various verses of the Bible. His business in town is to attend the funeral of an old acquaintance known as J.J., who had recently drowned. However, J.J.'s family refuse to believe his death was an accident, and blame malicious local oppressor John Reno (Tompkins) for the murder. Ryder - the tall, blonde-haired stranger - begins befriending members of the local Indian community, and causes problems for Reno when he defeats hired hands and interferes with his underhanded practises. Tensions rise between Reno and Ryder, and the possibilities for a violent showdown continue to elevate.
Missionary Man is just a forgettable shoot-'em-up action romp, featuring an aging Dolph Lundgren taking on countless enemies (sometimes simultaneously) with unwavering efficiency. Dolph (who also co-wrote the script) unfortunately takes things far too seriously. The film aspires to be an incisive character study, but Dolph lacks the requisite skill as a writer, director and star to pull this off successfully. Dialogue is fairly humdrum, and clichés proliferate, not to mention the air of unreserved seriousness is never (purposely) breached. Silly events and corny dialogue unfortunately prompt derisory chortles. Some scenes do work, especially when the hulking Ryder (remaining nameless, in an ostensible homage to Clint Eastwood) demonstrates his ability as a fighter. The photography is also endlessly stylish (due to an error during the DVD mastering, the colours are washed-out, giving the film an almost mythical look). Nevertheless, the overall lack of unique action scenes (not to mention action scenes in general are in short supply, instead opting to develop a dreary congregation of characters) as well as noteworthy storytelling prevent Missionary Man from rising above the usual low standard for DTD action flicks.
The cinematography is of a satisfactory standard. Adhering to the widespread plague of contemporary action flicks, the camera suffers an epileptic attack whenever an action scene takes place. Shaky cam syndrome does no wonders on the cinematography front, ultimately coming across as cheap and disorientating. However, cinematographer Bing Rao's work isn't a total dud. The first ten minutes in particular is intriguingly shot, using clever camera angles and (thanks to nice lighting) usually clouding Ryder in darkness. Elia Cmiral's music to complement the photography is, of course, atmospheric and effective.
Even at 50 years old, Dolph Lundgren never fails as a badass. He certainly looks the part, donning an outfit extremely appropriate for his character. Ryder is a one-dimensional hero - i.e. he lacks a weighty back-story. What's missing is acceptable motivation and reasoning for his return to the town. Conveniently, Ryder had an altercation in the past with a few members of this quiet town and returns purely for vengeance-related reasons. But no explanation is offered regarding events that had previously transpired. An air of mystery surrounding the protagonist is usually a great decision, but at least a little motivation would've proved advantageous.
The supporting cast is generally populated by little-known actors. There's a bunch of performances of questionable quality, but they're uniformly watchable at least. Matthew Tompkins appears to give it his all as the despicable John Reno. He's the proverbial genre villain - outwardly appealing, but shady and corrupt, and has plenty of hired guns on standby to unleash upon the hero.
Missionary Man is a clear homage to the Westerns of old, communicating a contemporary version of a story wherein a stranger rides into town to save the day. Instead of horses, they ride motorcycles (at one stage Reno even tells Ryder to leave town on his "iron horse"). This isn't a necessarily bad movie...it's just a familiar DTD movie. Innovative this is not. However Dolph's religious one man army shtick is eye-catching, pairing a mainly silent performance with a charismatic swagger (the kind you generally don't witness in a mindless production like this). The only true flaws are a handful of shaky performances, the indiscriminate use of slow motion, and the fact it's bereft of anything truly worthwhile or memorable. For your basic DTD film, this isn't a total waste. The display of blood and guts is occasionally quite graphic (therefore enjoyable), and it offers Dolph Lundgren drinking tequila, riding a motorcycle and kicking ass. Let's face it: it's why you paid the money to see it in the first place.