Friday, July 28, 2017


Cops in action movies of the 1980s were an interesting breed.  They largely abandoned the cynical, downbeat tone of ‘70s cop movies like THE FRENCH CONNECTION and DIRTY HARRY in favor of one that paid less attention to realism and morality and more to excess and explosions.  Cops in the ‘70s cheated to get around search warrants and due process.  Cops in the ‘80s didn’t know what those words meant.  Rules were made to be broken, if there were rules at all.  ‘80s cops did whatever they needed to bring the villain to justice, and justice was best served from a gun.  Filmmakers had to create super criminals to stand up to the lawless lawmen and women.  Terrorists, army sized street gangs, drug cartels, ninjas, anything went, as long as they were flashy, well-armed, and indiscriminately dangerous.  Action director extraordinaire Craig R. Baxley closed out the decade by one upping them all, pitting Dolph Lundgren against drug dealers of both the terrestrial and extra variety in 1990’s DARK ANGEL (aka I COME IN PEACE).

The Capsule:
After losing his partner in an undercover sting gone bad, Houston PD detective Jack Caine (Dolph Lundgren) will stop at nothing to take down the man responsible, sleazebag yuppie drug lord Victor Manning (Sherman Howard).  He has to put his vengeance on hold, though, when a new player in the drug game literally explodes onto the city.  The newcomer (Matthias Hues) is seven feet fall, has white eyes, shoots razor sharp CDs, and steals endorphins straight from people’s brains.  Due to the strange nature of the case, Caine is saddled with a straight laced F.B.I. agent Smith (Brian Benben).  As the bodies pile up around the city, Caine and Smith start to suspect their target is more than your average drug dealer.  He’s a drug dealer…from space.

I caught this strange little sci-fi/drug war action mash up when it was going by the slightly hokey but more relevant title, I COME IN PEACE.  That was the US title, since they didn’t want American movie goers confusing it with THE DARK ANGEL, the 1935 relationship drama set against World War I.  I can see how that could happen.  While DARK ANGEL is a classier title, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Is the endorphin stealing alien the dark angel?  He did fall from the sky, but that is as close as he gets to anything angelic.  He’s a big blonde German-looking dude, so the dark part doesn’t really fit either.  I COME IN PEACE, on the other hand, is entirely appropriate.  That line is a running gag in the movie.  It’s the alien’s standard greeting to people just before he stabs them in the heart with a heroin pumping harpoon.  Either he has a terrible translation guide, or he’s just being a dick.  Either way, he doesn’t really come in peace.

Dolph Lundgren is one of my favorite B list action stars.  He had the muscles and stature of a Stallone or Schwarzenegger, but there was something enigmatic and veiled about his performance that worked equally well for playing the hero or villain. At the time, his two biggest roles were from ROCKY IV and RED SCORPION, so most people thought of him as a dour Russian.  DARK ANGEL gave him a chance to show he was neither.  At first glance, Jack Caine seems like the stereotypical maverick cop. The kind you would expect to first meet waking up from a hangover in a messy bedroom, knocking over beer cans as he tries to answer the phone.   Baxley plays around with that assumption a bit, letting Lundgren’s natural intelligence shine through (IRL he has a masters in chemical engineering, he’s not dumb).  To Agent Smith’s surprise, as well as ours, Caine has a tidy, nicely furnished apartment and has an appreciation for wine and art.  He has a bad habit of putting his job ahead of his sexy coroner girlfriend, Diane (Betsy Brantley), but when she’s not slapping him, he’s quite the romantic.  There is more to Caine than his 6’5 karate Viking appearance.

Even though Caine keeps a neat apartment, F.B.I. Agent Smith is the Felix in this odd couple.  Uptight, inflexible, and critical, this character could easily have come off as an insufferable jerk or the butt of all the jokes.  Brian Benben, who I consider woefully underrated and underused, offsets Smith’s irritating qualities with endearing ones.  Benben has a talent for being sympathetically insecure; he brings a wonderfully immature quality to his roles.  It’s like he was the kid in a body swap movie who suddenly wakes up as an adult, but never got to switch back.  Once Smith starts to loosen up to Caine’s laissez-faire style of policing, that child-like enthusiasm begins to peek out, especially when he gets a hold of one of the alien guns that shoots explosives.  His transition from worrying about chain of command to gleefully blowing up cars is very satisfying.

Caine and Smith’s relationship is one of the strongest elements of the movie.  Their first meeting when they are forced to work together is clearly antagonistic, and they butt heads over procedural styles throughout, but they warm up to each other surprisingly quickly.  Even though their squabbling never stops, they do seem to like each other.  It takes on a brotherly dynamic, where Caine is the cooler older brother that Smith pretends not to admire.  The rather glaring size difference adds to the comparison.  There is even a scene where Smith borrows an old football jacket from Caine.  Smith is impressed that it fits him.  Caine explains it was from when he was 12.

