When considering the careers and personas of action stars, one must factor in the role of ego. Sylvester Stallone has gradually shifted his presence into a perverse temple to an equally perverse, awkwardly muscled form. Steven Seagal’s rapidly gained girth hasn’t forced a humility, but seems to have rather reinforced his morally dubious nature. Even our greatest action star, Jean-Claude Van Damme, drags with him a career of professional embarrassments borne of his own making. If we weed out the “ego” concept of the action star, we arrive at Dolph Lundgren.Dolph Lundgren’s career is a series of rejections of ego, a sort of resilience to an ever-changing image. This, however, is not to suggest he’s one of those bullshit “chameleon actors”; the man never disappears. In fact, Lundgren may be the true “Classic Hollywood” star of the action heroes. Unlike Van Damme, he is convincingly verbose. Unlike Seagal, he appears totally self-aware. The “ever-changing image,” rather, is a mark of humility, his willingness to accept whatever version of Lundgren is popular among his fans at the time.
Lundgren’s early career is a decided waste. Rather than emphasizing his utter strangeness, he was cast in roles primarily designed for his blonde hair and large build, a template set by Stallone in Rocky IV. Lundgren’s value, remarkably and paradoxically, comes in his ability to underplay or overplay a role. These early performances allow for neither. He possessed the physique of a bronzed god, but was not the pop image/presence required for such roles (Arnold Schwarzenegger remains, to this day, the only performer who was ever suited to them).
It is in the swath of 1990s action films that we find the first true Lundgren roles. The majority of these films range from mediocre-to-awful, while his performances are often consistently excellent. Showdown in Little Tokyo features a Lundgren that can single-handedly flip a car, yet he pitches his line readings almost solely on a subtle, barely emotive level. The ludicrous I Come in Peace’s only strength is the grounded, quiet center of Lundgren. He seems the only vestige of morality in the otherwise reprehensible Men of War, and is a creature of almost pure grace (and shade-wearing cool) in John Woo’s Blackjack. Indeed, one feels that if Jacques Tourneur had made cheap 90s genre, Lundgren would have been his favorite actor.
The 90s also saw the birth of the over-the-top Lundgren, a fantastic man/cartoon hybrid that suggests a sense of true self-mocking humor, in contrast to Stallone, who is only willing to mock himself so far. Lundgren’s heavies in Universal Soldier and Johnny Mnemonic are less polished and successfully modulated than his later madmen, but remain exuberantly delivered with such shit-eating gusto that it’s impossible not to be drawn into their magnetic power. It is only recently that his image, the image of Dolph, has shifted decidedly towards the over-the-top, a change he seems to relish deeply. Command Performance (self-directed), The Expendables (I & II), The Package, and One in the Chamber are all thoroughly in the over-the-top camp. Witness his monologue on making smoothies in The Package, delivered to a dying man. Fascinatingly, what jumps off the screen and pops like inspired improv is, from the account of director Jesse V. Johnson, almost entirely scripted. What can’t be scripted is the way he describes, in a tiny flourish, blueberries as “…tasty as hell.” It brings to mind one of David Thomson’s only lucid comments, writing on James Coburn: “Increasingly, he was the best thing in his movies, smiling privately, seeming to suggest that he was in contact with some profound source of amusement.”
This brings us ultimately to the point of synthesis, his collaborations with director John Hyams, marking the richest work of the actor’s career. Hyams plays to both sides of Lundgren, uniting the whole. Universal Soldier: Regeneration features a Lundgren conjuring specific memories and impressions of Rutger Hauer’s brooding villains, and finally discovers the buried tragedy inherent in Lundgren’s deep, cavernous voice. Hyams’ follow-up, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, amplifies Lundgren into a preacher, a religious zealot for the liberated masses of the titular cloned soldiers. It’s a performance of pure joy and profound pain, a rousing speech punctuated by a private grimace of existential pain. No-holds-barred acting and emoting, almost embarrassing in the best of ways.
Taken as a whole, the collective of action stars accumulated in the last twenty or so years of cinema is a strange bunch, marked by features anomalous to the generic definition of movie stars. Warped bodies, bald heads, scrappy or near-unintelligible voices. Dolph Lundgren has carved himself a role as the simultaneously most muted and cartoonish of the bunch, a distinct figure in the action cinema landscape. The 21st century hasn’t been kind to these men, but he meets it with a shrug and a grin.
And, of course, a drum solo: