Dolph Lundgren has been a reliable fixture in the action movie genre for decades, showcasing his signature tough guy presence and intimidating physicality in dozens of B-movies and blockbusters alike. Though he’s now in his mid-60s, Lundgren is still going strong both in front of and behind the camera. His latest directorial effort is Wanted Man, representing his continued passion for hard-hitting crime stories.
In this gritty thriller written by Lundgren and two collaborators, he stars as Travis Johansen, an aging Texas cop caught on video viciously beating a Mexican suspect. With his views on race causing major backlash, Johansen gets one last shot at redemption with a risky mission south of the border. He’s tasked with retrieving a pair of witnesses to a cartel shooting, but things quickly go south in predictable fashion. After an ambush leaves several officers dead, Johansen finds himself stranded in Mexico with one surviving witness, the sympathetic Rosa (Christina Villa).
What follows is a story of unlikely partnership, conspiracy theories, and plenty of shotgun blasts to the chest. Lundgren embraces the film’s B-movie roots while injecting some socio-political commentary about racial tensions. It’s familiar territory for veteran action fans, but Lundgren brings an honesty and charisma to the role that elevates the material. Though the plot holds few surprises, Wanted Man delivers enough gritty thrills and surprisingly thoughtful characterization to satisfy Lundgren devotees. It may not win new converts, but this late career effort suggests Lundgren still has a bit more fuel left in the directorial tank.
A Redemption Arc South of the Border
The film wastes no time in introducing Travis Johansen, the character at the center of this gritty redemption tale. We first meet Johansen as a disgraced cop under fire after a video goes viral showing him viciously beating a Mexican immigrant during a traffic stop. Barking racial epithets with impunity, it’s a shocking introduction meant to immediately establish Johansen as a man dangerously out of touch with social mores.
As public backlash mounts, Johansen finds himself at a crossroads professionarily. His superior, Captain Hernandez, presents him with a Faustian bargain: safely retrieve two Mexican witnesses involved in a cartel shooting down south, and the incident can be swept under the rug so Johansen can retire with his pension intact. Begrudgingly, our antihero accepts out of self preservation.
Of course, the mission goes belly up quicker than you can say “we’ve got company.” After cartel gunmen ambush the police motorcade, Johansen is left for dead, a bullet lodged in his gut. But all hope is not lost – he finds salvation in the lone surviving witness, Rosa. Showing compassion despite Johansen’s previous hostility toward her people, Rosa hides the wounded officer away to convalesce at her cousin’s house.
What follows is a classic odd couple pairing: the bitter, racist good ol’ boy, dependent on a caring Mexican immigrant to literally save his life. At first obstinate, Johansen gradually lowers his defenses as his physical health improves. He forges cautious bonds with Rosa’s family, even partaking in home cooking and telenovelas with her mother. In these quiet moments, realization begins to dawn that his cruel assumptions about Mexicans ring hollow.
Of course, trouble isn’t far behind as further assassination attempts put Johansen and Rosa on the run once more. Now wrongly accused by the cartel of murdering the police escort, regaining his freedom requires solving the mystery of who ambushed them. It soon becomes evident that the web of corruption runs deeper than the cartels, involving double crossing gringos.
Here the film embraces conventions with crooked DEA agents secretly in cahoots with Private Military Contractors. They’re the true villains who orchestrated the motorcade attack, hoping to eliminate witnesses of their activities. While hardly surprising, it sets up a satisfying showdown where Johansen teams with Mexican law enforcement to bring justice to those responsible.
In the process, the film comes full circle to complete Johansen’s redemptive arc. The once notoriously bigoted cop emerges reborn, lamenting past prejudice through his unlikely friendship with Rosa. Their cross-cultural bond fuels the narrative’s central theme: that mutual understanding can overcome ethnic divisions. Though hardly subtle, Wanted Man succeeds in crafting engaging personalities on both sides of the border.
Navigating a Minefield of Messaging
On paper, Wanted Man sets out to tackle the complex socio-political landscape surrounding US-Mexico relations. It’s an admirable goal given the nuanced realities at play concerning immigration, law enforcement, and ethnic tensions. But translating thorny real-world issues into popcorn entertainment proves a tricky tightrope for Lundgren and company to walk.
Make no mistake – Wanted Man comes out swinging, ready to ruffle feathers. Right out the gate, we bear witness to Johansen’s heinous profiling and police brutality against an innocent Mexican. His xenophobic diatribes leave little room for interpretation; this is an unapologetic racist cut from the cloth of America’s dark past. The film doubles down by introducing Johansen’s retired cop buddies, echoing his backwards sentiments about border security and immigration.
