Who would have thought that after bursting onto the scene in 1996 as a loudmouth, Quan-loving jock in Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy “Jerry Maguire” that ten short years later Cuba Gooding Jr. would be going blow-for-blow with Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Wesley Snipes in the direct-to-DVD action niche? Of course, unlike those other actors, Gooding has actually maintained a steady and very diverse career that involves dramatic TV roles and supporting turns in Hollywood A-list films. Gooding’s latest direct-to-DVD offering is “The Devil’s Tomb” (previously “Ice 44”), a horror-action thriller that puts the actor in combat fatigues and behind an M16, a place he’s become increasingly comfortable. Who knew Radio would grow up to become such a convincing gung-ho action movie star?
“The Devil’s Tomb” has Gooding Jr. playing Mack, the stoic, haunted leader of a small squad of mercenaries that hire out for dangerous missions. Why? Probably because they’re badass that way. Their latest job has them escorting a CIA spook (Valerie Cruz) to a Middle Eastern archaeological site that has gone dark. Once inside the underground facility, the unit is sealed off, and quickly learns that the previous inhabitants had purposefully shut down the place in order to prevent whatever was inside with them from leaving. Whatever it is, it has the power to make people see things, including their secret desires, regrets, and sins. As revelations come to the fore, and identities and ulterior motives are revealed, getting out alive seems to be the least of the unit’s worries.
Plot wise, “The Devil’s Tomb” treads familiar territory, with the usual bunch of confident soldiers heading into a dangerous situation cracking jokes and making fun of the new guy and civvies until the shit hits the fan, after which their gung-ho attitudes give way to stupid mistakes as they’re picked off one by one. Gooding Jr. does a serviceable job as the leader of the unit, though his character is pretty one-dimensional for much of the film. If the screenplay by Keith Kjornes didn’t keep flashing back to a previous mission by the unit that involved their last leader (Ray Winstone), we wouldn’t think ol Mack has much of a personality. The slowly revealing flashbacks tell us there’s pathos with this guy, and we need to pay attention. Of course, dragging out the flashback by showing it in short 20-second snippets gets tedious after a while. The entire flashback lasts for about a minute of screentime, give or take, but somehow the filmmakers manage to drag it out for an entire movie. Talk about judicious use of footage!
The film features a capable supporting cast, with the exception of Taryn Manning as the unit’s medic. After seeing her in multiple films, I’ve come to the conclusion that Manning was born to play two roles, and two types of roles only: slutty best friends and strung out street junkies. (To be sure, she’s basically playing the latter archetype in the second half of the movie.) Putting Manning in military camo and getting people to call her “Doc” brings a silly smile to my face. Fortunately, the rest of the cast is solid, including Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ Stephanie Jacobsen as Yoshi. Packing heat and looking good in camo was never a problem for Jacobsen, and it isn’t one here. Zack Ward’s carefree Nickels and Franky G as the unit’s musclehead are entertaining, while Valerie Cruz, as the accompanying civvy strikes a fine pose, but then again, I’ve always had a crush on her, so maybe I’m being a tad biased. I could have done without the twitchy Steve Urkel hacker, though. You would think our badass merc unit would be too badass for a bespectacled nerd, but you’d be wrong.
The film has back-up veteran genre support courtesy of Ron Perlman, who spends most of his time reading his script into a recording, but does play a more pivotal role later on in the film’s final act. Rob Zombie muse Bill Moseley plays a survivor who spends his time quoting bible scripture and bouncing back from bullet wounds. Meanwhile, metal dude/pretentious poet Henry Rollins plays against type as a priest who babbles a lot and runs around nervously. Basically, it’s Rollins trying to act as unRollins like as possible, and coming across as silly at best, “go back for some acting lessons, buddy” at worst. Ray Winstone has a cameo as Mack’s former commanding officer, who figures prominently into Mack’s flashbacks and our hero’s moral shortcomings.
“The Devil’s Tomb” is directed by Jason Connery, and if the name sounds familiar, that’s because Connery is, as you may have guessed, the son of Sean Connery of James Bond fame. The younger Connery actually started his film career as an actor before graduating to directing. To be perfectly honest with you, I was expecting an amateurish horror film after learning that Connery was directing, but in only his second time out as director, Connery has turned in a surprisingly polished horror-action film. The movie moves well, and the characters are given plenty of time to breathe before the action stuff kicks in. The scares are not very scary, but then again, when you’ve seen as many horror films as I have, it’s hard to scare me with characters spitting vomit into each other’s mouths. For the most part, “The Devil’s Tomb” has more of the squeamish quotient than actual scares.
As is the case with many of today’s genre offerings, “The Devil’s Tomb” doesn’t seem especially interested in bucking conventions. Then again, the reason why those conventions have stuck around for so long is because they work. The ending also seems too perfunctory, with, in my opinion, the wrong character(s) surviving. Jason Connery does a fine enough job of giving us more of the same but wrapped in a briskly paced and entertaining package. The film is rarely boring, and although we’ve seen these same characters in these same situations many times before, there is something to be said about doing them well. If nothing else, “The Devil’s Tomb” fields better production values than your average horror movie retread, and it features a better cast than it probably deserves.
Jason Connery (director) / Keith Kjornes (screenplay)
CAST: Cuba Gooding Jr. … Mack
Ray Winstone … Blakely
Ron Perlman … Wesley
Taryn Manning … Doc
Henry Rollins … Fulton
Valerie Cruz … Elissa
Franky G … Hammer
Bill Moseley … Prof. Duncan
Stephanie Jacobsen … Yoshi
Zack Ward … Nickels
Jason London … Hicks
Brandon Fobbs … Click