Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, May 26, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)


Damn, who would’ve thought “Universal Soldier” would be such a long-lived franchise? As I’ve said before, it’s not like the original is some universally beloved, unassailable classic or anything. After “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” became a minor sensation among genre film fans, suddenly the idea of a sixth “Universal Soldier” movie didn’t seem unappealing at all. Director John Hyams, Van Damme, and Dolph all returned for “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.” The sequel also added Scott Adkins, more-or-less the modern equivalent of what Van Damme was in the late eighties. “Day of Reckoning” would push the surprisingly long-running series into a totally new direction. That change of tone made the film divisive but it won some rave reviews, quickly garnering a following even larger then what “Regeneration” gained.

Everyman John is awoken in the middle of the night but his young daughter, who thinks there are monsters in the house. She’s right. Three men in black masks beat John bloody before dragging his wife and daughter down stairs. Before killing them both, the leader reveals himself to John as Luc Deveraux, Universal Soldier and former hero. After awaking in a hospital bed, John suffers from confusion and warped memories. He’s also determined to track down the man that murdered his family. This path puts him into a bloody confrontation with a cult of deprogrammed Universal Soldiers, led by Deveraux, waging a guerilla war against the U.S. government. Yet everything is not what it seems, not even John’s own desires.

“Day of Reckoning” has few connections to the previous “Universal Soldier” films. Aside from a wildly different interpretation of Luc Deveraux, Lundgren’s Andrew Scott, and the concept of government created super soldiers, the story is totally unrelated. In truth, the film is more of a psychologically tinged horror/thriller then a proper action flick. The hero is doggedly pursued by an unstoppable villain, who dispatches enemies in very violent ways. This isn’t unlike a slasher flick and, until Scott Adkins begins fighting back around the half-way point, “Day of Reckoning” feels more horrific then action-y. The themes of memories, identity, and manipulation were probably influenced by David Lynch films like “Lost Highway” and “Muholland Dr.” Deveraux’s brainwashed cult of soldiers and their swampland hideout were intentionally modeled after Kurtz’ jungle stronghold in “Apocalypse Now.” Mostly, the film’s dark, downbeat tone is wildly different then the popcorn fun of the original “Universal Soldier” and its 1999 follow-up.

Another element that pushes “Day of Reckoning” to the edge of horror is its brutal violence. From its opening minutes, it’s incredibly bloody. The first scene is shot from Adkins’ perspective, disoriented and blinking to replicate someone suddenly awoken in the middle of the night. His face is beaten raw with a tire iron. Each head shot leaves a dripping splatter of grey matter on the walls. When a UniSol attacks a brothel, gaping holes are blown in people, victims are blasted across the room, and the walls are painted red. Faces are shattered into pulp, skull and brains tossed into the air, with gunfire and even a baseball bat. Hands and feet are cleaved in half with an axe. Skin is slashed with a machete. Limbs are twisted apart and an eighteen inch long blade is driven through someone’s head. By the end, Scott Adkins is covered head to toe in gore. “Day of Reckoning” is as bloody as the best latter day horror film and utilizes its violence just as dynamically.

While tossing a shit ton of fake blood into the air, “Day of Reckoning” also provides a display for the skills of its leading men. Andrei Arlovski returns from “Regeneration” as the most homicidal of the super soldiers. The scuffle between Arlovski and Adkins in a cramped hotel room is exciting. So is the car chase that climaxes with a Jeep spinning three times through the air. However, the first proper fight between Adkins and Arlovski overshadows them both. The two men wrestle through a sporting goods store. They toss each other through shelves and wield baseball bats like bo staffs. Adkins’ incredibly acrobatic skills are shown off, when he does a spinning back flip into his opponent’s face. The climax of the film has Adkins rampaging through the UniSol base, tearing each of the henchmen apart with bullets and blades. Hyam shoots the scene in a series of long shots, creating a hypnotic swirl of violence and fantastically choreographed action. Adkins’ fights with Lundgren and Van Damme truthfully pale in comparison, even if both feature a lot of flipping, kicking, and brutal contact.

“Regeneration” managed to find an interesting moral about the way governments misuse their soldiers. “Day of Reckoning” has some even heavier themes on its mind. Throughout the course of the film, John discovers that he’s actually a clone of one of Deveraux’s men. Later on, he learns that his family was never real and that his memories of them were implant in his head by – you guessed it – the government. Even after taking out the bad guys, John continues to discover yet more manipulation in his life. His masterful massacre of the rogue UniSols was also planned. The same people who put the false memories in his head also hoped he’d exterminate the renegades. These story turns keep the audience guessing and sometimes threatens to spin the film in a convoluted direction. If these themes and ideas solidify into a coherent whole – beyond “Don’t trust the government,” I guess – I’m not sure how. Yet it’s certainly far more ambitious then you’d expect from the fifth sequel to a barely remembered nineties action flick.

