Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 22, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016)


Two of Van Damme's most iconic films, “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer,” both launched franchises. The “Bloodsport” series totaled four films while “Kickboxer” made it all the way to five. Being a soon-to-be superstar at the time, Jean-Claude was not interested in appearing in these sequels. These continuations had to make do with Faux Van Dammes, like Daniel Bernhardt or Sasha Mitchell. Things were a little difference in 2016. When “Kickboxer” was randomly chosen as the next long-dormant franchise to be rebooted, Van Damme was eager to appear. This worked out well for both parties. “Kickboxer: Vengeance” gave the star a chance to reprise one of his best known films. Meanwhile, Van Damme's presence lent the remake more credibility. This tactic seemed to work, as “Kickboxer: Vengeance” was about as well received as a film like this could be.

The subtitle may give you the impression that “Kickboxer: Vengeance” is more reboot than remake. In actuality, the film directly follows the beats of the original with a few modern updates. Eric Sloan is a champion kickboxer, trained and watched over by his younger brother, Kurt. A shady fight promoter extends a deal to Eric to fight in Thailand. Soon enough, Kurt faces off against Tong Po, the local champion. Po's fighting style is brutal. So brutal that he beats Eric to death on the mat. Eric tracks down Tong Po, eager to seek revenge, but gets arrested by the cops. Released, he seeks out Durand, Eric's trainer, and begins to prepare for a duel to the death with Tong Po.

As I said, “Vengeance” is a direct remake of the original “Kickboxer.” The film takes the story into dark and gritty territories. Instead of just beating Eric into a wheelchair, Tong Po outright murders him. The villain's role gets a general expansion, as he's now the cult-like leader of a Muay Tai training retreat.  Kurt doesn't merely seek to best his rival in the ring but expects to kill him. Similarly, the trainer is given a bigger role, participating more in the action sequences. In some ways, “Vengeance” is much grimmer than the film it's remaking. The drunken dance sequence is replaced with an extended bar room brawl. Yet 2017's “Kickboxer” is funnier than you'd expect. The training scenes are still played for laughs. The film pays off on many of the campy expectations you might have. There's even a halfway decent romance, which is a big improvement over the original.

“Kickboxer: Vengeance” fills its cast with both familiar and new faces. Perhaps hoping to replicate Van Damme's career, the film stars a martial artist attempting to break into acting. Alain Moussi has worked on a number of high-profile projects as a stuntman, including the last two “X-Men” movies. He apparently operates a dojo in his native Ottawa. As an actor, Moussi does okay. He's occasionally a bit stiff but, as the film goes on, he displays a decent sense of humor about himself. As a fighter, he's more than capable. I'm not saying the guy is the next Van Damme but he does alright. He also has surprisingly decent chemistry with Sara Malakul Lane, who is fairly capable in a slightly more complex than usual love interest role. Also appearing in the film is Georges St-Pierre, a Canadian MMA fighter of some renown. St-Pierre's acting is pretty broad but he has a goofy, affable presence that works well in his few scenes.

However, the familiar faces ultimately make more of an impression. Obviously looking to capitalize on Van Damme's presence, the trainer character is elevated to secondary protagonist. Jean-Claude is having a good time, smiling a lot, joking around with his young pupil. At the same time, he brings a renewed physicality to his action scenes, never letting you forget he's a legendary performer. (Though his voice appears to be dubbed by another actor in several scenes, which is a baffling decision.) Dave Batista is also excellent as Tong Po. Batista has successfully expanded beyond his pro-wrestling past, with his unexpectedly strong performances in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films. As Tong Po, Batista is physically intimidating. Yet he also brings an odd sense of honor to the part, making him a little more than your standard movie bad guy. Gina Carano also appears but, disappointingly, she doesn't participate in the fighting.

Most importantly, “Kickboxer: Vengeance” features some pretty great action sequences. The fights are more acrobatic than the original. Kurt and one of Tong Po's followers frequently performing spinning leg-locks on their opponents, leaping around the other fighters in an impressively visual way.  The fights tend to alternate between brutal and playful. The bar room brawl involves Kurt getting his ass kicked, smashed across tables and slammed, face-first, into a jukebox. A cool scene involves a tracking shot, Kurt rushing into Tong Po's temple and beating his opponents away. Naturally, the final fight between the hero and villain features lots of bloodshed and savage beatings. On the playful sight, a hilarious scene has Kurt and Durand escaping from a jail. It ends with Van Damme kicking two different guys through two separate sheets of glass. That got a big cheer from me. Director John Stockwell – yes, the dude from “Christine” – has a solid grasp on action direction.