Early on Wanted Man straddles the line between illumination and exploitation. The no punches pulled approach to racial injustice has audacious bite, but also risks accusations of insensitivity. Yet the film hopes that by ushering Johansen on a path to enlightenment, the blunt force trauma of his worldview becomes a teachable moment.
The lynchpin turning the tide rests on humanizing the other side through cross-cultural bonds. By extending empathy where Johansen shows only malice, Rosa models redemptive grace, challenging his preconceptions. Her family and community take it further, welcoming Johansen as one of their own on his road to recovery. It’s a timeworn parable of overcoming differences through open-mindedness and communication – the sort of kumbaya resolution tailor-made for the Hallmark Channel.
Still, despite the on-the-nose messaging, glimmers emerge exhibiting nuance beyond finger wagging. In plotting the real villains as American mercenaries gaming the system, Wanted Man acknowledges the shared corruption infecting both sides. The film suggests that perhaps the borders dividing us are more porous than we realize.
Of course, that insight gets muddled in the clunky climax returning to good guy/bad guy binaries. And for his transformative arc, Johansen never fully atones for his shameful history of racial violence. The film wants to have it both ways – condemning his actions while extending unearned sympathy. It’s possible to leave viewers more nonplussed than enlightened.
Yet underneath the mixed messaging lies a kernel of truth – that people and problems resisting easy labels. If Wanted Man stumbles on solutions, it succeeds in diagnosing the disease. The film suggests we would all benefit from fostering greater cultural literacy before casting the first stone. Johansen serves as avatar to model the process of evolving entrenched biases through open-hearted exchange. His redemption arc gives hope for positive change, even for those harboring hatred.
Lundgren Leads from the Director’s Chair
Given his deep roots in the action genre, Dolph Lundgren hardly reinvents the wheel from behind the camera. As director, his meat-and-potatoes style prioritizes kinetic bursts of violence over visual flair. Yet what Lundgren lacks as an innovator, he compensates through experience – his confident hand at pacing lends even familiar set pieces a dynamic energy.
Lundgren clearly understands how to photograph his imposing physique and weathered mug for maximum impact. Johansen makes for his most nuanced role in years, equal parts intimidating brute and wounded animal. With subtle shifts between nobility and cruelty, humor and rage, Lundgren exposes surprising layers of humanity. We believe in his change of heart precisely because we witness the ugliness that preceded it.
Matching Lundgren beat for beat is Christina Villa as the luminous Rosa. Villa locates glimmers of hope amidst hardship, her character’s inner light burning bright against gathering darkness. She stands toe-to-toe with Lundgren in their scenes together, the burgeoning trust between them providing the film its strained yet beating heart. Villa’s courageous performance helps anchor the emotional transformation in play.
Less successful are the broad strokes used to paint certain supporting characters. As Johansen’s ex-cop pal, Kelsey Grammer often mistakes hammy overacting for comic relief. Each line reading strains under a misplaced cartoonish energy, as though performing a parody version of an intolerant blowhard. The wisecracking dialogue registers more tone deaf than playful.
In smaller roles, the cast delivers workmanlike performances to move the plot machinery forward without distraction. No one embarrasses themselves in the process, but an ensemble filled with cardboard cutouts leaves the heavy lifting to Lundgren and Villa alone.
To Lundgren’s credit, his no-frills approach to directing fits comfortably within modest means. He crafts a straightforward chase thriller allowing room for pulpy B-movie flair like scattering goons launched backward by shotgun blasts. It compensates for the largely workaday framing and setups.
Lundgren may never ascend to an auteur level behind the lens, but his newest effort suggests a professional gravitating more towards refining his craft. He knows his strengths and limitations, playing squarely to audience expectations while sneaking glimmers of artistry through the cracks.
Getting Down and Dirty
From the opening frames, cinematographer Joe M. Han coats the screen with a grimy patina befitting the seedy underbelly at play. Muted colors and hazy lighting instill a sense of gloom, the camera lens often obscured by clouds of dust kicked up. It’s an aesthetic choice mirroring the moral decay festering within Johansen and his surroundings.
That’s not to say Wanted Man completely ignores visual punch. Lundgren builds atmosphere through environmental textures and small gestures. Beads of nervous sweat, fluttering curtains, deferred glances – they fill in details of an uncertain world. And when violence erupts, quick cutting and adroit camerawork maintain spatial coherence even amongst the chaos.
The home invasion sequence proves a standout both visually and choreographically. As cartel hitmen lay siege, Lundgren’s camera tracks their stealthy invasion before gunfire turns the tranquil setting into a war zone. Staccato editing accelerates the bedlam, while smooth dolly shots survey the aftermath of shotgun devastation. Here Lundgren shows a deft ability to build, release, and rescale tension through confident shot selection.