I knew going into this one that it was mostly a display for Adkins and Arlovski’s talents. Adkins is an extremely talented martial artist. The film gives him several opportunities to show off his aerial kicks and tumbling dives. Adkins is also a decent actor, mining okay pathos from John’s loss and anger. Arlovski suffices at playing an inhuman murder machine but neither this film nor the previous “UniSol” story provided chances for anything more. If you’re expecting a lot of Van Damme or Lundgren, you might be disappointed. Their scenes count though. Dolph gets to deliver two insane monologues, something he’s gotten increasingly good at. Van Damme isn’t Marlon Brando, even if his shaved head is obviously meant to recall him. His face slathered in black and white war paint, like a voodoo houngan, is certainly a memorable image. Van Damme’s performance seems halfway between a nihilistic philosopher and a tired soldier. Which is appropriate, and effectively sinister, even if I would’ve perhaps preferred something more colorful.

“Day of Reckoning” does feel a bit like an original screenplay that was hastily retrofitted for the “UniSol” franchise. The film won’t win any awards for its representation of women. Adkins’ love interest provides little to the story and is forgotten by the end. Most of the film’s women are either strippers or prostitutes and usually wind up graphically murdered. I can see why the story’s bleak tone and extreme content turned some people off. “Day of Reckoning” is still a bold statement, featuring impressive action and an ambitious storyline. If another film is made – and Hyams has hinted at that – perhaps it could explore Van Damme’s character some more. What happened to Luc Deveraux to explain the changes between “Regeneration” and this film? Well, that's what I'd like to see anyway. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 2 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)


I don’t think many people cared about the “Universal Soldier” franchise before 2009. The original was occasionally recalled fondly as an above-average Van Damme vehicle and a fairly entertaining popcorn flick. Nobody gave a shit about any of the previous sequels. That all changed with “Universal Soldier: Regeneration.” Following “JCVD” and “The Expendables,” Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren were the most relevant they had been in years. The son of previous Van Damme collaborator, Peter Hyam, director John Hyam had made his name with documentaries about MMA. Hyam would bring that same intensity and urgency to this film. Despite being a direct-to-video fourth sequel to a barely remembered nineties movie, “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” quickly gained fans.

Ignoring all prior “UniSol” sequels, “Regeneration” brings the misbegotten franchise into the modern day. The children of the Russian Prime Minister are kidnapped by an even more deadly, new model of Universal Soldier. Procured by a rogue scientist, the NextGen UniSol is working with Ukrainian terrorists, whose base of operation is inside the ruins of Chernobyl. The U.S. army tries to retrieve the children but the super soldier makes quick work of all of them. With few other options, Luc Deveraux is recruited. However, Deveraux has a serious case of PTSD and, with the help of a therapist, has slowly been reentering normal society. Will the formerly great UniSol be able to stand up to the new model, especially when an old enemy also enters the fray?

Minutes after beginning, “Regeneration” leads with extremely brutal, bloody action. The opening scene is devoted to the girl being abducted by the bad guys. The bullets hit extremely hard, blood spurting from every wound, splattering on glass and chrome. Vehicles crash, the metal twisting and the tires shrieking. After that mission, the NGU’s broken arms and scourged skin are treated in a cold, scientific manner. When Luc Deveraux is finally unleashed in the film’s final act, Van Damme cleaves through a small army with a knife. The arterial spray flies freely and, while the stab wounds are occasionally lingered on, the focus is on brutal and bloody efficiency. The hardest hits are reserved for the man-on-man melees. Van Damme and Dolph’s duel has the two titans tossed through windows, shelves, walls and tables. After diving thirty feet out a building, the fight concludes with a metal pipe through the forehead and a shotgun to the brain. Deveraux’s final fight with the NGU is no less vicious, as it features an even higher fall, harsher kicks and punches, and an explosion making mince meat of a grown man. It’s awesome.

The action scenes just aren’t intense in content. Hyam’s direction is kinetic but smooth. The car chase, for example, has a fabulous sense of motion. The camera rolls along with the vehicles, as bullets shatter the glass and the cars smash into each other. Despite all the chaos going on, Hyam’s hand remains steady. The action scenes are characterized by slickly edited, longish shots. Such as when Van Damme runs into battle, blowing away bad guys and effortlessly dodging explosions. A sequence that practically feels like a horror movie is devoted to the NGU stalking the other soldiers, cornering them and dispatching them with a retractable wrist-blade. Even a smaller moment, such as when Mike Pyle’s hero sneaks into Chernobyl and quietly disarms some enemies, has a fluidness to the action. “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” is not just hard hitting but is cleanly and stylishly directed.

The previous “Universal Soldier” movies were not exactly the type of movies to feature smart, insightful subtext. The original had the thinnest wisp of a point about the military establishment making normal people into inhuman killing machines. “Regeneration” runs with this, taking the theme much further. When Devereux is first introduced, he’s the spitting image of a shell-shocked soldier. He’s quiet, withdrawn, on medication, yet still prone to violent outbursts. When the government decides it needs him, they break into his home and drag him off. Luc is dropped onto a treadmill, pumped full of drugs, tossed into training, and back on the battlefield in hours. They don’t care about his well-being. The movie’s final image makes this point even more abundantly clear. The war machine rolls on, using up good men. In the world of “Universal Soldier,” even death can’t keep the government from exploiting its soldiers.