“Kickboxer: Vengeance” functions solidly as a modern day action-fest. Yet it's self-aware enough to conclude with a reprisal of the original's dance sequence. Honestly, I might have liked the remake as much as I did strictly because it gave Van Damme so much to do. Usually, you'd expect the original's star to have a small role in a remake. Instead, he's kicking butt alongside the hero! It's a good thing that the remake turned out so well, because a sequel has already been announced. “Kickboxer: Retaliation” is already in the can, with a planned release date later in the year. A third film is expected to appear after that. Van Damme is on-board for both of those, which gives me hope they'll be equally strong. [7/10]

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


Friday, July 21, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Pound of Flesh (2015)


My fascination with urban legends is no secret around these parts. Those scary stories and wide-ranging misconceptions are often secret windows into our culture's darkest fears and most shameful concerns. One of the most persistent myths, despite being repeatedly discredited, is the kidney thieves: A tourist in a foreign country falls victim to an international organ smuggling ring, awakening in a bathtub full of ice with a huge cut on their side. That particular story is a solid foundation for any low budget film. “The Harvest” or “Turistas” are just two previous examples. But those movies didn't have Jean-Claude Van Damme in them. “Pound of Flesh” promised to be an action movie twist on the ages old legend, making sure we had plenty of shoot-outs and roundhouse kicks to go with our missing kidneys.

Deacon Lyle, a former kidnapping expert and government agent, is visiting the Philippines. While at a club, he rescues a woman from an attacker. They spend the night together. The next morning, Deacon awakes in a bathtub full of ice. He is dazed, disorientated, and has a long cut down his back. Someone has stolen his kidney. This is especially bad news, as Deacon intended to donate that kidney to his dying niece. Lyle is forced to team up with his hyper-religious brother, whom he has a strained relationship with, to hunt down the people who stole his precious organ. The question is will he be able to find them in time before he collapses?

“Pound of Flesh” has one thing really going for it. The action scenes are very intense. The first fight scene in the film has Van Damme laying a body slam on the late action bit player Darren Shahlavi. The first really impressive sequence occurs when a series of baddies jump Van Damme in a dance club. The most unlikely of weapons, a bible, is utilized to gouge a guy's eye out. That scene also features some cool flips. Jean-Claude's trademark split – we haven't seen one of those in a while! – is deployed in an interesting manner, involving our hero stretching outside a moving vehicle. Shahlavi returns for a decent fight scene at the end, hero and villain wrestling on the floor of a mansion, snapping limbs and beating on each other. It's a good thing that the hand-to-hand battles are pretty cool because the shoot-outs are fairly uninspired.

Sadly, the bone-breaking action only comprises a portion of “Pound of Flesh's” run time. Director Ernie Barbarash, previously of “Six Bullets,” seemingly had higher aspirations for this low budget action flick. Deacon's brother, George, is highly religious. Naturally, that puts a strain on his relationship with his ultraviolent brother. The repeated appearances of bibles and even Deacon's name point towards more religious symbolism. I'm not sure what this has to do with the actual story but it's mildly interesting. That's more than you can say for the film's middle section, which involves characters hiding out in a cabin from the bad guys. Long scenes devoted to the familial melodrama or sleuthing are not especially compelling. Considering “Pound of Flesh” was sold as a hard-hitting action feature, it's surprising that so much of the film is so slow.

Ernie Barbarash's direction is competent, if otherwise unspectacular. Occasionally, he throws in some flashy images of faces appearing suddenly on screen, in somewhat obnoxious scene transition. It's clear that “Pound of Flesh” had a fairly low budget. Several times, some really shitty green screen effects are utilized. You could at least understand why green screen would be utilized during the various car chases, when the characters are sitting in moving vehicle. Why was such obvious green screen used during a simple shot of Van Damme standing in a dance club? Through it all, Jean-Claude Van Damme gives a committed performance. He brings his aged action star gravitas to the part of someone attempting to use what little time he has left to save someone else's life. You can see Van Damme pluming the depths of his soul, to add texture to a character that might appear simple on paper.

“Pound of Flesh” was released among much hype, at least within the world of gritty, indie action flicks. I guess the punchy log line of “Jean-Claude Van Damme Wants His Kidney Back!” was irresistible. The actual film doesn't live up to that fun exploitation premise, as the end result is actually rather dour. However, there are some stand-out fight scenes and Van Damme gives a fine performance. However, “Pound of Flesh” is a mostly forgettable, fairly cheap direct-to-video action flick. Hopefully, Ernie Barbarash and Jean-Claude's next collaboration is a little better. [5/10]

[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


 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Welcome to the Jungle (2013)


Jean-Claude Van Damme's comeback tour has had its ups and downs. He's won new fans and critical respect. Most of his recent films have still gone straight to video, many of them being undistinguished action flicks. Stuff like “Six Bullets” and “Dragon Eyes” hasn't allowed for much range, even if “JCVD” showed off that the star can do more than just kick high. Comedy is definitely something Van Damme has become interested in exploring. Before “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” there was “Welcome to the Jungle.” Reviews were mixed but Van Damme's performance was regularly signaled out as a highlight. The movie even played in some theaters!

Chris works at an advertising firm but isn't very happy. He has an unrequited crush on Lisa, a sexy co-worker. His stoner best friend, Jared, doesn't provide much in the way of advice. Worst, an asshole superior named Phil keeps stealing his ideas. The entire office is flown to an island for a team building exercise. Storm Rothchild, a supposed ex-military man and survivalist expert, is leading the expedition. After arriving on the island, their pilot dies. Rothchild quickly proves himself incompetent and is then attacked by a tiger. All remnants of polite society quickly crumble, Phil building a “Lord of the Flies”-style community that worships him as a god. If Chris is going to survive this, he has to learn to stand up to the office bully turned mad god.

