Dolph Lundgren has been in some low down dirty dogs in his time in the film business. We’re talking the kind of action movies so underfunded that most of the ‘action’ consists of exposition in barely-dressed sets, or whose plot involves a whole lot of walking in the desert. Often, Dolph is the only member of the cast with an extensive list of credits behind his name, telling a viewer just about all they need to know about a flick’s objective quality. But, fine objective quality is not what we’re after here at Shitty Movie Sundays. Dolph Lundgren is a prolific b-movie actor, and even the worst movie in which he’s ever appeared has something for the devoted connoisseur of substandard cinema.
From 2004, Retrograde is a direct-to-video sci-fi action flick sprung from the mind of director Christopher Kulikowski, who also has the story credit. Producers Tom Reeve and Ginaluca Curti handled the screenwriting duties. One has to have done a deep dive into late 20th and early 21st century schlock to be familiar with those three names, but there’s one more person involved with this film worth knowing, and that’s Joseph Merhi, who has an executive producer credit. His IMDb page is a treat. Whenever I see his name attached to a project, I get the same tingles as when I see Dolph’s.
It’s the future! 2204! There, humanity has been decimated by a nasty plague of the flesh-eating variety. Everything looks hopeless for civilization, but there is one last, desperate hope.
Epidemiologists of the future know the plague originated from some meteorite fragments found in the ice of Antarctica by a scientific expedition in the year 2004. The plan is to send a spaceship back in time, prevent the space rocks from being discovered or, failing that, wipe the expedition off the face of the planet to keep the plague germs from reaching civilization.
In command of the mission is Captain John Foster (Lundgren), a gruff and world-weary tough guy who lost his wife and son to the plague. Everything goes smoothly at the beginning. However, once the future folk arrive in 2004, the commando portion of the mission, led by human-sized thumb Dalton (Joe Montana, but not that Joe Montana) stages a mutiny. Dalton and his men want no part in saving the future. They see the past as an opportunity — a place where their knowledge and future tech can enable them to seize riches and power to their evil hearts’ content. In a desperate move, Foster crashes their ship into the Antarctic ice, not far away from the doomed scientific expedition, and the movie is off and rolling.
The expedition is rumbling through the frozen waters of the Southern Ocean aboard the icebreaker Nathaniel Palmer. The crew of the vessel is the kind of motley sort one expects from a film like this. Decades of film history are awash with small ensembles in a close environment, each with their own eccentricities. The standouts in this one are loudmouthed Schrader (Joey Sagal), who financed the expedition and thinks the ship and everyone on it belongs to him; pothead researcher Mackenzie (Jamie Treacher, one of the film’s producers); fellow researcher, final girl, and audience surrogate Renee Diaz (Silvia De Santis); and skipper of the Nathaniel Palmer, Davies (Ken Samuels, who is an uncanny amalgamation of Lance Henriksen and Brian Thompson). There are other players — even a few with lines — but that’s it for the principals.
Foster’s spaceship crashed mightily, leading the expedition to set out on snowmobiles to investigate. They find an unconscious Foster in the snow, along with the meteorite fragments, and bring them back to the ship. In a fit of storytelling, it was the gouge made by the crashing spaceship that unearthed the meteorite fragments, and led the expedition to tool around where it otherwise wouldn’t be. The very expedition meant to save humankind appears to have begun the cycle of death. Is that tragedy, or irony? Anyway…
The rest of the film follows Foster’s efforts to convince the crew of the Nathaniel Palmer of the danger posed by both the plague and Dalton’s commandos, with some action scenes interspersed here and there. Remember above when I wrote about lots of exposition on barely dressed sets? Yeah, this is that kind of movie. The budget for the film was around two million bucks and, according to the internet, so it must be true, the film was shot in only a few weeks. Evidence of corner cutting is everywhere, from the interiors of the Nathaniel Palmer being not exactly seaworthy, to the costumes of Foster and his fellow time travelers. Their outfits are off the rack motorcycle leathers.
There’s also a ton of bad CGI effects. The shots of the spaceship orbiting Earth are cartoonish and reminiscent of video game cutscenes of the era, and the production had no working firearms, despite all the gunplay, so muzzle flashes are CGI, as well. Lots of suspension of disbelief is required while watching this flick.
Its greatest sins are in its pacing and storytelling, though. About a half hour in, viewers will know where this film is headed and how it’s going to end. It offers so little surprises that it’s almost impossible to keep one’s mind from wandering while watching. It’s boilerplate. It’s mailed in. It’s whatever other synonyms one can think of for a movie just short of declaring it outright boring. And that’s too bad, because it doesn’t seem as if much more effort would have been required to make this more of a lively flick.
Dalton is just the kind of silly bad guy a flick like this needs, and Montana played him to b-movie perfection. That is, he wouldn’t pass muster in a big budget action flick, but in something like Retrograde his hopeless unbelievability is endearing, in a way.
It wasn’t up to Montana to carry this film, though. That task belonged to Lundgren, and, unfortunately, he slept through most of his part, looking like he wanted to get this shoot over with as quickly as possible so he could move on to his next payday. For shame. I was hoping for the Dolph viewers got in something like Command Performance. Instead, we got the Dolph from Dead Trigger. And if you, dear reader, are nodding along in agreement with those references, you might be watching too many bad movies.
Retrograde is a middling shitty movie. It doesn’t soar, nor does it offend. It just is, and so slots into the Watchability Index at #254, displacing Assignment: Outer Space.