“Regeneration” is a strong film but it has one serious flaw. The story is seemingly without a primary protagonist. Van Damme’s Devereux is obviously the hero we want to root for but he’s on the sidelines until nearly the end of the movie. Andrei Arlovski, a MMA fighter of some renown who is credited as “The Pitbull,” plays the NGU and gets top-billing. Arlovski is physically intimidating and does well in the part but the villain intentionally has no personality. Which leaves Mike Pyle, another professional fighter, as Captain Kevin Burke. Burke is the most morally ethical of the characters, leads the various failed military charges, and helps save the hostages. Despite that, he exits the film well before the end and, truthfully, only has a handful of scenes to himself. Without a solid lead character for the audience to focus on, “Regeneration” ends up sometimes feeling like nothing but a series of (beautifully orchestrated) action scenes.

It almost feels like the film was written with Pyle as the main hero and Arlovski as the primary villain, the producers assuming Van Damme and Lundgren wouldn’t return. I have no proof of this but I suspect that Jean-Claude and Dolph’s insertion into the movie was the result of a quickie rewrite. Whatever the reason, the film is better because of their participation. The tired, worn-out quality on Van Damme’s face adds another sad dimension to Deveraux. By the film’s end, he is sadly resigned to his role in life. A nice touch is Van Damme closing his eyes during a brief moment of quiet, as if he’s a warrior monk centering himself before striking again. Arlovski is a pretty great villain but Dolph brings some perverse fun to the film. As in the original, Andrew Scott is unhinged from the moment he appears. Before crushing the mad scientist’s head with his bare hands, Dolph turns a previous line of dialogue against him. The casual way he decides to murder a pair of children is equally chilling and morbidly funny. These action stars may be pushing retirement age but “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” makes it clear that they can still kick some serious ass.

“Universal Soldier: Regeneration” may not have the sturdiest script but, as far as break-neck action goes, it delivers in spades. It’s not a dumb movie either, with some real ideas on its mind. The film is another proud addition to the line of alt-action flicks, providing hard-hitting alternatives to the CGI-filled spectacles of Hollywood, that also includes “The Raid” and the films of Isaac Florentine. And who would’ve expected that from the fifth film in a series most people probably don’t even remember? [8/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 3 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: JCVD (2008)


We hadn’t heard from Jean-Claude Van Damme much by 2008. Oh, he was still making movies. But they came and went without much notice, disappearing onto video store shelves where nobody but hardened action cinema fans watched them. Which made the sudden buzz “JCVD” received on the festival circuit all the more surprising. Van Damme had starred as himself in a primarily subtitled dramedy. The film was getting good reviews but the star’s performance was getting great reviews. Considering Van Damme’s skills as a thespian were rarely lauded, it was an unexpected turn of events. So was a star mostly associated with undistinguished schlock appearing in a heavily-meta foreign language film. “JCVD” spurned a renewed interest in Van Damme’s career, helping cement his modern day status as a cult favorite. At the very least, the film proved the action star wasn’t going down without a fight.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is not doing too hot. He breaks his back in mediocre action films for unappreciative directors. An ex-wife has taken him to court over custody of their daughter, a fight he’s struggling to win. The scripts aren’t getting any better, the paychecks are getting smaller, and the money is starting to dry up. While visiting his Belgian home town, exhausted from the flight, he enters a post office. His hope is to wire some much needed cash to his lawyer in L.A. Unbeknownst to him, a group of thugs have taken the bank hostage. Van Damme is pulled into their haphazard scheme, forced to participate.

Usually when an actor stars as themselves in a film, the story is making a statement about fame. “JCVD,” oddly, doesn’t go down that path. Perhaps the implication is that Van Damme’s fame is of a particularly precarious nature. He remains an icon in Brussels and, several times throughout the film, fans ask for photographs or questions with the star. One of his captors is an especially passionate fan. He discusses John Woo with his idol and has him kick a cigarette out of a hostage’s mouth. “JCVD” is, in fact, a highly personal tale of redemption.  Jean-Claude wants to make art but those aren’t the scripts he’s getting offered. He’s desperate not to loose his daughter but the deck is stacked against him. When he winds up in a hostage situation, it seems like the latest pitfall in a long string of set backs. However, as the long day goes on, the action star realizes he can save other people’s lives. For real, this time. Furthering how personal a project “JCVD” was for its lead, his actual parents also appear in the film.

Despite whatever ego he might have displayed off-screen, Van Damme devotees know the star’s eccentric, earthy humanity has always been one of his best attributes. “JCVD” builds upon this. He’s always been charming but it’s rare that this much visible thought has gone into one of his performances. The movie creates an intentional contrast between his on-screen persona and his “real” personality. During the hostage situation, Van Damme panics, cowers and hides. During a cab ride with a chatty driver, he’s grumpy, exhausted from the jet lag. He stutters and yells while on the phone with negotiators, visibly nervous. He argues with his agent, who offers him scripts that have already been filmed. When he discovers he’s lost a part to Steven Seagal – who promised to cut his pony tail for the film – he’s dismayed. When the conclusion comes, the star accepts his fate with dignity and grace. Not only is it a compelling performance, it’s a touching one.