“Welcome to the Jungle” is pretty uneven as a comedy. However, one thing is for sure. Jean-Claude Van Damme fucking owns this movie. From the moment he swaggers on-screen, Van Damme is goofing on his own image. His brochures are decorated with images of his screaming face. Later, we get an extended sequence of Van Damme yelling, a hilarious callback to “Bloodsport.” Throughout most of the film, the action star plays it totally straight. He delivers absurdist dialogue – about “Pinocchio” or fighting tigers – with heroic conviction. As the story goes on, Van Damme gets to play things weirder. This springboards off his pre-existing eccentric qualities, making sequences where he acts like a scared rabbit or sits in a wheelbarrow work really well. Whenever Van Damme is on-screen, “Welcome to the Jungle” similarly leaps to life.

Van Damme steals the show but the rest of the cast is pretty good too. Kristen Schaal is notable as a gonzo co-worker. Obsessed with bunny rabbits, her cutesy demeanor shatters to pieces throughout the film, especially during a scene where the talking stick is stolen from her. When she starts screaming profanely about shitting, Schaal produces some decent laughs. Rob Huebel plays the asshole Phil. Huebel's smarmy shenanigans are amusing, while establishing that he's a total jerk. When he's calling himself “Orko,” covered in warpaint, and being worshiped like a god, Huebel maintains that layer of fratboy assholery. Adam Brody has the thankless task of being the straight man but he is pretty fun, especially when going on tangents about his erotic fantasy novel.

Mostly, the cast is the reason “Welcome to the Jungle” is funny at all. The film has some amusing ideas. A team building exercise devolving almost immediately into drug-fueled orgies, threats of cannibalism, and a savage society is an amusing premise. Instead of building on this starting point for more absurdity, “Welcome to the Jungle” is mostly content to let it ride. Occasionally, there's a flash of goofiness. Like Huebel demanding his followers build a statue in his honor or the stoner growing edgier without his pot. Or how about Dennis “The Allstate Guy” Haysbert rambling about how he invented the BLT? The ideas are strong but the execution is usually half-baked. “Welcome to the Jungle's” absurdity is too shaggy and unformed.

Still, the film is absolutely worth seeing for Van Damme's performance. If he was in every scene, “Welcome to the Jungle” would probably be an instant comedy classic. Instead, the action star can only salvage about half of the film. The rest of “Welcome to the Jungle” is a shambling exercise in ungroomed, overly crass comedy. Considering the amount of times I laughed really hard, I guess I still got my money's worth. Mostly, I left the film hoping Van Damme gets another chance to stretch his comedy muscles soon. [6/10]

[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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Six Bullets (2012)


By 2012, things were looking up for Jean-Claude Van Damme. “JCVD” had brought him the kind of critical praise he had rarely received up to that point. A pair of hard-hitting “Universal Soldier” sequels had reestablished his cult following. A flashy role as the bad guy in “The Expendables 2” exposed him to a mainstream audience that might have forgot he existed. (There was also that reality show in 2011 but we don't like to talk about that.) But I guess high-profile projects like these weren't coming along frequently enough to keep food on the table. The world of direct-to-video action still called to Van Damme. “Six Bullets” would appear on video store shelves in 2012. “It's a living,” I imagine the Muscles from Brussels saying in response to this.

Samson Gaul, a former government agent, specializes in rescuing kids from kidnappings and child sex rings. He was, anyway, until a mission went horribly wrong and resulted in the death of two teenage girls. Now Gaul resides in Moldova and works as a humble butcher. Mixed martial artist fighter Andrew Fayden travels to Moldova with his wife and daughter, for a big comeback fight. When his daughter disappears mysteriously, he fears the worst. He's right: His thirteen year old daughter has been abducted by white slavers, with the intention of selling her into sex work. Fayden talks Gaul into coming out of retirement to help him, forcing the agent to overcome his past and face his fears.

“Six Bullets” is Jean-Claude Van Damme's stab at the Dadsploitation genre. You know what I mean. Following “Taken's” surprise success, we've gotten a whole bunch of films starring middle-age guys, with gritty crime film atmospheres, about rescuing or avenging daughters, wives, or surrogate daughters/wives. By focusing on Van Damme rescuing teenage girls, “Six Bullets” already fits this subgenre. The film takes it even further once his character's son shows up, played by Van Damme's actual son. Kristopher Van Varenberg even gets involved in the action scenes, though he doesn't perform any spin kicks. Beyond the obvious story attempts to emulate “Taken,” “Six Bullets” also maintains that film's Eastern European setting and grimy tone. This is not a feel good action flick, featuring dead kids, grisly corpses, and prostituted teenagers.

If “Six Bullets” had just focused on Van Damme's character, it would've been a pretty standard direct-to-video action flick. It still would've been grim and violent and derivative. But at least it would've been shorter. Instead, “Six Bullets” is nearly two hours long. The last act drags on, giving far too much detail to the heroes attacking the villains' lair. In order to support that laborious length, the script gives the girl's parents a lot of screen time. There's long scenes devoted to Joe Flanagan's Andrew Flayton, beating people up and investigating leads. His wife, played by Anna-Louise Plowman, even gets on things. She's distracting guards and loading guns. The characters are strictly stock parts, so these moments are not compelling in the least. You can feel “Six Bullets” straining to be taken more seriously.

