Rob Girvan takes a look at the Direct-To-Video market, and asks whether or not the stigma associated with DTV is truly deserved. 

Ah, the bargain bin direct to DVD (and increasingly these days, Blu-ray), what would we do without you? You offer sanctuary to our former action heroes when they go out to pasture for being old (Chuck Norris), having legal problems (Wesley Snipes) or have eaten one too many cheeseburgers to convince as a credible martial artist on the big screen (I think you all know who I am talking about here).

Usually shot in Eastern Europe, or some far flung Far East location, these DTVs have been, by and large, awful. The market really started with the explosion of VHS in the 1980s. The Cannon Film Group, which owned a cinema chain in the UK, made most of its money through releasing DTVs. By leap frogging cinema releases, and going straight to the video shops Cannon were able to cut out the expense of producing actual film prints, and could flood the video store market. When they did put a film out theatrically, the results were less than stellar – it was Cannon who made Superman 4.

They were best when they made movies cheaply, got a big name to put on the front cover, and had enough action to cut a decent trailer. Unlike the film students who worked for Roger Corman, who encouraged them to be creative within tight time frames, the DTV directors of the 80s and 90s had no ambitions beyond getting a steady paycheck. Be it the erotic thrillers that became popular after the release of Basic Instinct, to the traditional action movie, to even a few comedies, there was a steady stream of this stuff making its way into the local “Mom & Pop” videoshop.

In the 2000s, and the advent of DVD (making it even easier to print and distribute) DTVs became international. Go down to your local Supermarket and you will see the shelves heaving with titles of films from Asia which have had no cinema release. Companies such as the Asylum have begun mass producing cheap knock offs of blockbusters for home release and screenings on the SyFy channel. But unlike the efforts of Corman in the 1980s, they lack any charm or technical skill. And more often than not, they are boring.
So that is a plotted history of the DTV in the last 30 years. One day I want to write a book about these movies. And I have copyrighted that idea, so go off and find something of your own!

In the 2000s, the major Hollywood studios wanted to get in on the action, and unlike the smaller DTV production houses, they had one advantage – actual franchises with brand recognition. Thus we have seen Dukes of Hazard, America Pie, The Butterfly Effect, Donnie Darko, a whole bunch of Disney films, DC comics cartoons, From Dusk Till Dawn, etc all come out in recent years. And why not? The first DTV America Pie, sold over a million copies in its first week, despite only having two minor characters from the main series. There have now been goodness knows how many additional movies adorned with the American Pie title. In some cases these DTVs serve as feature length pilot episodes of proposed TV series – why make a loss throwing Dukes of Hazard on TV on a Saturday night, when you can release it on DVD and make a tidy profit from it?

DTV has also opened up another marketing arm for studios. When Get Smart was released in cinemas, a DTV movie featuring two of the minor characters from that film was on the shop shelves that same week. Customers, who liked the movie and wanted more, could rent or buy. And people, who weren’t sure about the film, could pick up a DTV. Warner’s have led the way on some of this, especially in using animated features to enhance to the main picture – I thinking here of the Animatrix and Batman: Gotham Knights.
As the studios have taken more of an interest in DTV, so the quality of the movies being produced has increased. Now I am not suggesting that you run down to your nearest HMV and pick up the first DTV you see – chances are that it will still be crap. But in recent years there have been a number of DTVs which have really impressed me, and suggest that there is real hope for DTV in the future, and that it may not always be seen a second rate Hollywood.

So without further ado, here are some of the best DTVs you will get out there on the market. Some are not perfect, but they have character and are scrappy, and make for a fun Friday nights viewing.

Starship Troopers: Marauder

Starship Troopers is classic science fiction. I would even go so far as to argue that it’s the best science fiction movie of the 1990s, and a movie which could be released today and still feel relevant, perhaps even more so, than when it was released.