“JCVD’s” self-aware tendencies extend pass casting the lead actor as himself. The movie is happy to play with the film format. “JCVD” begins with a stunning single shot. Set to Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times,” the long sequence has Van Damme kicking, punching, shooting, exploding, and setting enemies on fire. Amusingly, the long shot is bungled at the end by a faulty prop. The camera pulls back and we realize Van Damme is on a film set, run by a picky but apathetic director. This playfulness continues through the film, with the non-linear storytelling, creative camera angles, and flights of fancy imagined by the protagonist. This tendency climaxes with an amazing monologue. After floating above the set, Van Damme talks directly to the audience. The partially improvised speech has Jean-Claude reflecting on his childhood, long march towards fame, his success, his drug abuse and womanizing, and his current situation. It concludes with him wondering aloud why his dreams came true when so few others do and begging God for a second chance. It’s a deeply personal and powerful moment, clearly the centerpiece of the entire film.

Despite some astonishing moments and a fantastic lead performance, “JCVD” has flaws. The slightly ramshackle script does not have an even flow. Sometimes scenes go on too long, awkwardly rambling into each other. Van Damme is the only character that truly gets developed. The bank robbers often come off as loosely drawn caricatures. The Van Damme fanboy, for example, is somewhat cartoonish while his bullying brother is thinly sketched. Despite the quiet humor of the film, “JCVD” is dourly directed. The entire film is shot in grey, cloud-choked skies always overhead. The interior of the post office is presented through a sickly green. “JCVD” is a funny and thoughtful film but, visually, it’s miserable looking.

Despite Van Damme giving an award-worthy performance and getting excellent reviews, “JCVD” was disappointingly but unsurprisingly absent come award season. The Muscle from Brussels didn’t go home with any statues but “JCVD” did allow for a happy reevaluation of his talent. Suddenly, his films became fondly recalled points of nostalgia and his skills as a performer were better respected. The movies started getting better too. For these reasons and more, “JCVD” is obviously essential viewing for anyone interested in Van Damme and has already developed a cult following of its own. [8/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 2 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick


Monday, May 23, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Replicant (2001)


For most of the previous decade, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career was ice cold. His late eighties/early nineties glory days were long gone. His eventual reappraisal as a cult figure hadn’t yet happened. At most points during the 2000s, if Van Damme was in a movie, that usually meant it was an unremarkable affair destined to premiere on television or video store shelves. I could have picked any number of films to represent this low period. However, I decided on “Replicant” for a specific reason. I remember seeing a trailer or commercial for the film. At the time, it surprised me that a punchline like Van Damme could still headline a movie. He was so washed up even a kid recognized it. Years later, it’s time to judge “Replicant” on its own merits.

The city of Seattle is being terrorized by a serial killer. Known as the Torch, he breaks into the homes of single mothers, beats them to death, and then burns the building down. Detective Jake Riley is obsessed with the Torch and has been pursuing him doggedly for years now. After being forced into retirement, a secret government sector presents Riley with an unusual proposition. Using a piece of the killer’s hair recovered from a crime scene, scientists have created an adult age clone of the killer. The Replicant has the mentality of the child and a psychic connection with the real murderer. Riley takes the clone into his own home and treats him cruelly at first. As they draw closer to catching the killer, he develops an odd fondness for the copy.

I have good news to report: “Replicant” is very entertaining! The film is Van Damme’s second collaboration with Ringo Lam, one of those crazy Hong Kong filmmakers he likes. As a result, “Replicant” has an endearing kooky streak. I’m not talking about the ridiculous plot. (Why would the government go to the expense of cloning the guy when a number of easier, cheaper options must be available?) Instead, I’m referring to the oddball combo of genres. The film mashes up big action, silly sci-fi, crime thriller and a bizarre sense of humor. Moreover, “Replicant” seems to have some thematic concerns on its mind. It’s not so much a nature vs. nurture debate as it’s an interest in the effects of bad parenting. The Torch was abused by his mother and became an unhinged serial killer. The Replicant is treated cruelly at first as well. However, after Det. Riley opens his heart to the strange man, the Replicant’s good nature is revealed. None of this really crystallizes into a coherent whole but it certainly makes “Replicant” consistently interesting.

Once again, Van Damme is playing duel roles in a film. However, Van Damme’s performance is far more divergent then his work in “Double Impact.” As the titular character, he’s playing something akin to an idiot man-child. After plopping out of his artificial womb, the speechless Replicant watches an educational video where an older woman teaches him how to sit. (The ability to perform splits, however, seems born into him.) After Riley takes him home, the clone gets chained up in the basement, like an abused dog. This leads to an especially bizarre/homoerotic sequence where Michael Rooker stripes Van Damme down to his underwear. As unexpected as that moment is, the peak of weirdo humor in “Replicant” comes when the clone befriends a prostitute. While visiting her hotel room, he awkwardly dry-humps the woman until orgasm. The scene of Van Damme confused by the wet stain on his sweatpants afterwards truly must be seen to be believed.