Director Ernie Barbarash has previously been involved with direct-to-video horror movie sequels,  like “Cube Zero” and “Stir of Echoes 2.” He carries that horror influence to “Six Bullets.” In addition to the grim tone, Van Damme also has reoccurring hallucinations of the little girls he got killed. This stuff is pretty overdone but Barbarash does have an alright handle on the action scenes. An opening knife fight is pretty cool, concluding with a giant explosion. A shirtless fight Van Damme has in the butcher shop is solid. As is the sequence where he dons night vision goggles and beats some thugs with sticks. By the end, “Six Bullets” collapses into stale shoot-outs. But at least the director does give us the appropriate amount of bang for our buck. This is the second of three collaboration between Barbarash and Jean-Claude, so I guess they must like working together.

Considering its trendy premise and longer than average run time, I suspect “Six Bullets” was originally intended for a theatrical release. If dropped into theaters in January or February, it probably would've earned some decent cash. Even after his millennium comeback, I guess studios weren't willing to gamble that much cash on Van Damme. “Six Bullets” is pretty lame. Too bleak to be a fun action flick, and too generic to be anything else, it does not stand out among the star's other direct-to-video fare. [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


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: The Shepherd: Border Patrol (2008)


Isaac Florentine has worked his way up through the world of low budget action movies. He made films with reliable B-list stars like Olivier Grunner, Antonio Sabata Jr., Gary Daniels and Dolph. (In addition to directing countless episodes of “Power Rangers” and “WMAC Masters.”) Florentine would find his brawny muse in the form of Scott Adkins, turning each other into cult favorites in the process. It was probably inevitable that Florentine would make a film with Van Damme. Despite the unwieldy title, “The Shepherd: Border Patrol” is another movie that is better than its direct-to-video release would suggest.

Along the Mexican/American border, something fishy is going on. A rogue group of disenfranchised Iraq War vets have taken over the local drug business, driving out the Mexican cartels. They outfit their drug mules with explosive vests, increasing the danger. The border patrol brings in Jack Robideaux, a New Orleans cop, to investigate. Turns out Robideaux has a personal grudge to settle with the drug dealers. His quest for vengeance soon takes him to Mexico, where he and his partner are right in the middle of the cartel's business. Much fighting and shooting ensues.

What distinguishes Isaac Florentine's films from standard direct-to-video drivel is the director's hard-hitting action scenes. Florentine knows how to please action fans. An early scene in “The Shepherd” has Van Damme getting into a bar room brawl just to establish he's a bad-ass. Later, there's a gloriously gratuitous fight scene between Jean-Claude and a prisoner in a Mexican jail. This fine line between gritty and ridiculous hits its peak when the bad guys outfit a bus – currently occupied with nuns and priests – with machine guns, leading to an explosion and car crash filled chase. Florentine makes sure each blow is felt by the audience. Limbs are snapped. Enemies are flipped. Bodies are twisted. Florentine often emphasizes Van Damme and Scott Adkins' acrobatic finishing moves with slow-motion. That would be tacky if it wasn't done to punctuate the sheer power of these attacks. Florentine's direction combines flashier modern techniques with old school-style wallop.

As a Van Damme movie, “The Shepherd” is similar in tone to “Wake of Death.” Jack Robideaux is a tired guy. His failures and mistakes – specifically the death of his daughter – weigh heavily on his mind. He doesn't know if it's possible to find any inner peace but avenging this mistake is his best chance. However, “The Shepherd” is way more upbeat than “Wake of Death” and the like. First off, Van Damme has a pet bunny to keep him company. Yeah, the rabbit is connected to his dead daughter. However, the contrast of Van Damme's serious character and his cutesy bunny rabbit lightens the mood considerably. He also tells a handful of jokes, when refusing a bribe from a crook, going on a quasi-date with a drunk lady, or getting coffee spilled on his shirt. It's not Van Damme's best role but does play on his built-in charm more than some of his other recent films.

It also helps that JCVD has some decent chemistry with the supporting cast. For most of the film, Van Damme is paired up with Gary McDonald's Agent Pawnell or Natalie Robb's Captain Garcia. McDonald is nicely chummy while Robb's feminine but tough energy compliments Van Damme very well. The scenes focused on the two of them, trading quibs and having adventures, makes “The Shepherd” feel a bit like a buddy cop movies. The villains are strongly acted too. Stephen Lord is nicely sleazy as the leader of the rogue marines. However, Scott Adkins really steals the show. Adkins manages to be intimidating with minimal dialogue. His deadly kicks and take downs speak for him. The true climax of the film is the amazing, knock-down, drag-out fight between Van Damme and Adkins. (Though Lord does get an amusingly absurd death scene.)

Trying to find some sort of political or social statement in low budget action flicks like this is a fools' errand. However, it's clear something is going on inside “The Shepherd's” head. There's plenty of room in the story for a more traditional, exploitative tale of “good American cops fight evil Mexican drug cartel.” Making the villains American soldiers changes the context. Florentine seems to linger on this decision, forcing American flags and other patriotic imagery into the foreground. Of course, the film's hero is played by a Belgium, while his female sidekicks is of mixed heritage. Is “The Shepherd” some sort of comment on the frequently hypocritical way Americans treat people from other countries? I'm not sure but it certainly makes the film interesting.

