It is a fact, universally acknowledged, that Straight-to-Video movies tend to be met with low expectations. No matter what the cast, concept or budget, the fact that the movie never made it to theaters casts something of a pall on Straight-to-Video fares, which are sometimes lauded for being merely competent. An above-average action movie starring Djimon Hounsou and Kevin Bacon, like Elephant White for example, becomes a little more impressive as a result of this phenomenon. In theaters, Elephant White could have easily been overlooked given its lack of A-List stars or multimillion-dollar car chases. But at home, with sympathetic expectations, it’s an unusually thoughtful, well-directed flick with a breakout action hero performance from Hounsou, who really needs to do more of this kind of thing.
The action takes place in Thailand, where a mercenary played by Djimon Hounsou (Amistad) has been tasked with taking down a human-trafficking ring. They’re addicting young girls – very young girls – to narcotics, selling them on the street, and killing them when they’re no longer useful. They’re scum. And Djimon Hounsou’s going to clean them out with the help of Jimmy the Brit, a gunrunner played by Kevin Bacon. Along the way, our hero picks up Mei, a young woman (Jirantanin Pitakporntrakul) who both aids him in his task and tries to lead him to spiritual enlightenment. It’s a well-meaning plot point, this spirituality, and almost charming in its attempts to diffuse the action movie violence with a veil of deeper philosophical insight, but it feels a little tacked on and hokey. Elephant White, at its best, is a lot better than that. The screenwriter, Kevin Bernhardt, also penned the nifty 1995 low-budget actioner The Immortals, starring Eric Roberts, Tia Carrere, Tony Curtis and Chris Rock. Check it out if you can find it.
Djimon Hounsou strikes an impressive figure as an action hero. Physically he’s an powerful figure, muscular and tall, but he’s also a very sympathetic actor. You believe Hounsou when he’s expressing anger, pain, regret. And he doesn’t forget to pepper his action sequences with genuine emotional reactions, even while he’s blowing people away with a gun bigger than my first car. You believe in his character and his character’s abilities. He’s a born action star, apparently. As for Kevin Bacon his character narrowly avoids comic relief thanks to a charming and believable performance, although his accent seemed a little thick to me.
The action sequences are all solid, although less stunt-heavy than Prachya Pinkaew’s earlier films like Ong Bak, The Protector or Chocolate. Hounsou is a talented physical performer but he’s not an expert martial artist apparently, so many of the action sequences are designed with a more practical eye. Hounsou doesn’t want to get into the thick of the fray, most of the time, and wisely chooses sniping whenever possible. It’s a little thing, but a rarity these days when the average action hero usually bursts in, guns a-blazing, risking life and limb unnecessarily. When the action does get close and personal there are some finely choreographed shootouts and hand-to-hand combat sequences. Pinkaew is an expert at action sequences already, and nothing in Elephant White makes him appear anything less than professional.
Elephant White stampedes onto Blu-Ray with a perfectly decent transfer. I didn’t notice any distracting audio/visual issues, and the surround sound was quite immersive. But the disc is completely devoid of extras – figures, any time you want them… – except for a few skippable trailers for other Straight-to-Video flicks.
In the case of Elephant White the movie is worth more than a plethora of extras. It’s a very strong action film, almost embarrassingly sincere at times, with a few problems but a fine cast, exciting action and a commendably clean filmmaking style that really deserves to come back into fashion. If it were in theaters, a ‘7/10’ review would be at best mild praise, but as a Straight-to-Video action flick it’s damned impressive.
Crave Online Rating: 7/10