Van Damme has played a villain a few times throughout his career. However, few of them compared to the sleazy psychopath he portrays in “Replicant.” Topped with greasy long hair and usually wearing a ratty leather jacket, the Torch hangs out in a dark apartment filled with madly scrawled notes. The Torch’s murderous M.O. is deeply Freudian. By beating and burning mothers, he’s repeatedly killing his own abusive mother. This is best illustrated when he goes nuts in the morgue and empties a handgun into his recently dead mom. The script is not especially cutting edge. The movie frequently cuts to sloppily shot flashbacks, where we see his tortured youth. However, Van Damme is awfully committed to the part. He makes the serial killer creepy and frightening.

Despite getting top billing and obviously being the star of the show, Van Damme is not truly the protagonist of “Replicant.” Michael Rooker plays Detective Riley, the man who actually motivates the plot. Rooker has always excelled at playing gruff characters. Even while ostensibly playing this film’s hero, he doesn’t back down on that gruffness. Riley is hilariously mean-spirited throughout the film. Despite the Replicant obviously being an innocent, Rooker still treats the character as if he’s the serial killer. This includes beating him, chaining him to a sink, and yelling profanity at him. Rooker is far too convincing as crazy, making it difficult to buy him as a hero. Having said that, “Replicant” still works pretty well as a grimy police thriller. The moments devoted to seeking out the murderer’s victims, where the cast look at grisly crime scene photos, are surprisingly effective.

This is still a Van Damme movie though, which means there has to be some high-kicking action. “Replicant” succeeds at this as well! Like I said, the Replicant has a built-in knowledge of martial arts. When Riley decides to test out the clone’s possible murderous tendencies, it leads to Van Damme (or his stunt double, anyway) kicking, leaping, and swinging around a warehouse. Naturally, “Replicant” provides some Van Damme-on-Van Damme action. The first occurs in a random bar and concludes with the good JCVD break-dancing on a pool table. At the conclusion, the doubles perfectly match each other. This means spinning roundhouse kicks are met with spinning roundhouse kicks, uppercuts countered with uppercuts. All of this is pretty awesome but it’s not the best stunt in “Replicant.” That occurs when the bad JCVD steals an ambulance. Rooker hangs off the door of the vehicle as it smashes through the parking garbage, sparks flying everywhere. The sequence concludes with the ambulance doing a spinning flip down a staircase. It’s an awesome car wreck and one I totally did not see coming.

Maybe my low expectations helped. “Replicant” is amusingly weird in spots. Jean-Claude Van Damme as a speechless child-like humanoid stumbling through an adult world is certainly a sight you won’t see anywhere else. As a sci-fi flick, it’s totally implausible and frequently ridiculous. As an action movie, it definitely provides the goods. As an off-beat genre film, it’s most entertaining. Truthfully, I’m surprised it doesn’t have more of a following. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 4 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[X] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick


JCVD-A-THON: Universal Solider: The Return (1999)


By 1999, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career had hit a low point. “Double Team” and “Knock Off” were box office flops. 1998’s “Legionnaire” was the first of his films to go direct-to-video but far from the last. Van Damme says he was clean by this point but the Cocaine Years had taken their toll. His star power was bottoming out. As one last desperate attempt to recapture the public’s attention, the action icon employed the strategy of starring in a sequel to a previously successful film. I don’t know if “Universal Soldier” was that hot of a property by 1999. I guess those TV movies kept the title in audience’s minds? It was also one of JCVD’s biggest mainstream hits. Either way, “Universal Soldier: The Return” did not reignite Van Damme fever. The film’s failure would begin the Muscle from Brussels’ long exile to the straight-to-video netherworld.

In the years since the first “Universal Soldier,” Luc Deveraux has been striped of his cybernetic add-ons and psychological programming. He’s mostly human now. He even married his love interest from the first film, fathered a daughter, and became a widower. Now, Deveraux works as a consultant with the government, who is pumping out Universal Soldiers with the help of a super-computer named S.E.T.H. However, budget cuts soon force the closure of the UniSol program. S.E.T.H. does not take kindly to this. He takes control of the remaining UniSols, holds the government facility hostage, and violently kills anyone who opposes him. Deveraux goes on the run with another reporter until S.E.T.H., inhabiting a super-powered UniSol body, kidnaps Luc’s daughter. Now the fight is personal.

“Universal Soldier: The Return” is the first Van Damme movie I’ve seen that I would described as dumb without any endearment. As a sequel, it doesn’t build upon the original intelligently. I kind of doubt that Deveraux would willingly work for the government, considering what they did to him. Or that he would re-adapt to human life so easily. Or that the program would even exist any more, after the huge fuck-ups last time. A super-computer rebelling against its own termination is an old cliché, which “The Return” brings nothing new to. Moreover, it seems to me that the invention of complex artificial intelligence would render the UniSols obsolete. If you have that technology, why not just build robots? Beyond that, the story takes several dumb turns. Such as the random appearance of a strip club/phone sex hub, the even sillier bar fight that follows, Deveraux and the lady reporter falling in love in the space of a few hours, and the obnoxious punk rock hacker who waltz into the story without much reason.

