I Come in Peace [aka Dark Angel] (1990)

I'm honestly not sure which title to go with. It was originally released in the United States as "I Come in Peace," but the working title was actually "Dark Angel," which is how it was released in other markets. Since it's a US movie, I'll go with the US title, despite "Dark Angel" being the original intent.

As you can probably guess from the fact it's being reviewed here, I Come in Peace is set around Christmas and makes heavy use of holiday decorations, music, and the like. The movie is an R-rated sci-fi/action/suspense/comedy starring Dolph Lundgren and directed by Craig R. Baxley, who seems to have primarily been a stunt coordinator, including work on The Predator (which is going to be extremely relevant to this discussion). Both titles reference the movie's alien antagonist, a super-strong humanoid visitor dressed in black with milky eyes and a propensity for uttering the words, "I come in peace," before murdering his victims with advanced weaponry. He often injects them with heroin first using a coil launched from a device on his wrist that's probably a better version of the thing Scorpion has in Mortal Kombat than any adaptation of Mortal Kombat has managed to put on screen. Then he sticks a giant spike into their heads to extract endorphins he can turn into a drug. The movie's premise is basically that the alien killer is actually just a drug dealer.

The movie's hero is Caine, who represents so many movie cop clichés, it's impossible to parse which you're supposed to take seriously, and which you're supposed to laugh at. I'm skeptical the filmmakers ever completely made up their minds: it's clear the movie is supposed to be funny, but at the same time it seems to waffle on where the line is drawn.

After briefly showing us the alien arriving on Earth, we're shown a team of criminals breaking into a police warehouse, stealing a large amount of heroin, and blowing up the building, seemingly killing hundreds. This is barely mentioned later, so I guess it wasn't that big of a deal. What is a big deal is when those same criminals (a gang of yuppie drug dealers called the White Boys) murder Caine's partner. Caine is supposed to be listening in on a wire from a car parked outside, but he's forced to leave his post with an unrelated group of criminals stage an armed robbery at a convenience store across the street. He stops the robbery, which is never mentioned again.

Between the death of his partner and Caine getting to the scene, the alien shows up and kills a bunch of the White Boys using a weapon that resembles a compact disc. Caine wants to track down the crime lord who murdered his partner, but his captain yells at him a lot for vaguely defined reasons and tells him he has to go on vacation. But some FBI agents show up as well and force the captain to back off, so Caine can partner with Agent Smith, a young agent who always goes by the book and follows orders.

Caine locates the magic CD and has it analyzed, revealing it's extremely high-tech and extremely dangerous. It's almost immediately stolen by the FBI, though Smith pretends to know nothing about this. We then go on an extended side quest where Caine and Smith go after some White Boys who are trying to assassinate Caine, believing the police were responsible for the death of their men at the beginning. Pretty soon Caine is being blackmailed into doing a drug drop, the guy he gives the drugs to is killed by the alien, and Caine himself is almost killed, except...

Plot twist. Well, more like a plot blend. Turns out there's a second alien, and he's hunting the first. Caine immediately deduces all this, which is odd because they really don't look like aliens. Until we see them bleed later, I'd have guessed people from the future. But Caine has instincts (there was a whole exchange with Smith earlier on the subject and everything), so he realizes they're aliens and that the one who didn't try to kill him is on their side.

The aliens eventually have a showdown in a convenience store in which the good alien is mortally wounded. He sneaks into Caine's car while Caine and Smith are arguing with overzealous FBI agents. Eventually, Caine and Smith find the alien, who explains the whole "harvesting human endorphins for drugs" thing. He also tells them where the other alien is hiding and explains if they fail to stop him, more will come. The alien self-destructs, but they save his gun, an automatic sidearm that fires explosions.

Smith then betrays Caine and takes the gun to his boss under the assumption the FBI will be best equipped to deal with the alien drug dealer. Instead, his boss tells him he wants to make contact and gain access to the alien's technology and weapons. He also reveals he's going to have Caine killed, because he knows too much. When Smith is clearly not on board with all this, his boss takes out a gun and points it at the back of his head. Before he can fire, Caine shows up and shoots him, saving Smith's life.

There are no consequences for shooting a federal agent, by the way. It doesn't really come up again.

Next, Caine and Smith (having had a chance to reconsider his faith in authority and the value of procedure) take the alien gun to the hideout of the alien drug dealer. They manage to shoot him a few times but don't seem to do any lasting damage. However, they do get ahold of the endorphins he's collected, which are the whole reason he came to Earth in the first place. This kicks off a complex chase sequence in which the alien comes after Caine, Smith, and Diane.

Diane, incidentally, is Caine's girlfriend. She appears throughout the movie, but always in a peripheral manner. Action movies from this era always have a love interest for the main character, regardless of whether that character could be cut without impacting the plot in the slightest.

