Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Review: Diamond Cartel

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Diamond Cartel
Directed by Salamat Mukkammed-Ali
Cleopatra Entertainment / Shoreline Entertainment / BES QARU Films / MVD Visual
77 minutes, 2016 / 2017

It’s always nice to occasionally get the chance to review a straight-out action flick, especially if there’s some chop-chop added in. But first some very quick background… Mukkammed-Ali is from Kazakhstan, part of the former Soviet Bloc. He started out as lead singer of a Kazakh rock band called Enoch, and then segued his way into television production, and then finally into film.

His first film, from 2015, was called The Whole World at Their Feet. This was then re-edited and is now being shown in the West as Diamond Cartel, a much more palatable name for a violence-focused part of the world (ours).

Armand Assante
One aspect that makes this stand out is the sheer star power behind it in front of the camera, with the likes of Armand Assante, Peter O’Toole (his last film as he passed in 2013; here he looks feeble and older than his 81 years), Michael Masden, Bolo Yeung (aka “Chinese Hercules,” who has aged phenomenally well for his 70 years), ex-basketballer Tommy Lister, and Don “The Dragon” Wilson, among others. All but two are basically cameos, but still. Assante is one that lasts throughout the feature.
Nearly all of the dialog is dubbed into English, including the English speaking actors, but actually it is usually done quite well in the foreign-to-English actors, though sometimes dodgy in the English-to-English, such as Masden and Assante. Lister is given a bit of a stereotypical “Black slang” voice, which feels odd on so many levels (I almost expected him to say, “Yo mama!”).

The plot is both simple and complex. An international criminal named Mussa (Assante, often wearing a jacket with bare chest underneath, ironically appears and sounds a bit like Sylvester Stallone, as they played brothers in 1995’s Judge Dredd). He’s ready to pay $30 million for the Star of East diamond, in US$10,000 bills, no less.

Kadygash Mukkamedzhanova
After double- and triple-crosses, young lovers Aliya (Karlygash Mukkamedzhanova) and Ruslan (Aleksey Frandetti, dropping a young Keanu Reeves vibe complete with whoa-period hairstyle) are on the run from both ruthless sides of the diamond sale equation, having absconded with the diamond and the cash, as they drive through Kazakhstan with the others in pursuit. But it’s Nurlan Altaev as enforcer Arman, who is a childhood friend of the two runaways and is now one of the parties chasing them, that steals the film in his cool clothes and mostly stoic stance; he plays his emotions very subtly here.

The story is a bit convoluted, and the dialogue is quite overwrought, but all-in-all, it was pretty enjoyable. There is lots of primary references throughout the film, such as Scarface (1983), I, Claudius (1976), Sergio Leone westerns, and a subtle nod to Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon (aka Return of the Dragon,1971), but especially True Romance (1993).

Nurlan Altaev
There is a lot of action going on including some martial arts, but mostly it’s gun play of various calibers, with people getting blown up good, real good, from a variety of weapons. Most of the blood and gore is digital, and it certainly looks digi, but there is a fair amount that is unexpected, pretty graphic, and made me smile.

The physical artistry of the film is nicely handled, such as the camerawork, the lighting, the editing, and the framing of shots. There are also some nice visual, digital effects used to warp the image at times, or change hues. But I do have a multi-fold complaint and that is mainly with the sound. There is a segment in which the sound is reverbed and hard to make out, and even though the dubbing is well handled relatively speaking, the tone of the dialog is flattened so everyone sounds like they’re at the same level, whether close to the camera or not. This took me a bit out of the story, especially the echoing segment.

Most the acting is pretty typical for Asian dramas: lots of wide eyes showing emotion, or cool-as-ice anger. Aleksey and especially Mukkamedzhanova fall into the former, and Altaev excels in the later. O’Toole looks like he’s just barely conscious about what is going on around him, but the over-acting award definitely goes to Assante who looks like he is trying to top Pacino at his most manic as Tony Montana. Often it comes across as clownish, but part of that may be the overdubbing of his voice, which at the very least contributes quite a bit.

Even when holding back, a lot of the high drama acting of most of the characters is kind of like horses straining at the rein, but again, that’s pretty common in many Asian action films. This story plays more like something out of China or Japan than from Soviet influences that I’ve seen elsewhere, which tends to be more towards the understated.

There is a nice and varied soundtrack that runs through, from metal and punk, to noise and more soothing, background type stuff. Some of the bands included are Christian Death and Anti-Nowhere League (Animal was actually quite nice when I met him in the ‘80s, but so what, I digress…).

The extras are a noisy kind of black metal/rap-ish thingy by DMX and Blackburner, a 2:43 slideshow of clips, and the trailer. Oh, and chapter breaks, of course.

So, you may be asking yourself if this worth the investment of your time? Well, if you like crime and/or action films, yeah, it is. There are at least two nice shoot-em-up set scenes and some cool car chases and crashes. But the real violence is held for the guns, which is done kind of imaginatively, even though shooting from a motorcycle sailing overhead has been done to – err – death.

Not as gritty as some of the Japanese crime dramas, but there is a level of glee that you can share with the action. In other words, if you don’t cringe at Assante’s emoting, then you most certainly will get a good contact buzz off whatever it is he seems to be on.

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