Cung Le stars in "Dragon Eyes." (After Dark Films )
The folks who brought you the After Dark Horrorfest — a collection of eight scary movies playing as a collective — turn their sights to the gritty no-nonsense action picture with five films bundled under the banner "After Dark Action."
The movies aren't connected in any way except that they're being released together, yet taken as a whole, patterns do emerge — mysterious strangers new to town, bags of mislaid cash, the unexpected cameo by a slightly tarnished star, punches thrown, shots fired and feisty, capable women dressed in tank tops relegated to supporting roles.
In many ways, "El Gringo" is indicative of both the best and the worst the series has to offer. A riff on spaghetti westerns and to a lesser extent Robert Rodriguez's "Desperado," the film, directed by Eduardo Rodriguez (no relation) and written by Jonathan W. Stokes, follows its nameless lead as he tries to make a getaway with an ill-gotten bag of cash, when all he really wants is a glass of fresh water. It's not bad exactly, but it's not especially notable either. Christian Slater fills the cameo quotient.
"Stash House" and "The Philly Kid" are the weakest entries. "Stash House" is about a young couple (Sean Faris, Briana Evigan) under siege after discovering the foreclosed home they've bought is full of a drug gang's supply. Dolph Lundgren appears as an oddly sympathetic heavy. "The Philly Kid" attempts to locate a drama within the world of mixed martial arts fighting, when all it really wants to do is show some fights.
The most legit of the bunch is probably "Transit," with a cast that includes Jim Caviezel, Elisabeth Rohm, Harold Perrineau and Diora Baird. A family on a camping trip to reconnect after the father's release from prison for a white collar crime is overtaken by a gang of thieves who have stashed their loot in the clan's luggage. A fairly straightforward chase flick, the actors elevate the material without making it anything special.
If you're only going to see one of the "After Dark Action" films, then "Dragon Eyes" is the best of the bunch. Written by Tim Tori and directed by John Hyams, it manages to find just the right balance between realism and silliness and doesn't take itself too seriously. A stranger comes to town and sets rival gangs against each other. Done. And having a bespectacled Jean-Claude Van Dammeas a prison sensei and Peter Weller wearing an awesome hat as a crime boss only helps.
Although there are no diamonds in the rough here, the "After Dark Action" series does deliver lots of solid action and bracing, rowdy energy.
'After Dark Action'
MPAA rating: R for brutal violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
MPAA rating: R for bloody violence, language and some sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
"The Philly Kid"
MPAA rating: R for violence and language
Running time: 1hour, 33 minutes
MPAA rating: R for violence
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
MPAA rating: R for violence and terror, pervasive language and brief teen drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: Chinese 6 Theatres, Hollywood; also available on demand