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To a fan of the unapologetic 80s action film, the cast of "The Butcher" is a huge draw. The underrated Eric Roberts helms this mob revenge tale and is aided by Robert Davi, Keith David, and Geoffrey Lewis; even Michael Ironside and Vernon Wells make brief cameo appearances, although the latter is easy to miss. Writer and director Jesse V. Johnson definitely won't be winning any Oscars for his work here, but that doesn't mean it's not an entertaining ride.
We meet our (anti)hero, Merle Hench (get it, he's a mob henchman) doing what he does best, cracking skulls. There's a little twist though, Merle has lightened up a bit and has retirement on the horizon. Despite his two decades of loyalty to boss Murdoch (Robert Davi), Merle is the subject of ridicule and is passed over for promotions, which are instead handed out to young hotheads. Unsurprisingly, one of these new hotshots perceives Merle as a threat and sets him up for a robbery. The brash newcomer quickly gets a taste of old school skill and Merle appears to get away with $750,000 in cash belonging to a group more deadly than Murdoch's. Faced with mounting debts to a bookie (Keith David), Merle is at a crossroad in his life, joined by a local waitress, Jackie; the pair prepare to hit the road, but not before settling the score with Merle's past.
"The Butcher" is very generic in its storytelling, but never makes any indication of being more than a B-movie. You're not going to enjoy a movie like this for an innovative, intricate plot though; you're going to enjoy it for unrepentant tough guy posturing and the bloodiest shootouts to grace the screen since "Hard Boiled." The whole affair is kept on track with a slick performance by Eric Roberts, who shows here that his memorable performance in "The Dark Knight" was no fluke. Roberts has a natural screen presence and makes Merle an instantly likable character. In the action department, Merle generally sticks to his guns (literally) and I'd rank him pretty high on the list of great movie gunslingers.
The supporting cast is for the most part solid, with two notable exceptions. Irina Björklund's performance as Jackie would normally be serviceable for this type of movie, but her stilted performance is very awkward when put next to the more relaxed Roberts. Robert Davi, a normally solid actor stumbles here as Murdoch. Davi was not the right choice for an Irish mobster and his accent needed a lot of work. Keith David is the most memorable supporting player and his work here makes me ask the same question I ask of Roberts, "why aren't these guys getting more mainstream work?"
Finally, the action scenes deserve mentioning, since the final third of the film features some truly brutal shootouts, which like the rest of the film, at times, aren't taken too seriously. Like Léon in "Léon," Merle is "indestructible, bullets slide off him." Director Johnson deserves a lot of admiration for delivering top-notch action to the audience, that combined with inspired casting, pushes this well above the quality of the schlock that is marketed as action in theaters (i.e. "12 Rounds," "Fast and Furious"). The only place "The Butcher" really falters is with its first act pacing. A little too much time is spent getting to know Merle. This portion of the film could have benefited from some tighter editing.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer reflects the low budget, straight to DVD status of the feature. The level of detail varies at times, and while mostly solid, heavy grain often causes the background to be a bit of a distraction. Colors are handled well and highlight the vibrant look of the film.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital English audio presentation is adequate but lacking for such an action heavy film. The gunfights lack the kick one would expect and whether this is a problem with the mix or an intentional choice, it stands out nonetheless. Dialogue is presented clearly and without distortion, and despite the more subdued mix, surrounds are used to proper effect.
A behind-the-scenes featurette is the disc's primary bonus feature. It's a short talking-heads piece with a lot congratulatory praise. I didn't find it very insightful one bit. The film's trailer is included as are sneak peeks at "Far Cry" (Uwe Boll's latest video-game adaptation) and "Alone in the Dark 2" (a sequel to another Boll film).
When humdrum, watered down fluff like "12 Rounds" gets a shot in theaters and an enjoyable B-action piece like "The Butcher" gets shoveled onto DVD (2 years after filming ended), something isn't right with Hollywood. "The Butcher" will please your average action fan with its simple plot, hard-hitting action, and hopefully leave you wanting to see Eric Roberts get his shot at a big-screen comeback. Recommended.