I don't understand why Hollywood seems to think that big, hulking body-builders, wrestlers and martial artists spouting monosyllabic sentences will somehow translate into box office gold. Okay, so Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the biggest draws of the '80s and '90s, and more recently, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has carved out quite a nice celluloid career for himself. But for every Schwarzenegger or Johnson, there are a dozen other Steve "Stone Cold" Austins and John Cenas, who've done nothing but marginal B-films and made-for-cable atrocities destined to play at 2am on TBS.
Now we can add Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic to that more unfortunate list. A one-time championship kickboxer turned mixed martial artist, Filipovic tried his hand at Hollywood with 'Ultimate Force,' a 2005 thrift-store military action thriller that didn't even make it to theaters. Languishing on the shelf for over a year, the film finally found distribution via a direct-to-video release on DVD last year, and now BCI has brought the magic to high-def, choosing 'Ultimate Force' to be their first-ever HD DVD release (the title also hit Blu-ray day-and-date).
Typical of most third-tier action films (which seem equate confusion with complexity), the plot of 'Ultimate Force' is quite convoluted. Filipovic plays Axon Rey, a heavily decorated war hero and former tactical police officer who has been recruited by a covert government organization to fight enemies of the State. Schooled in martial arts and the latest high-tech weapons, Rey (now code-named "Sphinx") is an elite member of the Sanction Division of SATO (State Anti-Terrorist Organization), a clandestine collective of assassins under the direct control of SIN (State Intelligence Network).
Sphinx failed his last assassination mission, and though normally that would prompt the state to simply execute him, since Sphinx is their top assassin, his "controller" decides not to eliminate him -- at least not immediately. Instead, he sends him to a rehabilitation island called Gulag 7 where Sphinx must face five other government operatives who have been sent to the island for various reasons. Refusal to fight means death, so now it's kill or be killed as Sphinx must fight his way off the island.
'Ultimate Force' is the kind of silly, wholly unbelievable action farce that Cannon Films might have produced back in the '80s (it probably would have starred Chuck Norris or Jean-Claude Van Damme). Written and directed by Mark Burson (also responsible for the direct-to-video disasters 'Bullethead' and 'The Courier'), unfortunately it's woefully inept on virtually every level. There are only two types of scenes in 'Ultimate Force' -- characters spouting endless exposition (required to explain the ridiculous plot), or poorly executed action that's so jumbled and incoherent that it's nearly impossible to tell what is going on.
To be fair, 'Ultimate Force' deserves meager props for at least aspiring to ape legitimate films like the Jason Bourne series, but that still can't compensate for the fact that the film's construction is shockingly incompetent. Burson doesn't seem to understand basic screen direction, so Filipovic seems to magically morph all around a scene, and we get so many fast-cut inserts of limbs, weapons, etc., that viewers are almost guaranteed to walk away from the film with a headache. To Burson's credit, he does adequately hide the clear acting deficiencies of Filipovic and the rest of the cast, if only by not requiring them to say much. But even when he's just busting heads, Filipovic has nowhere near the charisma of The Rock, or even Steven Seagal on a bad day.
I'm sure there will be some readers who will refuse to believe any film can be this bad, and will insist that there must be some modicum of entertainment value to even the most worthless, derivative piece of celluloid. But trust me on this one -- I love a good camp-fest as much as the next guy, but this ain't it. The true definition of a time-waster, 'Ultimate Force' doesn't even have the decency to be unintentionally funny.
'Ultimate Force' was indie distributor BCI's first-ever high-def release, and they've released the low-budget actioner on both HD DVD and Blu-ray with identical 1080i/MPEG-2 encodes. To be fair to BCI, it doesn't appear they had much to work with, as the source is hardly in tip-top shape. Unfortunately, whatever the case, the result is a high-def presentation that's not even passable.
The source material is weak, with a very grainy and noisy image and slight instances of dirt and blemishes. Blacks are pretty solid, but contrast often feels either a bit flat, or suffers from blooming in shots with very harsh lighting. The film's colors are bumped up, which gives them some fuzziness although they don't bleed too terribly. Likewise, detail is average at best -- medium and wide shots are lacking in sharpness and depth, and although close-ups fare a little better, they don't come close to what I normally expect from HD. Finally, the encode holds up okay considering the circumstances, but there is obvious noise and some posterization during slow fades and dissolves.
As with the video, the audio elements utilized by BCI for 'Ultimate Force' are underwhelming to say the least. This is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (192kbps) presentation only, and given the action-oriented nature of the film, that's a real liability.
There is obviously no surround presence. The mix is all from the front, but even here, stereo separation is lacking. There is a bit of distinction to action effects (loud bursts of gunfire, etc.), but the rest of the mix, including the bland score, all mushes together. Dynamics are hardly notable, with a flat low end and no real spark to the rest of the frequency spectrum. Typical of cheaper productions, the whole affair has a tiresome brittleness, as well. Dialogue reproduction is nothing more than serviceable, with low tones often sounding muffled even at high volumes. Don't expect very much here at all.
BCI has carried over all of the extras from the he standard DVD edition of 'Ultimate Force' for their first high-def port, but it's a hollow trophy in this case, as there isn't much here beyond the overtly promotional.
'Ultimate Force' is another generic rip-off of the action flick glory days of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, only coming about twenty years too late. That might have given the film a certain camp appeal, but even in that regard I found it unwatchable. This debut HD DVD release from BCI is probably what you would expect for a flick like this. The video and audio are limited by the source material, while the extras are all surface. If you happen to be interested in this title, the relatively cheap $19.95 list price is just about all it has going for it.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.