The fact that this movie is set in eternally balmy Texas and is about Dolph Lundgren trying to kill a hulking Edgar Winter from outer space who shoots razor-sharp CDs at people should in no way distract you from the fact that in at least one scene we see a Christmas tree and some garland, and I think someone mentions Christmas at some point. In my book, that qualifies I Come In Peace as a holiday movie, to be cherished during Christmas time. Although little regarded upon its initial release, back when we were making such films, I Come In Peace has enjoyed a steady growth in its reputation, so much so that if it isn’t a much beloved classic for all time, it’s at least attained the status of appreciated cult gem.
Dolph Lundgren stars as Houston cop Jack Caine, who in a strange twist for films of the time, is on the edge, plays by his own rules, and ruffles the feathers of the chief and the mayor and so on and so forth. Caine’s mission in life is to take down dastardly drug dealer Victor Manning. This obsession gets somewhat more complex when one of Manning’s drug deals is crashed by a towering, milky-eyed platinum blond who just got finished jamming some sort of syphon into Jesse Vint’s face. The giant announces menacingly “I come in peace” before unleashing a deadly compact disc that whizzes around like a Phantasm ball, slicing throats and splitting skulls while its owner busily harvests an assortment of juices from the foreheads of slain humans. Manning survives, but the slaughter complicates Caine’s dogged pursuit f the drug dealer — partly because no one can explain exactly what happened and partly because Caine is saddled with a straight-laced partner in the form of FBI agent Arwood ‘Larry’ Smith (Brian Benben from HBO’s Dream On and, more recently Private Practice). Needless to say, Caine doesn’t want a partner, especially some obnoxious Fed, cramping his hyper-violent style. Equally as needless to say, Larry doesn’t approve of the lumbering meathead of a cop with whom he’s been paired. But it’s been said, needless or not.
It turns out that the hulking blond (Mattias Hues, No Retreat No Surrender 2, Kickboxer 2) is actually a space alien who has come to Earth to harvest our precious bodily fluids, which happen to be a sort of intergalactic heroin for cosmic junkies. Another alien has come to Earth in pursuit of the space drug dealer, but frankly, the alien cop seems pretty crummy at his job, so mostly he just blows stuff up then gets shot, leaving the hard work to be completed by Caine and Larry — who of course, just might save the world…if they don’t kill each other first. Which means now Caine and Larry are fighting drug dealers from Houston and space. Oh, and also trying to patch up Caine’s relationship with his estranged girlfriend and local medical examiner, Diane (Betsy Brantley).
Like most action films released in the 1990s when I was too busy going on about John Woo and Hong Kong to the exclusion of all else, I didn’t see this one until years later. By then, I’d learned that there was no point in pitting Hong Kong action against action from other countries. They were all different and delivered different things. And it turns out there’s not much about I Come In Peace that isn’t thoroughly entertaining. The cop-buddy movie was well-trodden territory by 1990, and I Come In Peace manages to be both a great example of the genre as well as a good-nature lampoon of it. Lundgren and Benben have great chemistry together (certainly more so than Lundgren and Brantley, which is par for the course in an action film), and their sniping and bickering is pretty amusing. Plus, when it comes time for them to kick some giant alien ass, both men are competent at dishing out the explosions and gunfire even though Benben spends most of the time as a comic foil.
The back and forth between the two leads is the main reason the film works as well as it does, but one should not underestimate the contributions of director Craig Baxley, who keeps the movie streamlined, lean, and fast-paced with a perfect balance of action and comedy. Baxter cut his teeth as a director on The A-Team before moving into feature films and directing a trio of movies that have become much appreciated over the years: 1988’s Action Jackson, 1990’s I Come In Peace, and then in 1991 the Brian Bosworth action classic Stone Cold. Baxley keeps the film light and silly but never self-referentially jokey. If it knows how goofy it is, it never lets on, which is always for the better. Also for the better is cramming your movie with explosions, shoot-outs, killer compact discs (I guess MP3s wouldn’t have the same throat-slicing impact), and the requisite appearance by Al Leong who is on screen for exactly as much time as it takes to kill him. Baxley’s career started as a stunt coordinator, and while stunt coordinators do not always go on to make good action films (in fact, they rarely do), when one does click — as this one does — it’s glorious. Baxley knows exactly what the audience wants, and that’s exactly what he gives them.
Neither of the film’s two screenwriters, Jonathan Tydor and Leonard Maas Jr., had any real experience before they wrote I Come In Peace. I feel like they set out to write the most entertaining yet generic buddy-cop film they could, but then one night one of them brought home a VHS tape of The Hidden, and they decided they totally had to work some of that in. So you get a very by-the-books action film with mismatched cops, except then the bad guy is a space alien. The alien’s status as an alien actually contributes very little to the plot. He could have just as easily been a human drug dealer. About all the alien aspect does is give the film an excuse for a really big gun with bits and pieces glued to it and the ability to blow up cars — and even that ability doesn’t require an extra-terrestrial explanation, since action films have taught us that anything from a fender bender to a Derringer can make a car explode. No, the alien thing is just one novel little “why the hell not” they threw in, but it just makes the film that much more appealing.
