Review by Daniel Lima
In a just society, Michael Jai White would be one of the biggest stars in the world. A capable screen presence able to play a stoic action hero or lovable goofball, an incredible martial artist whose muscular bulk belies his speed and precision, he has nevertheless been relegated to the dregs of the straight-to-video market. He has rarely worked with directors capable of utilizing his talents to the fullest extent, never mind building a good movie around him. One would hope The Island, his latest DTV vehicle, would be an exception. One would be disappointed.
White plays an LAPD cop who returns to the island he grew up on after the murder of his brother. His investigation quickly runs afoul of the island’s wealthiest resident, played Edoardo Costa. With the help of his contacts on the island, including an ex-wife played by Gilian White, he hopes to bring whoever killed his brother to justice.
Even by the standards of low budget straight-to-video action films, this feels nondescript. It says a lot that the island that this film takes place on, which is supposed to be so central to the identity of all its residents, is never given a specific location or even a name. It is obviously meant to be Caribbean — shot on location in Saint Kitts and Nevis, boasting an almost entirely black cast and accents of varying degrees of quality — but the lack of even that basic level of specificity is revealing.
Nothing is done to sell the idea that this is a Caribbean island with its own unique culture and way of life. There are no crowd scenes, no shots of a town center teeming with people going about their day. Each location is disconnected from all the others, and regardless of whether it’s a police station, a local bar, or a family home, each has the look of a private residence made to suit the needs of a low budget production. A bit of B-roll drone shots of the island aside, this easily could have been shot in a couple houses in Los Angeles.
The visual style similarly lacks any flair. Director Shaun Paul Piccinino is a journeyman who has filled a variety of production roles, though most of his directorial credits are on TV shows and Netflix Christmas movies, which have a reputation for anonymous directors there to keep a production on time and on budget. That seems to be the ethos behind The Island -- a flat look that doesn’t reflect the tropical setting, plain production design, rudimentary shot-reverse shot dialogue scenes. This is par the course at this low of a budget, and it’s more bland than outright bad, but considering the potential of the setting, it’s almost jarring to see it so underutilized.
The narrative itself is a familiar one, following familiar beats, leading to a familiar end. It’s hard to fault an action movie like this for being predictable, especially when it moves along at such an easy pace, but the film curiously makes a particular effort to alleviate dramatic tension. So many scenes reveal crucial bits of information to the audience, but not the characters, meaning much of the procedural is simply the protagonists catching up to what the audience knows. That, or plot points are introduced only to be made irrelevant a few scenes later. Considering most people are presumably watching this for the action set pieces, this feels like an unforced error. Just find excuses to put people who need to get kicked in front of Michael Jai White.
Those action set pieces are the one thing this film gets entirely right. Among Piccinino’s many jobs include second unit director and stuntman — as well as being a martial artist in his own right — and that experience pays off in the fight scenes. He adopts a very classical approach to showcasing White’s fast, sharp movement. The camera pulls back to show the entirety of the bodies in motion, with the fights edited in longer takes than usual. It’s clear that these were not scenes shot with extensive coverage to be built in post. Adding a wrinkle is the incorporation of joint locks and manipulation, leading to some impressively intricate choreography. This is almost certainly a contribution by Ron Balicki, a silat practitioner and student of martial arts legend Dan Inosanto, who served as the film’s action director. The shootouts are by-the-numbers affairs by comparison, but in the fights, the film comes alive.
As mediocre as the other craft elements are, they do carry a certain charm. The performances aren’t commendable, but listening to people try and fail to deliver a Caribbean accent never fails to get a laugh. Looking around the locations and noting background elements like a wanted poster made haphazardly in Word is its own brand of fun. As frustrating as it is that the setting lacks any personality, it becomes progressively funny to hear the island solely be referred to as “the island” in one sentence after the other, as if its actual name is taboo. Those sillier elements prevent the film from becoming an outright slog.
Sadly, there isn’t enough here for The Island to stand out among a sea of direct-to-video releases. With just a bit more of a sense of place, or a more textured visual language, The Island could have been a solid entry into the DTV canon. Instead, it has to settle for being one of Michael Jai White’s better works... a distinction that says remarkably little. That said, the set pieces here are good enough that if Piccinino tries his hand at another action film, I’ll be there day one.
The Island is available on VOD beginning July 21.