Starring: Asher Brauner | Jesse Vint | John Barrett | Adrian Waldron | Graham Weir | Robin Smith | Japan Mthembu
No one made explosive xenophobic war action like the United States in the 1980s. Between Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo sequels, the Commie-obsessed output of Chuck Norris, and roughly 80% of Cannon Films’ entire catalog, there was no shortage of movies about the agents of Lady Liberty taking the world’s evildoers to the woodshed. Somewhere in between television appearances on Matlock and Beauty and the Beast, and a prominent part in Wings Hauser’s directorial debut, Asher Brauner found time to pen and star in 1989’s Merchants of War. While it’s a worthy addition to a bloated genre, there are some flaws which hold it back from true hidden gem status.
More than a decade removed from roles in in Macon County Line and Black Oak Conspiracy, Jesse Vint shows up for a few days of work as Frank Kane, the grizzled veteran in a team of mercenaries. His group also includes the artillery-obsessed Harry Gere (Smith) and the karate-obsessed Tom Harris, played by John Barrett. Rounding out the group is the mullet-obsessed Nick Drennen (Brauner), a man who longs for yesteryear and a steady paycheck.
This collection of talent is available to stir up a shit storm wherever the American intelligence community pays them to do so, and their latest operation finds them rescuing a prisoner from a terrorist outfit in Beirut. During a slam-bang action sequence, Drennen guns down a female radio operator mere milliseconds away from detonating a grenade. Apparently shooting chicks with funny accents just ain’t what it used to be, because this moment convinces Drennen that it’s time to hang up the proverbial spikes on his mercenary career.
However, the group’s agency contact has a cakewalk of a reconnaissance mission brewing in Angola and Frank and Drennen are just the guys for the job. Predictably, fate takes a giant shit in the middle of the cakewalk and both heroes are captured by enemy forces led by the sleazy duo of Vaisal (Weir) and Musa Atwa (Waldron). Both Caucasians playing crazed Islamist terrorists. Both with amazing hair. (To be fair, Weir goes all-natural. Waldron set his Jheri-curl activator to “STUN” and opts for an incredible mullet wig).
Since Brauner wrote the movie, Drennen’s incarceration is the narrative focus. He eats bugs off the dirt floor of his sweat lodge of a cell. Guards laugh at him on the regular. Along with his fellow inmate and Angolan rebel, Gordo (Mthembu), he is forced to shovel dirt for no particular purpose. Worse yet, he is subjected to an interrogation tactic so painful and inhumane that not even Bush-era CIA officials would dare employ it: a wet, rolled-up newspaper jabbed into the victim’s armpit. Drennen’s whimpering during this curious torture sequence is underscored by Vaisal’s mocking cheer of “the power of the press!”
Without going into too much detail about who and when and how, there’s a daring escape, two rescue missions, a kidnap mission, and the madness comes to a giant red, white, and blue head at a meeting of corrupt global leaders in Angola dubbed, quite literally, the “Third World Convention.” Picture a really big high school auditorium filled with every flavor of 80s action movie villain stereotype and one or two miniature American flags on fire. There, you’ve got it.
The acting in the film vacillates from hammy to downbeat to kind of awful. Barrett and Smith aren’t given a ton to work with and Brauner is passable the majority of the time. Vint grounds the story as best he can by bringing a world-weary demeanor to his performance, but comparatively he gets a pittance of screen-time, none more hilarious than his ten seconds worth of screaming faces behind the sound-proof glass of his holding cell. The villains are over the top to such a cartoonish extent that it’s difficult to take either of them seriously as threats. Does Aldron’s mullet wig make up for his clumsy Middle Eastern accent? Not quite. How about him cavorting with two foxy chicks in a hot-tub? Slightly. All while using a straw to snort cocaine out of a martini glass? YES. Whoever said Islamic fundamentalists can’t cut loose and have a good time apparently never met Musa Atwa.
The action is pretty good when it happens but there’s a lot of downtime in between the set-pieces. Not having John Barrett kick someone in the face until 80 minutes into your 84-minute film is a huge wasted opportunity and a massive failure by the film’s stunt coordinator. The film’s stunt coordinator? John Barrett!
On the technical front, the sound design and editing were spotty at best. The former in particular is puzzling during some moments -- when enemies get punched or shot without a sound -- and hilarious during others, like when John Barrett’s elated and victorious “YEAH!” is dubbed with a downbeat affirmative response to the question: “Have you lived in your current state for at least five years?”
All these issues aside, the most frustrating aspect of Merchants of War is its failure to grasp what makes “men on a mission” films entertaining: the different personalities that comprise the groups. We get plenty of scenes with peripheral characters talking about the group but we don’t get nearly enough scenes with members of the group talking to each other. Thus, we learn very little about them. Frank and Drennen share a quiet early scene where Frank laments that the group has “been trained to pull the wagons but with the coming of technology, the horses get left behind.” You might also say that with the coming of Brauner’s final draft deadline, any semblance of dynamic characterization got left behind. It’s a bit unfortunate because there’s enough dramatic talent between the core performers to bring some flavor -- probably hammy -- to the proceedings.
Make or Break: The opening action scene. A furious orgy of squibs and gunfire followed by a getaway in a jeep with the soft-top down and Jesse Vint taking a victory swig on a bottle of J&B and an opening rock song that declares "you don't need to know what you're fighting for!" and WE’RE ONLY FOUR MINUTES IN!
MVT: The rampant xenophobia. Between the aforementioned “Third World Convention,’” the various ethnic slurs, and the general disregard for cultural sensitivity, Merchants of War exhibits a level of Reagan-era paranoia that actually borders on clever if you read the film as a satirical farce. If you don’t, you will regard the filmmakers as small-minded dickwads.
Though the action scenes are sparse, the writing is clunky, and the character development is all but ignored, Merchants of War can still be an enjoyable romp if you view it for what it is: a tight 84 minutes of sweat, mullets, and gunfire.