Tony Jaa makes his second foray into the English-speaking action realm this month with “Skin Trade”, alongside Dolph Lundgren and Michael Jai White. Mixing high-octane action with a grim look at the real-world issue of human trafficking, “Skin Trade” walks a tightrope between being a fun popcorn flick while drawing attention to a genuine human rights dilemma, and ultimately delivers the goods.
In addition to scripting and producing duties, Dolph Lundgren stars as New York City detective Nick Cassidy, a man on a mission of vengeance against a band of sadistic monsters who rule over the underworld of human trafficking. Thai action maestro Tony Jaa portrays Bangkok cop Tony Vitayakul, himself determined to put an end to the human trafficking ring of South East Asia, while ultimately being at odds with his American counterpart.
Michael Jai White plays Nick’s partner Reed, who arrives in Thailand to aid his comrade, while Ron Perlman portrays the scum behind it all, Serbian crime boss Viktor Dragovic. Celina Jade assumes the role of Tony’s loyal partner and girlfriend Min, while Peter Weller and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa round out the cast in the roles of Costello, head of the NYPD human trafficking task force, and the corrupt Senator Khan, an associate of Dragovic’s.
The NYPD is on the verge of throwing the powerful Serbian crime boss Viktor Dragovic behind bars for good and putting an end to his malicious human trafficking ring, but their efforts ultimately prove fruitless when Dragovic’s lawyer is able to finagle his client’s way to freedom. Dragovic isn’t going home without settling a score though, and has the wife and daughter of NYPD detective Nick Cassidy killed for the death of Dragovic’s son in the sting operation. The shattered Nick tracks Dragovic to Bangkok, where local cop Tony Vitayakul is also on a mission to put a stop to Dragovic’s activities, but events ultimately conspire to pit the two men against one another.
Not a moment is wasted in “Skin Trade” before the film leaps right into the action, and yet, paradoxically, it also holds off on delivering what it promises until the second act. It’s a tricky gimmick to pull off, for sure, but the film knows just how long to hold off on unleashing its biggest payoff and just what to present the audience in the meantime. Tony Jaa’s first big moment in the spotlight comes early on and sees him going Fist of Legend-style on a gang of Dragovic’s associates with a simple leather belt, along with some pretty nice sound effects to accompany his attacks.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., we’re introduced to Nick and Reed as the NYPD unrolls its sting operation on Dragovic’s latest shipment to the U.S. Peter Weller, as the chief of the operation, Costello, gives what amounts to a cameo appearance in the film and sadly, his potty-mouthed, tough as nails persona isn’t utilized to the same extent as in “Dragon Eyes” and “Forced to Fight” (does no one these days ever think to have him point a gun at an adversary and proclaim, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me”?) However, the bust in New York harbor similarly serves as a kind of warm-up for both Lundgren and White, before the action moves to Bangkok when Nick embarks on his revenge mission.
Tony erroneously comes to believe that Nick is responsible for the death of his partner and close friend, giving way to a sensational chase scene where Nick maneuvers through the narrow alleyways of the city while Tony runs across rooftops and through every available shortcut to catch him. It’s much more raw and emotionally-driven than the Parkour-laced foot chase in “Ong Bak“, but that’s fitting, given both the situation and the emotional state of both men. Here, the film also elects to hold back just a bit longer by allowing Nick to escape -the build-up that it produces is more than worth it.
At the halfway point, that buildup finally hits part one of its big payoff with the matchup of Tony Jaa and Dolph Lundgren. Both men get their licks in with every single hit looking punishingly painful. Tony’s agility and speed mesh perfectly against Lundgren’s mass and strength, and one canít help but wince on behalf of both men at the sheer number of times Tony heaves a devastating roundhouse kick into Nick’s shins, which is how he leads almost every attack he launches. By the end, you’ll feel nearly as battered and wiped out as our heroes themselves.
Tony’s duel with Michael Jai White later in the film is even better. Even with his abundant speed and power, Tony faces a genuine challenge in the size and strength advantage Reed holds, along with his ability to deftly keep pace with his nimble adversary. White actually snags quite a few of the moments to make the audience wince and say “Oooooohh!” in this scene, such as intercepting Tony’s aerial attack with a powerful side kick (every Taekwondo practitioner in the world has experienced this at least once and can attest that it’s not fun to be on the receiving end). Thereís even a bit of a laugh thrown into the match when Reed literally stonewalls Tony’s attack with a chest bump which sends him back several feet. Once again, Tony’s Muay Thai shin kicks help him to level the playing field and are absolutely wince-worthy every time one lands with the dull impact sound effect accompanying it.
The finale sees our heroes at an airfield attempting to put an end to Dragovic’s operation once and for all, and here Tony gets the chance on offer up one last helping of his aerial attacks and stiff lower-leg kicks for the audience. In the interests of avoiding spoilers, there is perhaps a slight missed opportunity with the ending, in that one action sequence may have been better incorporated into the film by saving it for the very end. However, it’s a minor point at worst, if even any issue at all really. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be too buzzed about the action scenes you’ve just seen overall and leaving on a high!
“Skin Trade” delivers exactly what it promises, and never needs a single moment to catch its breath. It could’ve been a very bleak and depressing film, given its subject matter (a caption during the end credits gives the chilling statistics on human trafficking), but it manages the delicate balancing act of being an exhilarating martial arts action thriller while raising awareness of a real-world problem.
- Dolph Lundgren began writing “Skin Trade” in 2007 after reading about a van full of thirty girls that had been smuggled into the United States from Mexico. The van was abandoned by the smugglers along the U.S-Mexican border, and all of the girls inside eventually died from heat stroke and suffocation.
- Michael Jai White and Celina Jade have also both appeared on the television series “Arrow”, in the roles of Bronze Tiger and Shado, respectively.
- Dolph Lundgren previously appeared with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in “Showdown in Little Tokyo”, alongside the late Brandon Lee, and in “Bridge of Dragons” under the direction of acclaimed action filmmaker Isaac Florentine.