“The Shepherd: Border Patrol” ended up being a pretty awesome little action flick, with fantastically orchestrated fight scenes and some charming writing decisions. It'll probably help if you keep your expectations fairly low. And if you're a fan of Van Damme and Adkins' strain of old school action theatrics. For that perhaps thin demographic, “The Shepherd” is surprisingly satisfying. It's fitting that Adkins and Van Damme would work together. The younger star clearly idolizes Jean-Claude, patterning his own fighting style after the Muscles from Brussels. They've done other films together since this one and will hopefully team up again soon. Watching the two tussle was certainly a highlight of this movie. [8/10]

[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

Monday, July 17, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Until Death (2007)


When determining which films to cover for my second Jean-Claude Van Damme marathon, I had plenty of options. The guy did a bunch of movies during his direct-to-video years, most of them undistinguished from each other. Even big fans have little to say about the likes of “Second-in-Command” or “The Hard Corps.” I first dismissed “Until Death” as another easily skipped film, due to its generic title and equally unremarkable DVD cover art. Digging a little deeper revealed that this one is better regarded than most. Reliable sources said Van Damme gave a good performance and that the film was more than just a direct-to-video action fest. Well, gee whiz, sounds like “Until Death” is worth checking out after all.

Anthony Stowe is a scumbag. He's a police detective in the New Orleans French quarter but is as dirty as can be. Stowe is a heroine addict. He takes bribes from the mob. He has rough sex with prostitutes when he's supposed to be on a date with his wife. Upon discovering his wife is pregnant with another man's child, Anthony melts down entirely. A mob deal with an ex-cop goes bad and Stowe ends up with a bullet in his brain. He survives but is plunged into a coma. Six months later, he wakes up. Given a second chance at life, Stowe attempts to put his past behind him and reconnect with those he hurt. However, his criminal activities will catch up with him eventually.

Despite the stock title and cover art, “Until Death” is another low-key Van Damme movie. The film is, essentially, a cross between a domestic drama and the action-filled crime picture you'd expect. The middle section, after Anthony awakens from his coma, is devoted to his relationship with his wife. There's zero kicking, fighting, or shooting during this portion of the film. If you started watching the movie half-way through, you would probably have no idea this is an action flick. However, the gun fights and violence do return eventually. (Van Damme still doesn't kick anyone though.) Surprisingly, director Simon Fellows does a good job of balancing these two tones. “Until Death's” two halves are quite different but both work well.

For hardcore Jean-Claude Van Damme fans, “Until Death” is a must-see. The film allows the martial arts star to really stretch his acting muscles. For roughly the first fifty minutes, Van Damme gets to play a utterly corrupt, miserable anti-hero. The star has spoken frankly about his drug addiction. In “Until Death,” he portrays a drug addict. Van Damme carries that haggard, strung-out look on his face perfectly. Probably because he saw it in the mirror when he woke up every morning during his wildest years. Stowe is a total burn-out most of the time. Occasionally, a nihilistic anger rise out of him, resulting in violence and beatings. He's a nasty, nasty character.

After taking a bullet to the brain, Stowe awakens as a new man. This change shows the diversity of Van Damme's acting skills. He's just as believable as a man recovering from a coma as he is as an unrepentant junkie. Van Damme peppers his performance with twitches, slow speech, and an uncomfortable body language, mirroring someone still adapting to moving again. It's a surprisingly nuanced bit of acting. The latter part of “Until Death,” devoted to Stowe befriending a young kid and trying to reconnect with his wife, are unexpectedly touching. Van Damme has solid chemistry with Selina Giles, the actress who portrays his wife. You can feel the tension between the two. The chance that they might work things out is oddly compelling. Inserting a low-key familial drama into the middle of a shoot-out filled action movie probably seemed like a weird idea. In practice, it works pretty well.

“Until Death” is still an action movie. Simon Fellows' direction is actually pretty cool. He utilizes smooth pans around rooms, usually spinning the camera upside down. This nicely replicates the distorted frame of the mind of the main character. Fellows' approach is calmer during the domestic sequences, which makes sense. By the end, when the violence resumes, the more active camera movement returns. There's little in the way of kicking and punching in “Until Death.” The focus is on gun fights. This works well though, as the squibs are big and colorful and the audience feels the impact of the shots. I don't even mind the occasional CGI Fellows sneaks in, as he usually uses it for a surreal or disorientating effect.

“Until Death” doesn't exactly give you what you expect. However, sometimes something different is good. I admire the filmmakers for attempting to sneak a tricky personal drama into a direct-to-video Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. The star does indeed give an excellent performance. The visual presentation is better than usual. The emotions are never exactly powerful but the movie gives it a shot. And did I mention Stephen Rea plays the hammy crime boss? “Until Death” is better than “In Hell,” “Legionnaire,” and “Wake of Death,” all of which similarly attempted to be equal parts drama and action films. Don't get your expectations up too high but this movie is still way better than it has any right to be. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 1 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick


Sunday, July 16, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Wake of Death (2004)


Legend has it that Jean-Claude Van Damme was always more popular internationally then he was domestically. The box office receipts certainly support that theory. I have no idea if this was still true in 2004. However, “Wake of Death” suggests the star still had some sort of commercial following in Hong Kong. The film co-stars Simon Yam, who is fairly obscure on this coast but a genuine movie star in Asia. Yam has been nominated ten times for the Hong Kong equivalent to the Oscars and headlined films like the “Young and Dangerous” series. So he was a pretty big get for the latest in Van Damme's long line of straight-to-video action flicks. Does this suggest that “Wake of Death” is better than your average DTV action movie? Well, sort of.

