Martial artist Scott Adkins stars in "El Gringo" as a popular action staple, the lone man with a big bag o' money. Wandering into a small Mexican town, it's not long before an endless wave of cartoon bad guys puts a bounty on his head. He responds with fists and feet. And there's your movie!
Eduardo Rodriguez opts for spaghetti western themes and hoary character archetypes that simply reveal he's mistaken Robert Rodriguez for Sergio Leone. Freeze frames highlight colorful character names (El Jefe is one), though they don't really get much to do to emphasize their identities amidst the action. In the middle of this chaos, Adkins shares a wry smile -- he's handsome, but amused more than amusing, and it's a testament to his notable skill that you root for him to get this money out of there.
Christian Slater shows up late as a corrupt cop looking for the cash, but as the film limps towards ninety minutes, it's clear his "celebrity" was what they were chasing by hiring him for a large but inconsequential role. "El Gringo" gets bogged down in overly-plotty nonsense, but the fight choreography and shootouts are fast-paced and inventive, allowing the film to come alive in spite of its time-wasting peripherals. Surprisingly, it's the most lively and inventive of the After Dark Action films, though that merely highlights the weirdly downbeat and dour nature of each picture. [B-]
"The Philly Kid"
After an elaborate only-in-the-movies misunderstanding that leaves a police officer dead, young Dillon (Wes Chatham) takes a trip to the hoosegow. Emerging ten years later, he finds old pal Jake (Devon Sawa: he's looked better) in deep debt with some shady gamblers. Jake manages to introduce Dillon to the world of Mixed Martial Arts, and suddenly A Star Is Born. But Dillion's attempts to stay on the straight and narrow are compromised by the same hanger-ons you'll find in the darkness of any sport, and soon he's pulled in all directions by the needs, and soon the threats, of others.
Chatham is a fairly humorless, wooden lead, but he looks good in the ring, and the combat sequences are vivid and believable. Too bad about everything else: new mentor L.A. Jim (Neal McDonough) is a compendium of every tough manager in any sports movie you've ever seen, while outside threats like Arthur Letts (Michael Jai White, essentially a cameo) simply comprise a line of indistinguishable grunts. Moreover, poor Sawa looks like he's been through some pretty ugly real-life ordeals to get to where he's at, and seeing him playing a chatty, possibly-diseased ball of impulse vices feels like the film's only authentic element. "The Philly Kid" never gains traction as a film about anything other than what it's about -- you've seen it before you've seen it. [C-]