There are a bunch of superfluous fight sequences in which the alien kills more of the White Boys, as well as a cop, then steals the cop car, leading to a high-speed pursuit, part of which goes through a crowded mall, complete with Christmas decorations and a mall Santa. So that was kind of fun.

They wind up at an abandoned factory, where we get a final showdown between Caine and the alien, and you'll be shocked to hear Caine wins and even more shocked to find out he says a one-liner as he delivers the final blow.

It ends with Caine, Diane, and Smith heading off on vacation together, but also going to track down the crime lord who killed Caine's partner at the beginning.

Okay, with all that out of the way, I want to touch on how the movie feels. And the first word that comes to mind in that respect is "knockoff."

I assume the Terminator parallels are obvious, but it's worth noting there's quite a bit of Predator in this, as well. The Christmas stuff, meanwhile, feels like it's mimicking Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, with the latter also including a similar dynamic between leads. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is that it was released just before Predator 2, which is by far the closest match.

To be fair, when you're copying this many sources, it's kind of an open question whether you're ripping anyone off or you're just drawing inspiration for a genre movie. Some of the references feel obvious to the point they could be charitably considered homages (particularly in the case of Terminator). I don't know that I believe that, but I have to acknowledge the line between "inspired by" and "stolen from" usually has more to do with whether the finished product is good or not.

And in this case, I lean towards "not," though I can understand why this is attracting a cult following. The movie is, at times, extremely silly, and I suspect more of that's intentional than critics at the time gave it credit for. In addition, there's some good pyrotechnic work here around the explosions. It's easy to make fun of the alien gun that mostly seems to make whatever it hits explode (except, strangely, living things), but they have poured some money and time into rigging said explosions, because they look pretty good.

There are a few areas where the movie falls spectacularly flat, however. The first and most egregious is pacing. There just wasn't enough care put into when to insert action beats versus when to hold them back, and as a result, the movie feels like it meanders to the climax rather than building to it.

The other big issue is the comedy. I don't think this was the wrong direction - far from it! But the jokes needed to be funny for all this to work, and they rarely if ever were. On its own, I like the idea of having the bad guys be yuppies operating a drug cartel out of a boardroom, but the movie failed to actually capitalize on that humor.

Caine has a weird recurring trait where he's deeply fixated on not breaking promises. It's really only ever communicated via other characters discussing this quirk, usually with Caine himself (and then generally when asking for him to make a promise). This is a big aspect of his relationship with Diane, who he's never been willing to promise anything for reasons that are never explained. By the end of the movie, he promises her they'll go on vacation, but it's all kind of treated as a joke. It's mainly relevant because it's the closest Caine comes to any kind of character arc.

I don't necessarily think it's a problem that he doesn't have a real arc in the movie, though I do think it's an issue that the promise thing never goes anywhere. Shifting the growth to a secondary character - in this case, Smith - isn't inherently bad, either. Again, there's a "but" coming: it's bad Smith's arc (the only real arc in the movie) is a jumbled mess of clichés and dumb jokes. He's comically obsessed with operating within the rules, while Caine doesn't let anyone or anything get in his way. Meeting in the middle would have been the logical choice: instead the movie just sort of shrugs and tells us Caine's always right, he's always been right, and everyone should adopt his philosophy.

I think that could have worked, either if they'd made Smith the main character, injected some subtlety into his personality, or even just found a way to treat the whole thing like a joke. But the movie does none of these, and we're left with sort of a jumbled mess of a story. This needs to either be funny or engaging, and it's neither.

I don't have much to say about the Christmas stuff, largely because I don't really think it was trying to do or say anything with it. The movie got some stylistic mileage out of it, and I genuinely appreciated the car chase through the mall during holiday shopping (budget limitations showed, but it was still fun). But I didn't feel like it was reaching for any kind of juxtaposition. Obviously, there's a surface level connection between the angelic aliens and the holidays, but the movie never seemed interested in digging any deeper into this idea. It may have been using the holidays to create a sense of otherworldliness - it certainly wanted a state of unreality - but tying that to Christmas lights and decorations may be giving them too much credit. Frankly, I think it was mainly just using the setting because it worked for Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. 

In the end, this is one of those movies that feels like it's trying to be a cult favorite, and that's rarely a thing that can be pulled off intentionally. If there were fewer jokes, it might have drifted into territory where I could have enjoyed laughing at the film. Better jokes, and I'd have laughed with it. But it's right in the middle, and - for my tastes at least - it just wasn't settling into a tone that interested me. Depending on who you're watching this with, what state of mind you're in, and your sense of humor, you might have more fun with it. I can't really advise trying, though. If this blend of silly, so-bad-it's-good Christmas sci-fi is what you're after, I'd go with Trancers over this.