Also contributing basically nothing to the story is the bad guy’s habit of solemnly announcing “I come in peace” before he kills someone. I mean, yeah, I get it. He doesn’t come in peace at all. Har har. But there’s no reason for him to keep repeating “I come in peace.” He just does it because, again, why the hell not? Actor Matthias Hues was a dependable bad guy in the 80s and 90s, and he’s huge enough that when he and Dolph finally face off, he provides an amply imposing opponent. I appreciate that the film doesn’t just write him as a robotic, emotionless killing machine. He starts off that way, but it soon becomes evident that he genuinely enjoys the killing, and as such Hues’ performance gets increasingly idiosyncratic and quirky. Less can be said about the performance of the good guy alien, played by Jay Bilas. It’s nothing Bilas does — because he doesn’t have much to do. He basically shows up for a couple shoot-outs then gives the real heroes his gun. I might have enjoyed seeing a little more character from him, but I guess you take what you can get. We should be happy that they let Hues go a little nutty.
Speaking of characters who get to be more than emotionless killing machines, there’s our man Dolph. Like most of the big action stars of the era, Lundgren is generally tagged as a bad actor when in fact he was merely a limited actor In the right role, and within his parameters, I think he was usually charismatic, effective, and occasionally even charming, or as charming as a muscled, 6′ 5″ Swede can be. Before this movie, Lundgren had been cast largely as a brooding, stoic killer — with the exception of his awkward turn in the cheap live-action Masters of the Universe movie, but in that he is relegated to a supporting role despite being the title character. But other than that, it’s stone-faced killing machine for Dolph. And he did it well. I love both Red Scorpion and his unfairly maligned Punisher movie, but it was obvious no one really had faith in Dolph to do much more than grimace and kill. It wasn’t until Baxley got ahold of him that someone decided to give the big Swede a chance to ham it up a bit, and it turned out that Dolph had a pretty good sense for comedy as well as action.
As a result, 1991 was a pretty good year for Lundgren, with two fantastic action-comedies in I Come In Peace and Showdown in Little Tokyo — and in early 1992, Universal Soldier, which I think is a bona fide action classic. The first two allowed Dolph to crack wise as well as crack skulls, and the latter allowed him to just play bat shit insane, and I think he does it all well. Not great, but well. Certainly well enough for me and well enough to merit more respect as an actor than he is given. Pretty much all of the big guys from that era — Stallone, Van Damme, and Schwarzenegger in particular, but even Seagal if I’m feeling charitable — are written off as talentless lugs who got by on muscle, and I think that just isn’t the case. Schwarzenegger had more charisma than one can process. Van Damme consistently took roles that, while still well within the archetypes of action cinema, were often challenging and complex. Stallone — come on, man. Stallone made Rocky and Night Hawks. None of these guys were bad actors, and if you think they were, then you really haven’t seen enough movies. Dolph may have operated a tier below the biggest stars (and truthfully no one, not even Stallone, operated on the same level as Schwarzenegger), but once he was given a chance, he made — and continues to make — some entertaining movies.
I Come In Peace might be my favorite Lundgren film. It’s hard to decide between this and Showdown in Little Tokyo. And like I mentioned, I really like his Punisher movie from 1989 as well. I Come In Peace is his most comfortable performance. It would have been nice to see more fisticuffs, but all the shooting and exploding cars and whatnot make up for that. It’s fast paced, funny, bloody without ever being grim and malicious, and it manages to take itself seriously without ever being serious. It’s the very epitome of an 80s action film, despite coming out in 1990 and despite having that whole alien drug dealer element. And best of all, it knows exactly how long to stick around. 89 minutes…truly you are the action film sweet spot. So yes, one of the many films I wrote off when it came out that, upon finally being visited by years later like it is one of those ghosts who hassled Scrooge, turns out to be another personal favorite — and the perfect holiday movie to accompany your burning Yule goat and Christmas J&B (that’s a tradition, right?)
Release Year: 1990 | Country: United States | Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Brian Benben, Betsy Brantley, Matthias Hues, Jay Bilas, Jim Haynie, David Ackroyd, Sherman Howard, Sam Anderson, Mark Lowenthal, Michael J. Pollard, Jesse Vint, Alex Morris | Screenplay: Jonathan Tydor, Leonard Maas Jr. | Director: Craig R. Baxley | Cinematography: Mark Irwin | Music: Jan Hammer | Alternate Title: Dark Angel