Thursday, June 20, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘The Mongolian Connection’

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A bad action movie can still be fun, even forgettable ones. For example, I’ve seen Tango & Cash countless times, yet I struggle to recall what happens when asked to describe it. However, some action movies aren’t bad or good but just this side of serviceable.

These are lousy action films. Drew Thomas’s The Mongolian Connection is a lousy action film. 

However, it looks good. In the age of blockbusters that resemble filmed radio plays rather than movies, that’s saying something. A co-production between the United States and Mongolia, The Mongolian Connection does an excellent job at hiding its low budget yet does a shabby job of living up to its polished veneer.

monoglian connection
Wade Dalton (Kaiwi Lyman) and Ganzorig (Amarsaikhan Baljinnyam) find themselves in a shootout.

Part of the reason The Mongolian Connection looks so glossy is that Thomas himself is a cinematographer. He also co-wrote the script with Caleb Monroe. Monroe and Thomas are white Americans, which is another problem with the movie. It has no sense of place. Much of the film takes place in Mongolia but could occur anywhere. Granted, this is also partly due to Thomas and Monroe’s script, which is less a script and more of a collection of action movie cliches arranged in such a way as to appear to be a story.

In itself, this is not a bad thing. All might have been forgiven if The Mongolian Connection had been slightly better. As is the story of a US FBI agent Wade Dalton (Kaiwi Lyman), having to transport a Mongolian enforcer Serik (Sannjar Madi), and one of the prostitutes, Khulan (Tsetsegee Byamba), back to Mongolia in more confident hands would have been all the story we needed. But Thomas and Monroe never have faith in their material. 

They constantly introduce plot points only to mention them once again later in the film to drop them entirely. Take, for instance, Wade’s painkiller addiction we learn about early in the movie. Later on, we discover that not only is he an addict, but he’s poaching painkillers meant for his ailing dog. Ignoring that Lyman’s Wade has never once shown any signs of being an addict outside of these two instances and that his addiction plays zero role in either his character arc or the larger story, it’s more than a little irritating to get this information only never to revisit this subplot ever again or even have it mentioned.

Thomas and Monroe waste so much time teasing ideas for things they could explore only to move on, never to speak of it again. Set up, expand, and ignore. If The Mongolian Connection had more panache or zany energy, this could have added to the overall chaotic momentum. Instead, the film moves at almost a stately pace, made all the more bizarre when it flexes its arid sense of humor.

mongolian connection
Serik (Sanjar Madi) sits handcuffed to a futon.

One instance has Wade and another FBI Agent, Troy (Brandon Fobbs), standing between two cars. Troy pops the trunk to one of them to show Wade the corpse of the FBI’s witness, or half of one. Wade asks what happens to the rest of him; the car’s trunk behind them pops open. 

Scenes like that and the running gag where Wade keeps getting into the wrong side of the car punctuate the movie’s dour mood. Thomas imbues The Mongolian Connection, a film that screams to be a big dumb action movie, with such a self-serious tone it becomes self-defeating. Every frame has a gleaming polished sheen to it that, while it is pretty to look at, never adds anything to the feeling or tone of the movie.

All the more infuriating when the film has such talents as Byamba and Madi. The two are revealed to be lovers, and while they share very little screen time, it becomes evident from their first scene together. 

Byamba’s Khulan, as written, is a stereotype, the striking beauty with dreams of being a star, now “tarnished” because of her “past.” Yet, she brings a glint of humanity to her character. While Thomas and Monroe’s script give her little to work with, the movie does take a brief time to show the obstacles of re-entering society after such a traumatic event as being forced into sex work. The system is all for “saving” these women but gives little thought to them once they have been freed. Still, Thomas and his DP Josua Fischer get too caught up in making Byamba sultry and glamorous, forgetting she’s a victim of sex trafficking.

This is the rot at the center of The Mongolian Connection. Unfortunately, it’s so busy borrowing tropes from other movies that it forgets to recalibrate them for The Mongolian Connection. Madi, as Serik, a Kazakh, is a dashing rogue type for the Russian mob operating out of Mongolia. Late into the movie, there’s a moment between Serik and his fellow enforcer Tenzin (Zhandos Aibassov) where they talk about the bonds of honor and how they don’t want to kill each other.

Thomas and Fischer film the moment as an epic, tragic bromance, honor among thieves, forgetting that these men are human traffickers. Perhaps, this is why The Mongolian Connection has such a reserved tone; it’s trying to be respectful while still being a corny action movie. A tricky balancing act that Thomas never pulls off. Oddly, had The Mongolian Connection been an exploitation film, it would have been sleazier but honest.

Serik’s boss Arslan (Vasili Batalov), wants him dead because he’s afraid he may turn state’s witness. A fear that turns out to be justified. Meanwhile, Wade hangs around with his Mongolian counterpart Ganzorig (Amarsaikhan Baljinnyam) to ensure Serik gets to the courthouse on time.

There’s some stuff about Ganzorig trying to root out a mole in his department and Khulan being pregnant with Serik’s baby, but like Wade stealing his dog painkillers, the movie soon grows bored and moves on. 

mongolian connection
Ganzorig (Baljinnyam) demands answers at gunpoint.

Baljinnyam’s Ganzorig is a hardboiled detective. He has a magnetic presence that I wished we spent less time with Lyman’s Wade. Baljinnyam radiates an aura of a wounded soul, a man struggling with the crumbling world around him. 

Baljinnyam, Madi, and Byamba trio are all great, but each feels like they are from a different movie. When they share a scene, it feels discordant, a feeling that is only intensified with Lyman’s interloping Wade. By themselves, they represent an idea of a character that could be interesting. But in Thomas and Monroe’s hands, they are sanded down to the dullest version of the character. Any moral grit or grime is white-washed to make the characters more palatable, more saintly, less human, and more monotonous.

It doesn’t help that all the while, The Mongolian Connection flies in the face of even the barest crumb of logic. Yes, I’m aware its a movie, but if I were a depressed FBI agent with a painkiller addiction, I’d think twice about putting myself into potentially violent situations in a country where I didn’t speak the language. Credit where Credit is due, Thomas and Monroe get some funny moments out of Wde not understanding what’s being said, but it’s also never clear just how much he does and doesn’t know. It’s not a deal breaker so much as a staw breaking the camel of my suspension of disbelief’s back.

Yet, amid all of this are some pretty rad action scenes. Fischer and Thomas at least understand how to frame an action sequence. From a car chase scene down a dirt road with a funny moment where Ganzorig and Wade pass each other in opposite directions to a gnarly fight between Tenzin and Serik, the action scenes stand out in the film’s overall blandness. Sadly, as cool as the action scenes are, there aren’t enough of them scattered throughout to make The Mongolian Connection bearable.

There’s even a post-credit scene where Wade and Ganzorig brush horses. It’s an odd scene that contains the line, “There are more whores here than people.” The line is then followed by a shallow discussion about how the violence affects them. Like the rest of The Mongolian Connection, it is a self-serious drab scene that manages to convey nothing about anything.

More than anything, Thomas and The Mongolian Connection lack a backbone or an identity. While it may have some neat action scenes, they are sandwiched between unmoored performances, bad writing, and empty visuals polished to a blinding sheen. The result is a movie that leaves you wanting more, but only because it offers so little.

Images courtesy of Meloman

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