Fans of Thai martial arts star Tony Jaa who were left unsated after his all-too-brief appearance in Furious 7 should be more than happy with his turn in Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Skin Trade. Written and produced by Dolph Lundrgen, the veteran Swedish action star wisely gifts most of the heavy lifting (and kicking) to his diminutive co-star, as they team up to take down Ron Perlman’s crew of Serbian human traffickers.
New Jersey cop Nick Cassidy (Lundgren) has been on the trail of Viktor Dragovic (Perlman) and his sons for some time, when a shipping container full of dead young Thai girls shows up at the docks. In the ensuing firefight, Dragovic is apprehended, while his youngest son is killed. In retaliation, Cassidy’s home is attacked. Awaking from a coma to the news that his wife and teenage daughter are dead, Cassidy launches a one-man war against the Dragovics – and is soon bound for Thailand.
Meanwhile, Bangkok cop Tony Vitayakul (Jaa) is working the same case from the opposite end, investigating nightclubs and abductions in the Thai capital. He is also involved with club worker Min (Celina Jade), who was sold into the sex trade by her own mother, and is now Tony’s informant. Before Cassidy’s arrival, Tony is met by crooked FBI agent Reed (Michael Jai White), who attempts to set Cassidy up as a deranged villain and put the Thai authorities between him and the Dragovics.
Directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham (Beautiful Boxer, Pleasure Factory), and shot on location in Thailand and Vancouver, Skin Trade plays perfectly to the Friday night beer and pizza crowd, without entertaining any loftier delusions. The film does close with a scrawl about the 20-30 million women who are victims of human trafficking each year, but otherwise the subject is merely an excuse to team Jaa with Lundgren to go kick some scumbag ass.
Skin Trade boasts an impressive roster of genre performers within its supporting ranks, with familiar faces like Peter Weller and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa putting in brief yet solid turns. Sadly, Celina Jade, who has previously shown herself to be a more than capable screen fighter, is relegated to damsel in distress, while Michael Jai White manages to score the film’s best fight scene – opposite Jaa – but is otherwise also criminally underused.
Dolph Lundgren and Ron Perlman go neck and neck in numerous snarling competitions, both trying desperately to out-do each other’s grizzled, world-weary performance. This leaves the stage open for Tony Jaa to take centre stage, and the film always feels at its most comfortable when watching the acrobatic performer jump through car windows or over fences, before employing his elbows and knees to crack skulls and restore justice. Jaa has even picked up the vagaries of the English language, which bodes well for more cultural crossover appearances in the future.
Elsewhere, Skin Trade does play very rough around the edges. The screenplay, penned by Lundgren and Steven Elder, before going through a couple of rewrites, including one by Universal Soldier saviour John Hyams, never does more than scratch the surface of its Thai setting or the horrors of human trafficking. The film’s first act plays rather awkwardly, as it sets up Cassidy and Tony independently, whilst also establishing Dragovic’s villainous empire, but finds its rhythm once the action transplants to Thailand.
While a far cry from Ong-Bak and unlikely to make major waves in the martial arts arena, Skin Trade is a solid step in Tony Jaa’s career renaissance. With SPL II also on the horizon, 2015 may well be the year he regains his rightful position as one of the world’s foremost action stars. That said, there’s little in the way of onscreen chemistry between Jaa and his lumbering co-star, despite Lundgren playing the broken over-the-hill hero with modest conviction. He even leaves a foot in the door for a sequel, should the figures add up, and with a sharper script that better exploits its unique surroundings, a Skin Trade sequel would be a very welcome proposition.