The script is lousy but Jean-Claude Van Damme is doing his best to elevate the material. Unlike his last few films, where the star didn’t seem that invested in the material, Van Damme appears very jovial throughout “The Return.” His energy runs high, he smiles a lot, cracks joke, and trades romantic banter with his female co-stars. This is at least the fourth time he’s played a father. That too seems to contribute to his high spirits. The scenes he shares with Karis Bryant, the actress playing his daughter, are genuinely charming and sweet. By this point, Van Damme had kicked coke and was on the way to remarrying his third wife, who he’s still married to. That makes a lot of difference, I suspect. The script is still crappy but the star visibly having fun definitely counts for something.

Dolph Lundgren’s career wasn’t doing too hot by 1999 either. However, I guess his character going into a wood chipper discouraged the producers from bringing him back. Instead, two new villains vex Luc Deveraux this time. Pro-wrestler Bill Goldberg plays Romeo, an antagonistic UniSol. The soldiers deliberately lacked personality last time. Romeo, however, displays anger and a sense of humor even before the rebellion. Every time Goldberg shows up, Van Damme defeats him, causing the wrestler to crack an exceedingly lame one-liner. It’s mildly amusing at first but quickly grows tiresome with repetition. Instead of adapting his wrestling persona to the character, Goldberg basically just plays his wrestling persona. Michael Jai White’s distinctive baritone is immediately recognizable coming out of S.E.T.H.’s computer brain. When S.E.T.H. uploads his consciousness into a human body, White obviously puts in an appearance. Playing a cold and logical killer restrains White’s immeasurable charm and comedic timing. However, White still has an impressive screen presence and solid acting chops, making him a more-than-worthy successor to Dolph.

Many of the action sequences in “Universal Soldier: The Return” are underscored by obnoxiously loud proto-nu-metal. This is, of course, ridiculous and drains a lot of positive energy out of the sequences. Few of the action scenes are that memorable. The film opens with a mildly exciting speed boat chase, even if that scene turns out to be a dumb training exercise. There are several shoot-outs in the military facility, many of them devolving into bad guys firing and the good guys ducking behind walls. Van Damme’s expected gymnastics are unusually restrained. I swear he doesn’t kick someone until nearly an hour in. However, once the kicking happens, the film picks up considerably speed. A fight scene in the hospital is pretty cool, concluding with a bad UniSol launched into an industrial washing machine. The final fight between Van Damme and White has both stars giving it their all. Jean-Claude leaping off chairs and walls is awkward but the original Universal Soldier and Black Dynamite happily beat the crap out of each other. White’s raw physicality and powerful kicks actually make Van Damme seem out-classed, however briefly.

William Malone, primarily known as a horror director of debatable talent, co-wrote “Universal Soldier: The Return.” Not surprisingly, the sequel suffers from many of the same obnoxious story gaps and stylistic quirks as Malone’s directorial work. “The Return” isn’t quite bad enough to be entirely terrible. It’s also not unintentionally funny enough to transcend quality and become campy fun. Instead, it’s an underwhelming sequel, seemingly made to cash-in on the original’s dwindling recognition and boost its star’s falling status. On the other hand, it’s also only 79 minutes long, so you won’t waste much time watching it. [5/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 4 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[X] Dancing*
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

*The briefest of head bops.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Double Team (1997)


By 1997, Jean-Claude Van Damme was basically a pop culture punchline. His movies weren’t exactly loosing money at the box office but the profit margin was growing smaller with each new release. A decade of bad reviews and – perhaps more importantly – changing public taste concerning the action genre had taken its toll. “Double Team” would combine the action star with Dennis Rodman, another flamboyant icon of nineties cheese. The film received the most toxic reviews of Van Damme’s career, won three Razzies, and did meager business at the box office. In the nineteen years since its release, “Double Team” has acquired a reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good classic. Is this status deserved?

Government agent Jack Quinn has stepped away from the anti-terrorism business. While enjoying retirement with his pregnant wife, he is drawn back for One Last Mission. Madman-for-hire Stavros, an old enemy of Jack’s, has reemerged. Naturally, the mission goes horribly wrong, ending with Stavros’ son being killed. Afterwards, Jack is declared dead by the government and held hostage on an island for decommissioned spies. During his incarceration, Stavros kidnaps Jack’s wife, her delivery date growing closer and closer. After a daring escape, Jack partners with Yaz, an eccentric weapons dealer he previously meet. The two worked together to rescue his wife and stop the bad guy.

Whether or not you consider “Double Team” so bad it’s good depends on your definition of both “bad” and “good.” After successfully bringing John Woo to Hollywood, Van Damme teamed with another Hong Kong filmmaker. But Tsui Hark is a far more eccentric talent then Woo. “Double Team” is completely bonkers, in the way a lot of Hong Kong cinema gleefully is. The film plays less like a mainstream blockbuster and more like an Italian James Bond rip-off from the sixties. To that already kooky pot, it adds elements of a kung-fu movie, a buddy cop flick, a revenge storyline, and about fifty basketball puns. The resulting stew is so goofy, so wildly excessive in conception and divergent in tone, that it couldn’t have been anything but a box office failure and a cult favorite.

