What do Robert De Niro and Coolio have in common? First, they’ve both worked with Michelle Pfeiffer — De Niro in last week’s “Stardust,” Coolio in the classic “Gangsta’s Paradise” music video from 1995’s “Dangerous Minds.” Second, they’ve both starred in a foreign production. Further similarities, however, end there: while De Niro’s trip overseas was motivated by a desire to work with Bernardo Bertolucci on 1976’s epic “1900,” Coolio, like a growing number of struggling B-movie actors and wannabe thespians, was just looking for another opportunity to show off his acting chops. Those chops are, unsurprisingly, pretty meager, but they still have value in the international film marketplace, where the presence of an American — any American, no matter how dubiously talented — translates into cachet (or at least novelty value) and, hopefully, extra receipts at the local box office. Thus, movies like this weekend’s “Marigold,” a joint US-Indian venture headlined by “Heroes”‘ Ali Larter that actually plays with the idea of unwanted American talent heading to Bollywood. And Russian gangster films featuring Michael Madsen. And Turkish action-comedies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Herewith, a few choice examples of the budding phenomenon.
Billy Zane and Gary Busey in “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq” (2006)
How to revive a flagging career? If you’re Zane or Busey, you find an anti-American propaganda film and sign on the dotted line. Zane stars as a U.S. military monster (and Christian zealot) who subscribes to a personal kill-’em-all Middle East policy, and Busey — in a role seemingly designed to once and for all ruin his credibility — lends minor support as a Jewish-American doctor with a fondness for carving up Iraqi corpses and selling their organs on the international black market. Based on a popular Turkish television show of the same name, and using a real-life event as its narrative foundation, the film is little more than a shoddily constructed exploitation film that mixes references to Abu Ghraib with the occasional sight of Zane wearing a safari hat and brightly colored scarf. Given the wholly predictable backlash that greeted news of the film in the States, one can’t help but wonder why either actor wanted to court such notoriety, especially in the case of Busey, whose subplot is so meager and tacked-on that his minimal employment (and, one must assume, minimal paycheck) couldn’t have been worth the negative press.
Michael Madsen in “Jacked$” (2004) and “Velvet Revolution” (2005)
“Reservoir Dogs” set Michael Madsen up for life, providing him with an unending stream of jobs playing tough guys, menacing criminals and/or homicidal maniacs. Given his flourishing career as the lead in direct-to-video clunkers, however, it’s hard to imagine Madsen’s motivation for traveling to Russia for by-the-books gangster comedy “Jacked$” — perhaps it was because the role of an underworld kingpin offered him the chance to act pissed off while obsessing over Elvis Presley? Regardless, his experience making Russian music video director Oleg Stepchenko’s feature debut must have been a happy one, since he re-teamed with the filmmaker one year later for “Velvet Revolution,” another derivative piece of crime cinema crap that opens with Madsen blatantly rehashing his “Dogs” glory by chatting it up in a diner and, shortly thereafter, torturing a man to death. After those two introductory scenes, he basically disappears from the film. Which, even in light of the ensuing lameness, isn’t all that disappointing.
Malcolm McDowell, Armand Assante and Rutger Hauer in “Mirror Wars: Reflection One” (2005)
“Mirror Wars” is, in essence, a 116-minute commercial for a Russian fighter jet. And what better filmic way to sell a fighter jet than to enlist the services of Malcolm McDowell and Armand Assante, two actors intimately familiar with the art of crashing and burning. Still, it’s hard to fault the two for seeming lost and bewildered throughout this incomprehensible political-espionage adventure, which involves McDowell’s terrorist’s plans to steal a super jet so he can then shoot down Air Force One and, consequently, initiate a new Cold War. Scenery-chewing is apparently de rigueur, and both Americans are up to the task, albeit not enough to prevent every instance of human speech from making one crave more aerial plane footage. At least they’re given something to do, which is more than can be said about Rutger Hauer, who for reasons unknown decided to fly all the way to Russia to film a one-minute cameo.
Jean-Claude Van Damme in “Sinav” (2006)
The Muscles From Brussels has never gotten much stateside respect, but Van Damme-it, anyone who can do splits on a kitchen countertop in his underwear and maintain a straight face is okay in my book. Having been consigned to direct-to-video purgatory for years, the former action star has recently begun peddling his brawny wares on international shores, and this recent Turkish film — about a group of teens determined to steal a university entrance exam, “Mission Impossible”-style — finds Van Damme in all his suave glory. Or at least, that’s what I can glean from the trailer (watch it on YouTube), as I was unfortunately unable to procure a copy of the film for full analysis. Van Damme reportedly so loved the script that he worked for free as “The Thief.” And, from the sight of him roundhouse kicking a young boy while decked out in designer duds, I’d recommend that Turkish audiences prepare to have their hearts stolen.
Coolio in “China Strike Force” (2000)
“A Lam-Bo-Geeni! It’s Eye-talian!” With those initial lines in Stanley Tong’s 2000 Chinese crime film, Coolio makes a bid for international cinematic superstardom. And fails. Hilariously, and often. Starring as a gangster named Coolio (presumably to keep confusion to a bare minimum) who’s in China for a big drug deal, Coolio delivers plenty of cheesy gangster boasts while seizing every opportunity to engage B-movie staple Mark Dacascos in playfully racist banter. His perpetual bug-eyes and exaggerated movements seem perfectly at home amidst the rest of the cast’s similarly cartoonish expressions. Nonetheless, it’s his penchant for yelling dialogue like the type of knucklehead who thinks foreigners will better understand him if he dials up the volume — a habit made funnier by the fact that his co-stars all speak English — that truly catapults his performance into the loony stratosphere. Well, that and his reference to “Chairman Mayo.”