I come in peace.
And you go in pieces, assh*le.
By Jason Hink
It’s fall, and that means the holiday season is upon us. Boarding my private bullet-tram deep into my oceanic West Coast vault housing my top-secret Blu-ray collection for the safety of collectors everywhere, I’m looking for something to watch that’s holiday-appropriate, but not too family-friendly. I hit the brakes when I happen upon one of my all time favorite VHS rentals from my youth, 1990’s Dark Angel (aka I Come in Peace), the sci-fi buddy-cop romp starring Dolph Lundgren, Brian Benben, Betsy Brantley, Matthias Hues, Jay Bilas, and David Ackroyd, and directed by Craig R. Baxley and produced by Vision International.
After years of despair, it was finally released to DVD by the MGM Classics Collection in 2011 on a manufactured-on-demand “burned” disc. But a few years later, the good folks at Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory sub-label gave us the definitive version–a Blu-ray edition featuring new interviews with Lundgren, Benben and Baxley!
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Houston, Texas, 1990. Home of the Oilers, Astros, and Enron. Houston police Detective Jack Caine (Dolph Lundgren, Rocky IV, Masters of the Universe) is in the midst of an 80s-typical feud with the White Boys, a gang of white collar heroin traffickers he’s working undercover to infiltrate when his partner (Alex Morris) is found out and killed. Caine, momentarily pulled away by a nearby store robbery, returns to the scene to find not only his partner dead, but members of the White Boys as well.
According to coroner Diane Pallone (Betsy Brantley, The Princess Bride, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) the dead White Boys were murdered by nefarious means, with puncture wounds to their foreheads. Conveniently, Det. Caine is dating Diane (Jack and Diane…get it?), so he gets the scoop. Caine’s superior, Captain Malone (Jim Haynie), tells Caine he’s off the case, and Diane isn’t happy with him either; he’s erratic, he disappears fore 8 days at a time (not a week–8 days!), and people all around him are dying. But you can’t keep a good cop down, especially one weaned on 80s action tropes…so he’s allowed to stay on the case. But now, the FBI are brought in.
Enter Special Agent Arwood “Larry” Smith (Brian Benben, TV‘s Dream On, Private Practice), who teams up with Det. Caine and discovers the unique murder weapon at the crime scene: a CD–yes, a killer compact disc–with wild magnetic properties that propel it through the room, destroying anything in its path (only a stereo speaker can stop it due to the speaker’s magnetic properties).
Does this sound wild enough for you yet? No? Good, because the enemy turns out to be a super-powered, super-tall, white-eyed extraterrestrial from another planet named Talec (German martial artist Matthias Hues, Kickboxer 2: The Road Back, No Retreat, No Surrender 2) and he’s the world’s biggest junkie; his mission is to find and extract heroin from the bodies of those he kills to transport back to his home planet as proof that Earth is the place to get it, which will result in his bringing an army of these aliens to conquer the planet. Hot on his tail is good-guy alien Azeck (played by ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas), who passes these details on to Det. Caine and Agent Smith. When Azeck is injured and ultimately dies, Caine and Smith are Earth’s last hope to stop Talec from returning to his home planet, surely signaling the end to our planet as we know it!
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I saw Dark Angel in 1991 via VHS rental (under its US title, I Come in Peace) at my aunt and uncle’s when I was 15. One of the fun things about staying over at my Uncle Ricardo’s (his name is Rick, but dad nicknamed him Ricardo after the great Mr. Montalban, jokey family that we are) was that he loved action, kung fu, and martial arts films–and he and my aunt were prolific video store patrons, so those weekends when I stayed over at their place was always a treat because I knew we’d be laid out in front of the TV on beanbags, popcorn in hand (the ice cream came later), watching the best exploitation the video store had to offer. Needless to say, I slept little on those weekends; it wasn’t on on the agenda when films like this were on the docket.
And Dark Angel is one of those films that stayed with me. Revisiting it today via Scream Factory’s Blu-ray, it’s easy to see why I remember it so clearly and fondly. For a second-tier action film made for $5-7 million, it plays like a top-shelf Schwarzenegger/Stallone/Willis actioner from the era thanks to the competent effort of stuntman-turned-director Craig R. Baxley. What the film may lack story or acting is more than made up for in its pacing and spectacular action sequences, with dangerous pre-CGI, pre-green screen practical stunts, many performed by the actors themselves (Example direction: Guys, we’re gonna need you to say your line, hit your mark, then run as fast as you can while we blow up that car next to you). All of this grounds the sci-fi aspects of the story in a realism that makes it less cartoony than, say, a modern-day, CGI-heavy Marvel superhero epic. Coincidentally, Baxley’s directorial debut, 1988’s Action Jackson, holds similar memories for me–it was a rental I saw at my aunt’s and uncle’s that was equally fun, action-packed and memorable. Years later, it made sense when I learned the same guy had directed both features.
Director Baxley essentially plucked popular Rocky villains (Carl Weathers in Action Jackson and Lundgren in Dark Angel) and attempted to ape A-level action films. The dialogue in Dark Angel is at times goofy and stilted, but shows an improvement over Action Jackson‘s two years earlier. With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis headlining the era’s blockbusters of the genre, and Mel Gibson, Eddie Murphy, and Chuck Norris running adjacent, there was little room for the likes of Lundgren and Weathers to become equal stars, but thank the film gods for directors like Craig R. Baxley who cast them in films like these for those lonely weekend nights when we just wanted a little bit more of that silly, smart-assy 80s-action fun on the weekends.
Like Die Hard, Dark Angel is one of those “holiday films.” It’s subtle, but early scenes in the film place it squarely around Christmastime. Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Of course it is. Is Dark Angel? Yes. Should you watch them back-to-back this Christmas? Absolutely. (In one scene, Lundgren’s Caine cheesily tells a man who he thinks ransacked his home, “Either you’re Santa Claus or you’re dead, pal!”) Notably, Dark Angel was written by Leonard Maas Jr., which is actually a pen name for screenwriter David Koepp, who penned the screenplays for Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He also created the CBS TV series Hack (2002-2004).
And if you haven’t picked up the Scream Factory Blu-ray, do it! as of this writing, it’s still affordable (less than $10!). Extras include the aforementioned interviews with director Craig R. Baxley and actors Dolph Lundgren and Brian Benben, a theatrical trailer, and an image gallery with some cool posters and imagery I hadn’t previously seen. Grab it before it goes out of print!
Dark Angel opened in US theaters on September 28, 1990 as I Come in Peace and made little impact at the box office (Lundgren, unfortunately, was never going to be an A-level attraction), scoring $1.9 million that weekend on 1,041 screens. Overall, it managed a little over $4.3 million in total over its theatrical run (placing 127th out of 250 theatrical films that year) against a budget that was “$5-to-7 million,” according to the director. But I can only guess that it did great business on the rental market; the film has that direct-to-video feel, after all…and it wasn’t until years later that I learned it was a theatrically-released film.
Back in 2016, Matthias Hues hinted a Dark Angel sequel. Dolph Lundgren battling extraterrestrials again in 21st-century Houston? Count me in.