Surprisingly, even with a TV movie budget, the action set pieces exhibit solid production value through and through. Squibs burst with adequate splatter as nameless thugs meet their maker via fists and bullets. While not the most elaborate or smoothly executed by big budget standards, the run-and-gun style allows unhinged B-movie violence to shine. Wanted Man always feels tangibly gritty and mean-spirited.
If anything, the only letdown comes from fairly routine blocking and coverage to capture dialogue scenes. Characters often feel stranded in medium shots or bland over-the-shoulder set-ups staticly positioned. It’s serviceable in moving the story between action, but lacks any captivating style or composition.
Overall though, Lundgren checks his usual directorial boxes with competence, prioritizing the physical action fans expect from his work. Wanted Man won’t be remembered for breaking the mold aesthetically, but it delivers the core visceral goods as a down-n-dirty thriller.
Uneven Story Beats
There’s no pussyfooting around in the first act as Wanted Man firmly establishes its provocative tone and characters. Early scenes indulge in charged language and disturbing violence, a deliberate choice to spotlight themes of racial injustice and police brutality. While arguably exploitative, the film certainly captures attention through confrontation right away.
Of course, that pulp fiction energy proves difficult to sustain once the plot mechanics kick into gear. As Johansen finds himself stranded in a foreign land, the story beats begin feeling perfunctory – the odd couple pairing, fish out of water comedy, assassins on their tail. It’s a formulaic blueprint indicating where things are headed at nearly every turn.
The conspiracy unspooling introduces more clichés, between shady government agents and private military firms colluding with cartels. The villains join all the usual dots with little nuance or surprise. We realize the danger will provide an opportunity for Johansen’s climatic redemptive stand, but it still carries a seen-it-before quality.
Where the script redeems itself is through the careful emotional arc tracked for Johansen. His gradual thawing toward Rosa and her family feels organic even within genre confines. And the ending finds the right balance between changed worldviews and lingering ambiguity. Our hero still has red in his ledger, but the path toward possible atonement rings true.
Pacing-wise, the film sags somewhat in the midsection before regaining momentum for the final act showdown. A trim here and there may have helped ratchet up tension, but overall runtime breezes by thanks to regular bursts of gunplay.
In the end, while the plot falls victim to tiresome conventions, strength of character and performances maintain engagement. If the story mechanics fail to shock, they prove sturdy enough to support the meatier emotional journey traverse.
An Imperfect But Engaging Redemption Tale
At first blush, Wanted Man hardly breaks new ground in the action thriller genre. The story beats and conspiracy plot points feel overly familiar, down to the double-crossing villains. Yet somewhere amidst all the explosions, car chases, and racial epithets lies an oddly thoughtful morality play about prejudice and forgiveness.
Between the visceral action sequences, the film makes space for quiet interactions focused on building bridges between cultures. In his advancing years, Lundgren seems increasingly drawn to characters still capable of positive growth rather than ossified tough guys. It suggests an aging star seeking nuance while still delivering tried-and-true genre thrills.
Bolstered by Lundgren’s layered lead performance and confident direction, Wanted Man largely succeeds as a vehicle for his talents on both sides of the lens. What the film lacks in originality, it offsets through conviction in execution and good old meat-and-potatoes filmmaking.
Granted, the film’s social commentary lacks subtlety, while certain supporting characters verge on insensitive caricatures. The climax also neatly wraps things up without forcing Johansen to truly earn his redemption. Still, viewed less as a provocative message movie than a textured star vehicle, Wanted Man offers enough grit, gunfire, and emotional heft to satisfy Lundgren devotees.
The total package may not garner new converts, but it suggests an aging B-movie icon seeking reinvention through increased complexity. Wanted Man marks another solid effort in Lundgren’s expanding directorial catalog. Even when working in familiar territory, his seasoned perspective reveals glimmers of untapped potential.
Dolph Lundgren puts his weathered persona to good use in Wanted Man, embracing his maturity as an actor and filmmaker seeking added dimension within a familiar action thriller template. Bolstered by Christina Villa's compassionate supporting turn, Lundgren delivers his most compelling lead performance in years, rounding out a redemptive arc with sensitivity. While the conspiracy-laden plot leaves little lasting impression, Lundgren's confident direction and the pivotal soul-searching at the story's core bring sufficient emotional resonance. For loyal fans, Wanted Man reaffirms Lundgren's hardy talents while signaling tentative new complexities brewing on his creative horizon.
- Lundgren gives a strong, layered lead performance
- Christina Villa brings heart to her role
- Direction handles action sequences well
- Redemption arc has emotional resonance
- Attempts thoughtful commentary on racial issues
- Plot is fairly predictable
- Supporting characters are underdeveloped
- Social messaging lacks nuance
- Villain reveal and conspiracy is unoriginal
- Could use more visual style and filmmaking punch