Ben Archer's official job title is bouncer. His unofficial job title is mob enforcer. However, he's sick of the criminal life and wants to devote himself to his wife, Cynthia, and their young son, Nicholas. Said wife is a social worker who, because of her Chinese background, is focused on the slave trade coming out of Asia. Stowing away among the latest batch of immigrants is a young girl named Kim, who Cynthia adopts. Kim hopes to escape her father, a brutal Triad gangster named Sun Quan. Quan is on her trail, however. He comes to America, murders Cynthia, and kidnaps Nicholas. Ben is forced to revisit his darker life to get revenge and rescue his son.

“Wake of Death” is not an upbeat motion picture. As far as low budget action flicks go, it's pretty dour. The script seems designed to give the star more chances to emote than usual. An early scene, where Van Damme admits to his mob bosses that he's sick of violence and ready to retire, seems autobiographical on Van Damme's end. His scenes with his wife are heavy on the muted declarations of love. After her death, several scenes are devoted to Jean-Claude weeping in agony over her corpse. His emotions are high-strung, yelling at kids and steaming in rage at his enemies. This is a higher level of drama than you'd expect from a straight-to-video shoot-em-up made in 2004.

Philippe Martinez – who has few other credits of note, except for that movie where Val Kilmer tries to kill girls in bikinis in a sauna or whatever – directed “Wake of Death.” The project, however, was intended for Ringo Lam. Combined with Yam's presence and the darker tone, it suggests that “Wake of Death” was meant to be a gritty crime picture. That goal conflicts with the film's need to be a big action movie. The action sequences are impressive. A machete-wielding hitman bursts into Van Damme's house before getting spin-kicked through a glass door. A motorcycle chase through a mall features plenty of ramping and leaping through the air. A solid car chase concludes with a tanker truck going up in a massive explosion. All these stunts are done with practical effects, which is refreshing, especially after the wonky CGI in “Derailed” and “The Order.” However, moments like this feel a little out of place in a dark film about grieving for your loved ones.

“Wake of Death's” determination to be taken super seriously results in an unsightly cruel streak. One extended sequence has Van Damme's mob buddies torturing a Triad informer. There's lot of shouting, profanity, and brutality in this moment. Martinez's direction becomes overly stylized in these scenes, relying too much on flash-cuts and harsh edits. Martinez's grip on the film is a little shaky in general. An early shoot-out jitters a little too much. The director's weaknesses become very apparent in the final act. The climatic gun fight is a little disorientating, despite occasional flashes of cool action. (Such as a knife to the groin.) Martinez then concludes the film by writing “The End” on the screen, which is certainly unexpected.

There's a few things about “Wake of Death” that makes it sort of interesting. Van Damme getting to cry so much is something different. Attempting to smuggle serious emotions into a standard crime story is ambitious. Yam is a solid villain, the action is cool, and the concept has merit. Ultimately, “Wake of Death” is a little too grim for its own good. There's something juvenile about the focus on the gloomy atmosphere, the explicit violence, and the nihilistic viewpoint. [6/10]

[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


Saturday, July 15, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: In Hell (2003)


The first time I had heard of “In Hell” – and, honestly, one of the last times I heard of “In Hell” – was a commercial for a television screening of the film on the USA Network. I didn't think it was odd, at the time, that a new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie would go straight-to-television. This says a lot about where Van Damme's career was in 2003. The once popular and successful Muscle from Brussels was strictly a B-list talent by that point. In 2017, I was actually kind of excited to finally watch “In Hell.” Jean-Claude and Ringo Lam's previous collaborations resulted in the surprisingly entertaining “Maximum Risk” and “Replicant.” Their third, and final, film together is a very different beast but still worth checking out.

Kyle LeBlanc is working overseas in Russia, living happily with his wife. While coming home from work, his wife is murdered by an intruder. After the man gets off on a technicality, LeBlanc shoots the murderer to death in the courtroom. Kyle is given a harsh sentence in a Russian prison. The conditions are hellish, rape and murder commonplace among the inmates. In particular, the wardens delight in forcing the prisoners to fight to the death. Kyle gives up hope at first but soon rediscovers the will to survive, participating in the fights. Even this solution is not as simple as it appears.

As he has done occasionally, “In Hell” seems designed to subvert your expectations for a Jean-Claude Van Damme hero. After discovering his wife's attacker, we get a pretty cool chase through the city streets, with some traditional kicking and diving. However, after Kyle arrives at a prison, the movie becomes a very different creature. Van Damme attempts to kill himself, first by hanging and then by bashing his head against the wall. Jean-Claude's hero spends most of the movie in a stupor, terminally depressed. When he regains the will to live, it's survival for its own sake, without love or compassion for other people. During the fight scenes, Van Damme deploys few of his trademark kicks. By the final act, LeBlanc has had a philosophical change of heart and refuses to fight. All of this is fairly at odds with the usual kind of Van Dammage we've come to expect.