It’s hard to compete with a 7 foot tall alien endorphin harvester, but Baxley comes close with his ridiculous hometown bad guys, The White Boys.  They are the ‘80s action movie equivalent to the Baseball Furies from THE WARRIORS, a group that could only exist in film.  The yuppie drug dealers are so far removed from reality that the alien seems more plausible.  All the White Boy goons wear fancy suits, drive expensive sports cars, and have douchey slicked back hair.  They are a blatant personification of evil capitalists: Wall St. scumbags with Uzis instead of cell phones.  These guys are just below Nazis and white supremacists on the easy to hate villains scale.  

Now that I think about it, I bet I know where Donald Trump got the template for his cabinet. 
Sherman Howard plays head asshole Victor Manning as far from DAY OF THE DEAD’s lovable zombie, Bub, as he could get.  The smugness radiates off of him in waves.  He is completely unconcerned that his murder of an undercover cop was caught on tape.  Just like CEOs in real life, Manning gets away scot free while is underlings catch all the shit, which in this case means getting blown up by a giant alien.

Sam Anderson is even more fun as the number two corporate hood, Warren.  Caine busts in on him as he’s chairing a heavily armed board meeting.  Warren tells his goons to put their guns away, not because they are threatening a cop, but because he doesn’t want to get blood on the swank carpeting.  Caine gets to throw his weight around for about thirty seconds before Warren turns the tables on him.  He even forces Caine to be a drug mule for them by holding Smith hostage.  And just like Victor Manning, Warren gets no comeuppance at the end.  The Houston PD should really re-evaluate their anti-organized crime tactics, because they ain’t cuttin’ it. 

This movie shares a lot of similarities with another alien-hunting-criminals-in-the-city movie from the same year, PREDATOR 2.  They both involve drug cartels being slaughtered by an alien, an exotic projectile found by the cop hero, and murdered partners.  DARK ANGEL beat its more famous sibling to the punch by a couple of months, so it can’t be accused of stealing from that one.  It can be accused of stealing from TERMINATOR, though, since Matthias Hues’ massive space drug dealer is clearly modeled after Arnold’s unstoppable cyborg.  Hues is even more impressive than Schwarzenegger, in my opinion.  Not only is he just as physically intimidating, he is remarkably athletic as well.  He doesn’t just run, he leaps over car hoods parkour style, before parkour was even a thing.  For such a huge guy, he is amazingly nimble.  He also seems to be naturally fire resistant, since he shares practically every scene with an explosion.

And unlike Schwarzenegger’s scowling, all business robot, Hues’ character is having a fucking blast.  There's a barely contained grin on his face every time he unleashes a bit of destruction.  His first fight with Caine is also a great source of amusement.  The big Swede unleashes a barrage of punches and spin kicks on the space invader that is as effective as a four year old swinging a cardboard tube.   He gives Caine the chance to go through all his moves before demolishing him.  How can you not have fun driving a stolen police car through a mall?  It’s always nice to see someone really enjoying his job, even if that job is sucking brain juice through some poor sap’s skull with a giant, wrist mounted hypodermic needle.

It should also be noted that Hues is such a badass alien that he doesn’t even need a spaceship.  A fireball lands on an irate businessman’s Mercedes (Baxley really hates yuppies), and Hues struts right out of the crater without even needing to dust himself off.  I think he just jumped from orbit.

Even though it came out in 1990, DARK ANGEL is 100% of the ‘80’s.  Movie cops in the ‘80’s followed their gut, made their own rules, and got results.  Smith’s obsession with proper procedure is portrayed as a flaw.  He badgers Caine about silly things like warrants, chain of evidence, and police brutality until he learns to relax and just roll with the violations.  

The thing is, no matter how cool we think Caine is, he is objectively a terrible police officer.  He never catches Manning or stops the White Boys, despite knowing exactly where they hang out and having a ton of evidence on them.  He only figures out what is going on with the bad alien because the good alien who was hunting him (while obeying Alien Cop regulations, no doubt) sneaks into Caine’s car and gives him all the key details before croaking.  

That’s not the worst of it.  Victor Manning may have been the one to pull the trigger, but Caine is the real reason his partner is dead.  First of all, he and Ray (Alex Morris) seem to have set up the whole undercover drug sting by themselves, with no backup or even a mention to their boss, Captain Malone (a perpetually beleaguered Jim Haynie).  The real kicker is that at the very moment Ray needs him most, just before Manning calls him out for being a narc, Caine gets distracted by a convenience store robbery and abandons the surveillance to beat up some meth heads.  By the time he gets back, Ray is already dead.  His last words should have been “My partner is such an asshole.”

Ultimately, though, Caine does take down the alien his way, only proving that rules are completely worthless.  Caine, Smith, and Diane walk away triumphantly, and we leave Houston a marginally safer place.  Still plenty of drug dealers, considerably less cars, but absolutely no aliens.  

As a wise man once said, “Fuck you, spaceman.”

C Chaka

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