Take, for example, the action sequences. The film begins with Van Damme driving some sort of armored truck up a non-existent ramp and through a train car. The first proper action scene is a shoot-out in an amusement park. The machine gun fire takes out a clown, foam cartoon mascots, a popcorn machine, and a girl in a chicken mask. Van Damme leaps from an exploding neon sign and break dances around some bullets. Van Damme and Mickey Rourke fight through a hospital, the hero repeatedly pushing a baby out of the chaos while face-kicking his opponent. By the end of the movie, he kicks a tiger in the head. In a bizarre bit of product placement, a Coca-Cola machine is used to shield the good guys from a massive, CGI fireball that destroys the Colosseum. Yet this is not the peak of “Double Team’s” absurdity. That occurs when an assassin throws his shoes at Van Damme and attempts to stab him with a switchblade held between his toes. Why his toes? Why not! Despite the utter insanity, Tsui Hark directs each scene with a kinetic, energetic style. “Double Team” is gloriously mad but never unfocused.

Aside from the toe-assisted knife-wielding, my favorite part of “Double Team” is a bizarre plot stop-off at the start of the second act. After failing to stop Stavros and being shot in the back, Jack wakes up on a strange island. There, former spies – declared dead by their governments – are held so that their skills and secrets can be used on future cases. The ocean around the island is guarded by underwater laser arrays. Before curfew, each spy must press their fingerprint to a panel to prevent suicide gas from being released. There are no murderous balloons or stylish cardigans but this still appears to be a reference to surreal spy cult classic, “The Prisoner.” Of course, Van Damme and Patrick McGoonen have slightly different responses to captivity. Van Damme trains inside his hut, wrestling his bathtub, holding his breathe for longer periods each day, and performing upside down crunches in the doorway. His escape is no less ridiculous, as he pushes a guy into the lasers and dangles outside a cargo plane. It’s amazing.

By casting Dennis Rodman in a lead role, “Double Team” was setting itself up for critical ridicule. Audiences are always hostile when notorious figures from one panel of pop culture foolhardily attempt to cross over into another. (See also: Carrey, Mariah. Hilton, Paris.) Rodman’s acting is frequently stiff, as he chokes out his lines in an incredulous monotone. His dialogue mostly being composed of basketball puns, crude double entendres, and quips about his ridiculous inventions doesn’t help any. Rodman is pretty terrible but his flamboyant style adds to “Double Team’s” campy appeal. The character’s base is a gay leather bar, which he sells giant guns out of. Rodman’s outrageous style, bizarre hair-cuts, and nebulous sexuality seem attuned with the film’s insane content. And this is before he tosses an exploding coin, leaps out of an airplane inside an inflatable balloon, and grabs a baby while driving a motorcycle through the Colosseum.

Van Damme’s star was fading. The public’s patience for Denis Rodman was waning. “Double Team” further stacked the deck against itself by casting Mickey Rourke as the villain. Rourke was officially washed up by 1997. Determined to match Van Damme’s martial art skills, Rourke underwent a heavy training regiment. He displays this during the climatic show-down, where he shows off his toned, glistening pecs and jump kicks. (Weirdly, Jean-Claude keeps his shirt on.) Rourke fluctuates between acting like a sleazy, snake-lipped conman and a monosyllabic psychopath. His grudge against Jack Quinn is personal but the film doesn’t do a good job of illustrating this. Adding another weird layer to “Double Team” is the theme of fatherhood. Quinn indirectly killed Stavros’ son, so he kidnaps Quinn’s unborn child. What relation does this concept have with the film’s kooky spy story and high-kicking action? Not much.

In addition to everything else, there’s also a scene where Van Damme dresses up like a goth teenager. That “Double Team” received a harsh greeting from critics and the public isn’t a shock. The script is a total mess and the execution is completely ridiculous. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t fun. In fact, “Double Team” is a blast from beginning to end. Put yourself on the film’s outrageous wavelength and you might have a good time with it too. [8/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 5 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt*
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[X] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

*He fights a bathtub. I’m counting it.


Friday, May 20, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: The Quest (1996)


The underwhelming box office of “Sudden Death” didn’t end Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career but it probably took some luster off his star power. That film was the fourth in a five picture deal with Universal Pictures, which concluded with “The Quest.” If one accepts the perception that Van Damme was a coke-fueled egomaniac at the time, “The Quest” is undoubtedly the peak of his hubris. For the Muscle from Brussels not only starred in the film but he also directed it. The production was disorganized, the critical reception was unanimously negative, and the box office receipts were just okay. Even among Van Damme fanatics, the action star’s directorial debut is not especially well regarded.