A follow up DTV entitled Hero of the Federation was released and it was awful. Directed by the guy who did the FX work in the first film, and as such the movie boasts some impressive FX work on such a tiny budget. But for most of the run time, Hero of the Federation is a bland knock off of The Thing. Instead of legions of Bugs attacking from all fronts, there are tiny Bugs which take control of the humans. An obvious cost saving measure. Thankfully forgotten by the wider public, copies of the film can be found at most garage shops.

However it must have made some money, because a third film was released on DTV in 2008. Shot in South Africa, the film brought back Casper Van Dien and the writer of the first film (and Robocop) Ed Neumeier, who also directed. The film boasts an impressive scale for a movie made on a fraction of the budget of the first film. It has humour, some on the nose satire and a giant monster at the very end. It is a lot of fun, and while not hitting the heights of Verhoeven’s film, is an enjoyable return to the universe. It impressed me!

Blood and Bone

Michael Jai White deserves a bigger career than he has had so far. Not only is he a great martial artist, he has dramatic presence, and as Black Dynamite proved, great comedic chops. Blood and Bone, released last year, stars White as Bone, a man recently released from jail who enters into the world of underground streetfighting on a quest to avenge the death of a fellow inmate.

Boasting genuinely impressive fight scenes, a great script (watch a scene where the bad guy lures a victim into a false sense of comfort by singing Wang Chung’s Dance Hall Days) and a compelling villain in Eamonn Walker. It is disappointing that this film didn’t get a release in cinemas; it is of that high quality.

Universal Soldier : Regeneration

I suspect that Adam is currently crying about the state of his website now hosting an article extolling the virtues of Universal Soldier : Regeneration. And who can blame him? A limited budget, actors who either a) were doing this for contractual reasons, b) were only available for a week or c) UFC fighters, and a single location for his action scenes to a sequel to a 15 year + movie, and it’s awful sequel, expectations would be described as “low”.

However, what emerged is an exciting, well shot movie which avoids the trap of many DTV movies, by keeping the plot lean and functional. It is the best action movie of 2010.

The plot involves terrorists taking over the former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, and threatens to blow up the core. They have also kidnapped the President of Russia (maybe somewhere else) kids. It is up to a joint US/Russian taskforce to save the kids and disarm the terrorist group.

Moving away from the blockbuster fun of the first movie, and the stupidity of the second film, Universal Soldier : Regeneration is a pretty bleak movie, but has a heck of a lot of ambition. Van Damme, looking pretty old now, and downbeat, gives a subdued performance, although I would not call it lazy. His character, Luc Deveraux, seems numb to the world. It is an extension of his JCVD performance.

If the first film was about him escaping the bonds of his programming, this sequel is all about the character reverting back the function he was built for – war. Lundgren doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time, but what he has makes an impression. While not playing the role of Andrew Scott quite as broad, he brings intensity to the role which is a whole other kinda crazy. While a brief appearance, the pay off is wonderful – and a cool Blade Runner reference to boot!

The movie starts with an impressive car chase, follows on with an attack on the terrorists base which brings to mind the Modern Warfare videogames (in fact much of the film evokes those sort of games – although the film never becomes too comic book), and never really stops. Van Damme rampaging through a building taking out the bad guys with a knife was a show stopping moment.

That the film looks great is not coincidence. Hyams father, Peter Hyams is the director of 2010, Capricorn One, Outland, Time Cop, End of Days…, and is the cinematographer for Universal Soldier : Regeneration. While the bleak, grey, East European setting is something of a cliché now in DTV circles, they manage to make it look beautiful. While not a film for everyone (it simply cannot compete with the blockbusters in terms of scale), but I have to say I found this film to be much more engaging than say, The Expendables. Director John Hyams reminds me of the young, hungry James Cameron.

So give DTV a shot – there are some genuine gems coming out, and directors whose careers are worth keeping an eye on and the movies I have mentioned shows that DTV should no longer be a ghetto for past it action stars and directors who have fallen from grace.

Rob can be found on Twitter.