Imagine for a moment that you aren’t aware of the film under review here, all you know is that it’s a Blu-ray that has an Olympic theme and whose release has been timed to coincide with London 2012. The possibilities of what this film could be are quite exciting: perhaps we’re finally about to see Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia in its most complete form or maybe, closer to home, a HD airing of Castleton Knight’s Technicolor record of the 1948 London Games? Documentaries alone throw up further mouth-watering options, whether it be Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (capturing the 1964 Games) or that Oscar-nominated look at wheelchair rugby, Murderball. All of the official films have recently been restored by International Olympic Committee which would surely up the likelihood of at least one of them seeing the light of day this July. As for fiction titles there are plenty to take your pick from: W.C. Fields vehicle Million Dollar Legs; Michael Winner’s underrated The Games (though this one is screening at the BFI Southbank next week); Robert Towne’s Personal Best; Launder & Gilliat’s delightful Scottish comedy Geordie…
As it stands, not a single one of these is getting a London 2012 tie-in (re)release. Fox have brought Chariots of Fire to Blu in the expected timely fashion, but otherwise the sole Olympic movie coming to hi-def this year is a highly unlikely one: Dolph Lundgren’s Pentathlon, a film that went straight-to-video in the UK back in 1994. Now, of course, Anchor Bay - the label responsible for this release - were hardly in a position where they could choose any Olympic movie they liked to issue on Blu-ray and as such there will be no finger pointing in their direction, but it’s hard not to be bemused by the fact that so few companies have decided to potentially cash in. And so there is no Riefenstahl, no Ichikawa, not even Michael Winner. Instead we’ve got a dumb action movie from the man who had previously made dumb action movies with Sylvester Stallone (Nighthawks) and Steven Seagal (Hard to Kill).
Pentathlon demonstrates its dumbness from the off thanks to its insistence on being a political thriller (or thereabouts). Following a brief childhood sequence we fast-forward to the 1988 Seoul Olympics where Lundgren’s pentathlete Eric Brogar is competing for East Germany. He’s been coached since youth by the less-than-savoury Heinrich Mueller (David Soul), a Stasi man with dubious politics and a ‘win at all costs’ mentality that translates into offering up his athletes drug-laced blood transfusions. Lundgren had played the villain in his last sports movie - 1985’s Rocky IV - but this time around he’s the leading man and so, naturally, Brogar is entirely opposed to Mueller’s way of thinking. Thus he wins the gold medal on his own terms, defects to the US and causes his former coach to re-invent himself as a neo-Nazi terrorist intent on becoming the next Hitler.
Not that it all goes swimmingly for Brogar. Mere months after his defection the Berlin Wall comes down leading to a descent into functional alcoholism, incessant smoking and a heavy does of self-loathing. He splits with his girl (a fellow athlete he first met in South Korea, played by Renée Coleman), finds himself a dead-end job as a chef in an L.A. diner and is still suffering the ill-effects of a gunshot to the thigh incurred during his defection. However, thanks to a series of poorly handled plot contrivances he’s soon in training again with hopes of making the cut for the next Olympics within the space of a few months. The old romance is also rekindled (cue PG-rated frolicking in a waterfall) but so too is Mueller’s revenge. He and his former Stasi men have jumped on a plane to the States with plans to assassinate a Rabbi, get their message heard on cable TV and their own back on Brogan.
There’s plenty to laugh at in Pentathlon, whether it’s the reductive politics or Brogan’s remarkable recovery from four years of alcohol abuse and chain smoking (and a gunshot!) to become an Olympic contender once more. There are also far too many chase sequences involving men in shell suits and the whole thing is all rather tame in comparison to the usual action standard of the time (the BBFC’s 18 certificate is an odd decision given the lack of nudity and relatively minor language and bloodshed). With that said, at 18 years of age, Pentathlon is old enough to come with a certain nostalgic glow. This disc’s potential audience isn’t going to come to the movie with any seriousness: they aren’t going to be hoping for nuanced politics or in-depth characterisation; they are going to expect cartoon-ish villainy from David Soul, ridiculous plot developments and regular bouts of pumped-up fisticuffs. In this respect it could be argued that it succeeds - Pentathlon is an awful piece of filmmaking but that’s not to say it doesn’t entertain.
A fairly rudimentary affair, Pentathlon comes to Blu-ray without much in the way of extras or indeed a sprucing up. The seemingly unrestored print is framed at a ratio of 1.78:1 and, whilst mostly clean, is a touch on the soft side. Clarity and level of detail does waver from scene to scene - with some shots looking pleasingly sharp, others considerably less so - though I suspect there isn’t a great deal to separate this HD offering from the simultaneously released DVD edition. Colours are strong though, perhaps too strong - at one point Coleman dons an item of red athletics gear which is a tad intense. The soundtrack (originally recorded in Ultra Stereo) comes in both LPCM and DTS-HD Multi-Channel formats, the latter being the crisper of the two. There are no optional subtitles available, English or otherwise, whilst the sole extra is the original trailer.