Lam's previous team-ups with Van Damme were fairly serious affairs but distinguished by bursts of quirky humor. “In Hell” does have some eccentricities but is mostly a very grim film. The prison setting is made as gritty as possible. Van Damme's cellmate, a large black man, makes a habit of smothering other prisoners to death with his bare hands. Later, the same character sets a guy in a wheel chair on fire, with much attention paid to the burning man's agonized death. An early scene shows a guard selling an attractive new inmate to another man, who then brutally rapes him. The isolation chamber, where LeBlanc spends part of the film, is also where the prison's sewage system drains. So, yes, “In Hell” features its share of poo. Lam roughly follows the beats of the prison genre. The sadistic wardens and inevitable riots both appear. But this is a far rougher film than “Death Warrant.”

Befitting that darker tone, the fight scenes in “In Hell” are brutal and unforgiving. Van Damme gets his ass kicked several times, even being beaten with a shovel. After he grows a beard and starts training, LeBlanc becomes a vicious fighter. The punches result in bloodied faces. The throws produce shattered limbs. After getting his crotch slammed into a sign, LeBlanc bites a huge chunk out of a man's neck. The towering Micheal Bailey Smith appears as another prisoner, brought in specifically to fight Van Damme, who is even more brutal in dispatching his foes. “In Hell” is not a “fun” action film, the violence designed to be impactful and heavy.

Despite the commitment to realism, Ringo Lam can't help but sneak some odd touches into the film. Some of these work better than others. Van Damme's dead wife is represented by moths, one of which seemingly communicate with him throughout the film. Later, the moth turns into a ghost-like, fully interactive hallucination of his wife. Which is unexpected, at the very least. Contained within the prison is a giant, masked, deformed mongoloid who fights like a vicious animal. Van Damme ends up making friends with this killer. This stuff is quirky and likable. Other stylistic touches are distracting. Such as the techno music that plays during several fight scenes. Or the mostly unneeded voice-over, from Van Damme's cellmate, which feature heavy-handed ruminations on the nature of humankind.

I didn't like “In Hell” as much as “Maximum Risk” or “Replicant.” It's not meant to be enjoyed on that level, going for something more serious and thoughtful. You have to be in a particular mood to appreciate something this dour. However, it is an interesting film. Van Damme gives a good performance. The action is impressively brutal. Lam brings some unique touches to the story. The idea of a “Midnight Express”-style prison drama starring Jean-Claude Van Damme probably could have turned out much worst, at the very least. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 1 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

Friday, July 14, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Derailed (2002)


As I mentioned at the start of this marathon, I've been a guest on the delightfully specific Jean-Pod Van Damme podcast a few times. That show's host, Marcus, is a Van Damme enthusiast and expert. He probably has something good to say about every one of the star's features... Except “Derailed.” He considers “Derailed” the absolute low-point of Van Damme's career and, by far, his worst film. Going into “Derailed,” I was wondering if the film really could be that bad. I was not misled. “Derailed” is easily the worst movie Jean-Claude Van Damme has ever starred in. It might be one of the worst movies I've ever seen, period.

“Derailed's” plot doesn't make much sense but I'll try and untangle it the best I can. Galina Konstantin is a circus performer turned international thief. She has stolen a vile of biological weapons from the Slovakian government. Jacques Kristoff, an intentional agent of some sort, is sent to capture Konstantin. Once he grabs her, the two are sent home, via train. A group of terrorists board the train, with the intention of stealing the bio-weapon for their own means. That sounds simple enough, being yet another variation on the “Die Hard” formula. “Derailed” complicates matters but releasing some of the contagion, infecting the passengers with small pox. There's something about the government planning to bomb the train, one of Jacques' partners being aligned with the terrorists, and other bullshit added to an overcrowded stew.

When it comes to low budget action movies, I keep my expectations measured. At the very least, the action scenes should be easy to follow. “Derailed” does not accomplish this seemingly simple goal. In fact, the action is utterly incompetent in its construction and execution. In several scenes, the fights are so frenziedly edited that you can barely understand what's happening. At one point, Van Damme is wrestling with a bad guy in a hallway, the position of the characters moving suddenly from shot to shot. Another scene, hampered by some truly atrocious green screen effects, has our hero riding a motorcycle over the train... At apparently the same speed as somebody standing on the opposite side of the car? Another moment, before Van Damme performs a spinning body-slam, jerks forward in time without explanation. This is Jean-Claude Van Damme we're working with, a man who knows how to perform impressive action. “Derailed” is so chopped and scattered that his work becomes impossible to appreciate.