The year is 1925. Fighters from all over the world are being summoned to the Lost City of Taibet. There, the best fighters from each country are competing in a secret tournament. The winner will take home a huge, solid gold statue of a dragon. Chris DuBois, a French pickpocket living in New York, doesn’t know anything about this. Through a series of unlikely events, involving gangsters and pirates, DuBois is sold into slavery on Muay Thai Island. Six months of training leaves DuBois a martial arts expert. Another encounter with the pirate, along with an American journalist and boxer, has Chris entering the tournament.

The concept for “The Quest” is co-credited to Van Damme and the real life Frank Dux. Dux sued to get his name on the film. He claims the star stole the idea from him, reportedly conceived in 1991 under the ridiculous title of “Enter the New Dragon: The Kumite.” Considering this is the fourth movie Van Damme has starred in about an underground fighting ring, I kind of doubt the star/director needed Dux’s help. “The Quest” is equally derivative of “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer.” Once again, Van Damme is a foreigner in an Asian country, fighting to survive and never surrendering. Once again, he faces a physically intimidating opponent who beats people to death in the ring. (A giant Mongolian guy is traded out for a giant Chinese guy.) However, this time, Van Damme doesn’t have any relationship with the villain’s victim. He doesn’t fight for revenge or to prove himself. The star has returned to the same well too many times, the material growing thinner with every new visit.

If “The Quest” has a defining gimmick, it’s the international aspect of its story. Each fighter is from a different country, utilizing a fighting technique unique to that nation. The Japanese guy is a Sumo wrestler. The Turkish fighter is an expert in Turkish wrestling. The Brazilian fighter uses capoeira. The Scottish guy wears a kilt. The Spanish fighter’s skill set includes some flamenco moves. The martial arts of China, Korea, Siam, and Okinawa all put in an appearance. Before Van Damme steps in, the American representative is a bare-knuckle boxer. If it wasn’t set in the 1920s, “The Quest” would actually have more in common with the “Street Fighter” video games then the “Street Fighter” film Van Damme previously starred in. (Though the Brazilian fighter really needed to be a green-skinned man-ape for the comparison to really clear.)

“The Quest” admittedly does not lack in the weird qualities Jean-Claude often brings to his film. Van Damme is introduced in clown make-up, juggling bowling pins and walking on stilts. He even kicks some dudes with the stilts. What is ostensibly motivating the hero is the group of street orphans and pickpockets he watches out for. That’s right, at the beginning of his martial arts epic, Van Damme cast himself as an off-brand Fagin with a group of Dickensian ragamuffins. This is aside from the framing device, which features Van Damme in some old age make-up, beating up some thugs, and reading a bartender his life story. Van Damme doesn’t bring anything new to his fourth role as a naïve and hopeful newcomer in a brutal fighting competition. It’s the eccentric qualities that make the part memorable.

But that’s Van Damme, the leading man. What about Van Damme, the director? “The Quest” is mostly fight scenes. As you’d expect, an experienced action star has no problem framing fight scenes in clear ways. However, his flourishes as a filmmaker are often distracting. Intense blows and finishing moves are frequently shot in slow motion. Van Damme uses this so often that the effect quickly becomes comical. Crash zooms and dutch angles even crop up a few times. Every shot of the sumo wrestler is accentuated by gurgling stomach sound effects, every jiggle of his gut and man-boobs being lingered on. Van Damme’s direction is frequently overdone. The fight choreography is great but the action isn’t quite as exciting as perhaps it should’ve been. The action high-light of the movie occurs at the end, when the battle between DuBois and the Mongolian villain explodes outside the ring. A funny shot has the two men rampaging through a small building, the fight shown only from outside.

Because so much of “The Quest’s” run time is devoted to mortal combat, there’s not much time for character development. DuBois becomes a kicking and punching machine before too long. Abdel Qissi, who previously played the end boss in “Lionheart,” is Khan the Mongolian. He’s pretty good at glowering angrily but I’m not sure he even has any dialogue. The flashiest of the supporting players is Roger Moore as Lord Edgar Dobbs, the pirate that starts Chris on his quest. Moore has a ridiculous subplot about trying to steal the gold dragon statue via blimp. Moore is at maximum foppishness here, so silly it’s hard to take. (Apparently, in his memoir, Roger Moore referred to “The Quest” as his least favorite of all his films.) James Remar has a pretty good part as Maxie Devine, the boxer. He brings some alright grit to a role mostly composed of him shouting encouragement from the sidelines. Janet Gunn, as the reporter, is apparently set up as Van Damme’s love interest but she contributes so little to the film. The character is a non-entity.

The making of “The Quest” was troubled. Money ran low mid-way through and the crew nearly quit. You wouldn’t think the difficult production, mediocre box office, and forgettable quality would make Van Damme eager to direct another movie. His follow-up effort was filmed in 2010 and has been re-edited several times since. It has cycled through three titles – “Full Love,” “Soldiers,” “The Eagle Path,” and now back to “Full Love” – and still hasn’t seen a proper release. Pointedly, Van Damme hasn’t starred in a movie about an underground fighting ring since this one. Both of these factoids may be for the best, as “The Quest” is by far the least memorable of the films I’ve watched for this marathon. [5/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 3 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick