Back in 2005, while at the Slamdance Film Festival, I happened to catch a film called Sledge: The Untold Story. A sharp, witty spoof of the action genre, Sledge was a mockumentary about Frank Sledge, a celebrated action star from the 1980s, who had fallen on hard times, and was looking to make a comeback. I thoroughly enjoyed Sledge, and have been awaiting its release on DVD for four years. But now that it is out, under the title Confessions of an Action Star, I find myself a bit conflicted, and find it difficult to look at the film with any objectivity.
The problem with Confessions of an Action Star is that it is not as good as Sledge: The Untold Story. Having been re-edited in addition to retitled, Confessions runs noticeably shorter than Sledge, and has a different flow. In many ways it is the same film, but with a crucial character removed almost completely, the film finds itself without some of the connective tissue that held it all together. This shorter version, while still being entertaining, simply isn't as good as the longer cut. At first I thought this was my imagination--that perhaps I was remembering the earlier version I had seen a bit too fondly. But I found the longer cut on line, and it is a better movie.
David Leitch stars as small town Wisconsin boy Francis Sledgewick, who was trained as a dancer, went to Hollywood, and was eventually transformed into action star Frank Sledge. The mockumentary traces the life and career of Frank, who starts out in Hollywood as a Chippendale's dancer, only to be discovered by the producer of low budget action schlock Bloodfight. Despite the fact he has no acting skills (or talent), nor any martial arts skills, Frank is cast in the lead of Bloodfight 2, the success of which leads to a career in a string of action hits like Below the Law, Under Attack, Jimbo and Double Contact. Of course, fame and success go to Frank's head, and soon he is spiraling out of control in a storm of booze and drugs. But after years spent as a washed up has been, he stands poised for a spectacular comeback, if he can just recapture the magic of what made him such a great star in the first place.
Confessions of an Action Star is filled with small supporting performances by actors like Eric Roberts, Angelina Jolie, Ernie Hudson, and Sean Young, all playing themselves, who help to sell the idea of Frank Sledge, former action star looking to make a comeback. But the movie works because of David Leitch, who wrote and co-produced the film, and plays Frank with a bit of sad sack naiveté. Lietch, who has an impressive career as a stuntman is not the best actor in the world, but he is believable as Frank, who himself is not much of an actor, and seems to go from being confused to disappointed most of the time. Frank can't hold his own opposite other actors, nor can he go toe to toe with real stunt fighters. By contrast, however, Leitch holds his own opposite more polished performers, and really shines during the physical performances.
Confessions of an Action Star is at it's most effective when it is spoofing real action films--primarily Steven Segal films, but also Rambo, The Matrix and quite a few others. The film also works when it is showing the behind-the-scenes insanity on the set of Frank's movies, offering an insider's glimpse of what it's like on the set of low budget action films. But the film has trouble holding together the narrative aspects that aren't either spoofs, or dealing directly with the production of Frank's movies. In other words, whenever the film is trying to tell the more human side of the Frank Sledge's story, it has trouble keeping itself together. This is in part because of the edits that were made that largely removed the character Richard Orchid, an obsessed fan turned documentary filmmaker chronicling the life and career of Frank Sledge. Orchid's character, who was a bit over-the-top and ridiculous (not to mention hilarious), provided a counter balance for the rest of the film--his character is so outlandish that it makes the rest of the film seem more grounded in reality. But that balance is missing. Orchid's character also helped propel the story, serving as the driving force behind the story that's unfolding. But without him, parts of the film either flounder or fall flat.
Despite the problems I had with the movie, Confessions of an Action Star is not a bad film--in fact it is very entertaining in parts. It's just not as good as Sledge: The Untold Story. But despite the disappointment at the changes made to Confessions, when it works, it really works. There are some inspired moments, including a training montage that is a shot-for-shot mash-up of scenes from Rocky III, Footloose, Dirty Dancing and Flashdance. There's also a great spoof of The Matrix, done as a musical with dance routines that is especially fun. At the end of the day, Confessions of an Action Star is a fun film, with some truly hilarious moments, and great performances.