You know the world is evil when dullards like Vin Diesel and Ben Affleck are cast as action heroes while Tommy Lee Thomas is stuck in direct-to-video obscurity.
Who is Tommy Lee Thomas? He is the star of “Con Games,” a very entertaining B-level action film that was released in 2002 to barely any acknowledgement. I recently found it by accident in a cheapie eBay auction and I was happily surprised at both the film’s adrenaline and the potential of its star.
“Con Games” focuses on Doscher State Prison, a California penitentiary known to its inmates as Dachau because of the high level of convict deaths. No one much cares about the fatalities until the imprisoned grandson of a senator is slain. The senator wants an investigation and it is decided that someone needs to go undercover as a convict to seek out the killers of the politician’s miscreant grandson. That someone is John Woodrow (Thomas), a retired Army combat expert whose own father is in jail elsewhere in the state. Woodrow agrees to the undercover mission on the agreement that his own dad gets his freedom.
Needless to say, the undercover investigation does not go smoothly. Woodrow earns the animosity and punches of behemoth inmates and sadistic guards. The head of the guards is none other than Eric Roberts, who is strangely subdued here (though he might be weighed down by the obviously padded paunch and strangely shaggy hairstyle forced upon him by the fashion-challenged costume department). When Woodrow’s cover is blown, the guards torture him to the point that he realizes the only way to survive is to bang heads, break necks, and bust out of jail with the inmates who know the identity of the men who killed the senator grandson.
“Con Games” is a fairly cheap affair in regards to production values. The state prison doesn’t seem to have more than 10 convicts and a smaller number of guards. During the jailbreak sequence, there is exactly one guard running around with a machine gun. The film concludes in a hunt and shoot-out in the desert, which defies the basic tenets of logic (no one breaks a sweat despite the sun and sand mix) but nonetheless must have saved a lot of money in regards to building sets and staging elaborate pyrotechnics.
But the fuel to this vehicle is Tommy Lee Thomas. Clearly he studied a lot of Clint Eastwood films and he mastered the legendary star’s steely-eyed squint and sparse line deliveries. He also seems to have studied numerous fitness magazines, as half of the film finds him running about shirtless. In several scenes, he eagerly removes his shirt as if the garment was creating great discomfort. His theme song would easily be “I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt,” though oddly, the film’s closing credits song is sung by Eric Roberts (whose crooning is nowhere in the vicinity of any known musical key).
Yet, Thomas might be underselling himself by doing Eastwood’s shtick. He co-wrote the screenplay and clearly possesses a sense of eccentric humor — at one point, he and another inmate are engaged in an intense session of Go (the ancient Japanese strategy game) while later in his torture is prefixed with a strange debate that has him advocating “Terminator 2” in favor of Eric Roberts’ beloved “Lethal Weapon.” As low-budget action flicks go, this one is very diverting and highly watchable.
The Internet Movie Database has not listed any previous or additional films for Thomas since “Con Games” was completed. Hopefully, he will have a chance to find a wider audience with another film that can snag a genuine release. “Con Games” proves he has star quality. Let’s keep an eye out for him, with the hope he will be back to kick Vin Diesel and the other reigning action stars off the screen.