Culture enhances our lives and helps us understand the world both internal and external. To make sense of ourselves and others, to connect. Films do this in ways that move us, make us think and feel and by providing catharsis. We process and give vent to the emotions that aren’t always that useful to us in the often sedentary, circular lives we lead. Horror movies are outstandingly good at this. Even when the resolution is bleak, the journey to it provides a release for the unspeakable, to confront the things that hide in the shadows of our consciousness in a safe way. In much the same way, action movies allow us to do this too, particularly in respect of Western understandings of morality, underpinned as they are by religious and societal impulses ingrained in our collective psyche. Through them, we can confront ideas of justice, right and wrong, the way things are and the way they should be. Action film protagonists often put things the way they ‘should’ be through sheer force of physicality and willpower. Again, it’s not something we generally do in day to day life. A violent snap back from chaos to control offers that similar catharsis to horror, and yet these films are usually considered even lesser versions of the form. They’re marked as boorish, simple, even unedifying. Despite this, these films mean so much to so many. They’re the go-to films to ease a low mood, the films we put on when friends come over, the films we discuss again and again. In this respect, they fulfil that expectation of culture and how it can enhance our lives almost in its most pure way. We mention all this to frame a discussion of Dark Angel (aka I Come in Peace, 1990) so you know it is done with love and without irony.
Dark Angel comes from a special time in action movie history. As the eighties came to a close and we moved into the nineties, moods in culture shifted. The overblown and garish eighties would give way to self-loathing and sarcasm in the nineties. What was just simply cool in the eighties would be met with an eye-roll only a few years later. The bombast of eighties movies gave way as the nineties progressed and an increasing self-awareness crept into both horror and action films — a knowing nudge-nudge that suggested we all know these films shouldn’t be taken seriously, that they are just fluff for video store shelves and nothing more. And so, with Dark Angel we have a film technically released in the nineties but conceived, produced and made in the eighties and very much of that decade’s excess. There’s no surprise this was eventually made in the wake of the box-office success of films like Predator (1987). It’s stuffed full of the contemporary love for mismatched buddy-partner antics, loner heroes and explosions and is all the better for it.
The director for the film is Craig R. Baxley, who for much of the eighties had been stunt coordinator and second-unit director on a number of features, working with Walter Hill on The Warriors (1979) and The Long Riders (1980). As well as this Baxley cut his directorial debut on episodes of The A-Team (1983-1987) as well as coordinating or performing stunts on numerous other shows in the seventies and eighties, including a long stint with The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985) before his first feature, Action Jackson (1988). That film, along with the one Baxley followed Dark Angel with, Stone Cold (1991), are also prime action movies and trade heavily on rebellious heroes causing untold amounts of damage to public property in the name of the law. After this trio of heavy-hitting action classics Baxley would find his work in television for the remainder of his career, directing a huge number of TV movies and episodes of various series. For his features, it’s clear that Baxley’s background in stunt performing and coordinating is immeasurably beneficial to their success. It’s no surprise he moved into the functional world of TV movies. The occasional flair of the form’s seventies heyday had been superseded by a factory process that rarely allowed for invention and outside of the elements he knows best, Baxley is never more than workmanlike. This shows in films like Dark Angel which, when considering the director’s role, only really come alive visually in the action sequences. Thankfully, Dark Angel is stuffed full of them, overflowing like a greedy diner’s plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The script was co-written by Jonathan Tydor and David Koepp (credited here as Leonard Mass Jr.) Tydor doesn’t have an extensive resumé, following this with only a handful of work as writer or director, mostly with the likes of The Hard Truth (1994) and The King’s Guard (2000) — both of them starring Eric Roberts. Koepp of course went on to script films like Mission: Impossible (1996), Spider-Man (2002) and is now toiling in the thankless world of screenplays for Indiana Jones films and the recent flawed-but-entertaining Universal revival of The Mummy (2017). It’s an understandably basic script, serving mostly as a link between action sequences. Characters are written in broad strokes, and though the filmmakers attempt to give the actors something to do (Dolph is a rebel macho cop but he appreciates wine too dammit — something Lundgren likely brought himself) they’re perfunctory attempts at best. Despite this there’s lots of nice little touches that provide extra character in the film too, from the performances (like Jack’s over-stimulated scientist pal Bruce played by Mark Lowenthal) to Jan Hammer’s score, to the at the time de rigueur Christmas setting, which is enjoyably forgotten about 30 minutes or so in and never mentioned again.
The film follows Dolph Lundgren’s cop Jack Caine, who loses his partner in a drug bust gone wrong when he is compelled, like so many action heroes of the eighties, to intervene violently in a convenience store robbery. The gang he was hoping to bust — a collection of oh-so-eighties proto-Donald Trump Jrs in slick suits called the White Boys — blame Caine for the disappearance of their heroin from the deal. In fact, this has been stolen by someone else entirely, a nine-foot tall alien drug dealer (played by Matthias Hues) who is using the heroin to murder people with a deadly dose and then extract the endorphins from the victims’ brains because it’s a juicy and rare high back where he comes from. As a result of Caine’s presumed failure and because the drugs were stolen from evidence lock-up, the ‘Feds’ are brought in and Jack is unwillingly partnered with the straight-laced, career-minded Agent Smith (Brian Benben). As one can imagine, the previously mentioned mismatched buddy-cop hijinks ensue as Caine and Smith disagree on procedure, all the while courting each other until their love blossoms (professionally speaking of course). They do this at the same time the White Boys hunt Caine, believing he has their drugs, and the alien dealer cuts a swathe of murder and destruction across the city. And destruction it is, because Baxley likes making films in which lots of things explode because he knows people like watching them. Cars and buildings blow up frequently, windows smash, lots of guns are fired and wherever possible the maximum amount of destruction is caused. One character even dies and then blows up, because, well, why not?
It’s all gloriously entertaining and despite the film tanking at the box office (not even recouping its modest budget), it inevitably did much better on home video. Critics at the time were less than kind too, with negative notices for violence and its use of the buddy-cop formula. It’s worth considering that at the time of release with the likes of Lethal Weapon (1987) that formula had been used undeniably better and in grander fashion than here. But as with a lot of entertainment, when the initial release has long since passed by a more considered appraisal of a film can be made, removed from contemporary concerns and context. This has done Dark Angel definite good, as its 2013 Blu-ray release on the Scream Factory offshoot of Shout! Factory’s label met with much more enthusiastic reviews that recognise the film more for what it gets right than where it fails. And it’s in that spirit than we can also offer our recommendation for the movie because it does offer that often-needed escape from the real world, that burst of uncomplicated entertainment that doesn’t ask you to consider the moral implications (probably best you don’t) but instead just seeks to entertain you. It’s the essential raison d’être behind Baxley’s entire career, and certainly the three films of his mentioned, and sometimes that’s all you need.