In the grand scheme of things, 'Dead Mine' will likely garner more interest for being HBO Asia's first original co-production than for anything else. This modestly budgeted mishmash of adventure and horror movie clichés isn't going to impress many folks concerned with storytelling, acting, or thought-provoking dialogue (you know, the hallmarks of cinema), but for the first 20 minutes or so, at least it's pretty to look at.
Hailing from director Steven Sheil (who also co-wrote the screenplay) 'Dead Mine' is a shallow beast that's clearly been inspired by some classic adventure films of old, as the film's atmosphere, if not its direct storyline, feels evocative of 'King Solomon's Mines' meets 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,' with a little bit of 'The Descent' thrown in for good measure. Now, some people might read this and think to themselves, "Sounds great!" – but if there's one thing this movie excels at, it's demonstrating just how drastically different the concept of a good time can be from the actual execution.
Now, admittedly, at first glance, 'Dead Mine' looks like it has the right stuff. An amateur treasure hunter, Warren Price (Les Loveday), hires a group of mercenaries led by a British expatriate (Sam Hazeldine) and an Indonesian soldier of fortune (Aryo Bayu) to help him locate a long-forgotten Japanese mine that purportedly holds the legendary Yamashita's Gold. After finding the location, Price and the mercenaries find themselves under fire by some locals and are forced to take shelter in the mine, where they learn something or someone has been residing for the last 70 years.
Unsurprisingly, since well-drawn personalities are non-existent – their places filled instead with stock characters like the greedy, corrupt westerner, his spiteful girlfriend, the noble warrior and the killer who's trying to turn his back on his true nature – this movie is propelled entirely by a plot that appears to be rather simple, but somehow devolves into overly complicated gobbledygook about some Australian POWs being the subject of bizarre super-soldier experiments, and a hidden army of nigh-invincible Japanese Imperial Guards. Rather than make this a straight run-and-gun effort, however, Sheil and his co-writer Ziad Semaan, attempt to round out the quasi-sci-fi elements with some ineffectual talk about the dehumanizing aspects of life as a soldier and some hopelessly inadequate subtext regarding the lingering identity crisis of post-World War II Japan. But there's so little behind these elements that they simply become unnecessary information drops about characters and circumstances that struggle to achieve even a surface-level depth.
What 'Dead Mine' lacks in convincing narrative, it strives to make up for it through sheer inertia of plot and proper use of its claustrophobic setting – overly manufactured though it may be – by creating a pervasive sense something terrible is lurking behind one of the many blind corners which make up the abandoned mine. The only trouble is each blind corner exists on the same low-budget, feebly constructed set, featuring excessively articulated rocks and walls that look less like stone and more as though some hurried designer draped wrinkled sheets over everything.
The film's antagonists – pale mutants seemingly modeled after the creatures from 'The Descent' – suffer from a similar case of shoddy craftsmanship. What is intended to believably strike fear into the characters, and therefore the audience, instead is a distraction of laughably bad prosthetics work that more closely resembles a grimy, flesh-colored T-shirt than the bizarre skin of some ageless science projects. The creature effects are such a distraction that when the unstoppable members of the Japanese Imperial Guard finally make an appearance, the intended outcome is entirely lost, as the viewer knows what likely lurks underneath their samurai armor and garish facemasks.
All of this could have been lessened some, had the sets not been illuminated with the same lighting techniques used for taping a sitcom in front of a live studio audience. The simple fact that it is a mine suggests there would be limited light available in even the most heavily trafficked areas, and yet, narrow passage ways, crevices and even the darkest, most cavernous depths of the pit have bright shafts of light illuminating everything in sight. And that's the primary problem: there's no atmosphere in a movie that should rely heavily on such a thing. Instead, everything is clear as day, warts and all. And there are an abundance of warts here.
Most egregious, however, is the not-so-subtle implication that 'Dead Mine' began shooting with only two-thirds of the script complete, and wrapped its filming without writing a single additional page. Now, there's something to be said for ambiguity, or for leaving the story open-ended, but there's simply no third act here. It's as if the filmmakers had no idea how to end the story, so they just didn't bother trying.
And that's what 'Dead Mine' ultimately feels like: an ambitious project that got out of hand and instead of fixing the problem, the filmmakers simply abandoned the movie all together.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Dead Mine' comes to you as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in an eco-friendly keepcase from the folks at XLRATOR Media. The film plays a handful of previews that can all be skipped prior to the top menu. Not surprisingly, there are zero special features included on this disc. Although this is an international film, the primary language is English, with the only subtitle option being English SDH.
Every now and then, a not-so-pleasant viewing experience can be made a little better by some superb image quality on a Blu-ray disc, and the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer for 'Dead Mine' is rock solid from start to finish. This shockingly crisp, clear picture is such a radical departure (quality-wise) from what's actually taking place on-screen it makes you wish the image quality here could somehow be imparted to a much better (ok, even mediocre) film, which deserves to be seen in such clarity.
Early on, the image looks the best, as the action is centered in the lush greenery of the Indonesian jungle. Colors are rendered beautifully across the entire spectrum; greens are bright and vibrant, while skin tones all look natural and very lifelike. Additionally, fine detail is present throughout the film and helps to give the image a fantastic level of depth that welcomes incredible features on the actor's faces, textures in their clothing and the aforementioned overly precise detail in the environment (to the film's detriment, not the image quality). Background detail is also incredibly deep especially in the early parts of the film where the dense foliage surrounding the characters practically leaps off the screen.
In the rare instance that there is some low light sequences, the image still stacks up quite well, despite one brief moment where some banding is present. Otherwise, blacks look terrific, as the contrast remains consistently high. This is a remarkably precise transfer effected only slightly by a few minor inconsistencies.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is just as robust and impressive as the image transfer. This lossless audio track does a superb job accentuating and balancing the mix of heavily accented dialogue, musical score and sound effects. As this is an action-adventure movie at heart, there are plenty examples where the mix highlights action-oriented sound effects and really sells the moment through an impressive use of clarity, surround sound and LFE.
Most of the dialogue is pushed through the center channel speakers, so the score and sound effects can utilize the front and rear channels to their fullest potential. Everything in 'Dead Mine' sounds great and packs a wallop. Punches and kicks land hard with satisfying thuds, while gunshots ring out and echo across the narrow passageways of the mine and its interior installation with alarming precision. Surround effects work to create a satisfyingly claustrophobic space that manages to briefly make the audience feel as though they're not watching actors on a set.
There are a few occasions where sound effects or actor's voices tend to sound just slightly pitchy, but overall, this is a high quality sound mix on a disc with few other elements to offer.
This is the kind of movie that certainly has its heart in the right place, as evidenced by the myriad films and stories that clearly inspired it. Unfortunately, the combination of too many influences, coupled with uninspired characters, bland dialogue, and a nonexistent conclusion make 'Dead Mine' a film destined to be forgotten. Even the disc's superb image and sound presentation aren't worth slogging through this lackluster tale of mutants, fortune hunters, and the most inexplicably well-lit underground installation the world has ever seen. Skip it.