“Derailed” isn't just incoherent directed but also deeply tacky. Director Bob Misiorowski was a regular of Nu Image/Millennium Pictures' productions, with his most notable previous credit being “Shark Attack.” His attempts to spruce up “Derailed” are misguided. Misiorowski employs slow motion for the most random bullshit. Van Damme seemingly poking an enemy into slumber is emphasized with slow-mo. One scene is portrayed in split-screen. There's no point to this, as putting two chaotic fight scenes next to each makes both hard to follow. Another sequence features still images flashing on-screen, while Van Damme dangles from the train. Other scenes are highlighted by image blurring. Did I mention the Howie Scream also puts in a pointless appearance? When “Derailed” isn't using garish tricks like this, he indulges in some truly godawful CGI. An early car crash blossoms into a ridiculously overdone explosion. Later, two CGI trains crash into each other in a way that makes zero sense. Its baffling in its badness.

It's clear that Jean-Claude Van Damme isn't especially proud of “Derailed.” Throughout the film, his expressions vary between bored and irritated. In another blatant attempt to emulate “Die Hard,” Jacques' wife and kids are on the train. Van Damme's real life son, Kristopher, plays his son here. The only time Jean-Claude comes to life throughout “Derailed” is when he's practicing roundhouse kicks with his boy. Otherwise, the film's supporting cast is disheartening. Laura Harring appears as the thief/acrobat. Harring shows none of the talent she displayed in “Mulholland Dr.,” instead giving a garish and obnoxious performance. Susan Gibney is bitchy as Jacques' wife. The hostages include a cowboy, an Australian, and a concert violinist, each one broad stereotypes. Even the bad guy, played by a baffled Tomas Arana, seems pretty bored.

“Derailed” too perfectly sums up the kind of schlock Nu Image/Millennium Productions specialized in at the time. The mixture of shitty CGI, derivative writing, and incoherent action were standard practice at the company. Even by these low standards, the film finds new ways to baffle the viewer with its incompetence. “Derailed” might've become enjoyably bad – one of Van Damme's foes attacks him with a fork – if it wasn't incredibly boring. By the last half-hour, I had completely lost the ability to care or understand anything that was happening in this movie. The film is garbage of the highest degree and it's a bummer that Van Damme had to star in it. [2/10]

[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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: The Order (2001)


By 2001, Jean-Claude Van Damme teaming up with Nu Image / Millennium Films only made too much sense. These days, Nu Image has gone semi-legit by producing the “Expendables” and “Olympus Has Fallen” franchises. In the nineties and early naughties, they were best known for low budget action and horror schlock. We're talking the likes of “Crocodile” and “Cyborg Cop.” Sadly, this was exactly the level Van Damme was operating on at the time. He would star in five films for Nu Image. Among these, “The Order” would re-pair Van Damme with his “Lionheart” and “Double Impact” director, Sheldon Lettich. Jean-Claude would also work on the script. The result is a fitfully amusing action/adventure flick with a somewhat schizoid tone.

Many years ago, a disenchanted Templar Knight started a mysterious new religious sect in the Middle East, known as the Order. Despite the last part of their religious text disappearing, the cult survives into the present day. The knight's modern day descendant is Ruby Cafmeyer, a thief who steals ancient artifacts for his archaeologist dad. Their latest discovery is the reminder of the knight's writings, which also includes a map to a treasure-filled temple under Jerusalem. While in the holy city, Ruby comes into conflict with the fanatical current day leader of the cult, who kidnap his dad, and plan on triggering a holy war by setting off a bomb in the hidden temple.

It's not too hard to see that Van Damme co-wrote “The Order.” The film features the star's trademarks early and often. Within the first five minutes, the Muscle from Brussels is jump-kicking security guards, spinning around enemies, and performing roundhouse kicks. He dances both in the heat of combat and casually. He even does a mid-air split! Lettich seems to delight in putting Van Damme's trademark action in goofy situation. The opening has him wearing clownish face paint. He tussles in a fountain. The absolute highlight of the film is an extended chase/fight through the streets of Jerusalem. Throughout this scene, Van Damme is dressed like a Hasidic Jew, with a beard on his chin, black hat on his head, and payot curls framing his face. You haven't lived until you've seen Van Damme kicking ass while dressed as a rabbi!

Sadly, “The Order” doesn't maintain this tone of goofy nonsense throughout. Midway through, Ruby sneaks into the Order while wearing their white-and-red robes. (The Order's symbol, a stone cross in a circle, resembles the Klu Klux Klan emblem. Presumably, this was unintentional.) Afterwards, the film's excessively wacky atmosphere takes a more dour direction. The finale was clearly hoping to capture an “Indiana Jones” tone. Our hero, after all, is exploring a hidden temple laden with booby traps and treasure. By the time Van Damme is sword-fighting with the main baddy, most of the fun has been sucked out of “The Order.” The movie attempts to recapture this at the last minute, when Van Damme looses his shirt just for the hell of it. But it's too little, too late by that point.

“The Order” was pretty clearly a very cheap production. Really shitty CGI is utilized to depict explosions and a guy getting impaled on a wooden winch. Most of the film is set in nondescript city streets and generic temple sets. Sheldon Lettich's direction on “Lionheart” and “Double Impact” was solid, even atmospheric. Yet the editing here is weirdly incompetent. There's several car chases that are terribly assembled. A vehicle leaps into the air, smashing through a wall of water jugs, without hitting a ramp. Later, an airport chase scene features some roughly edited crashes and zooms. “The Order” looks kind of shitty in general, which I'm willing to blame on Nu Image/Millennium's rushed production schedule.

Jean-Claude Van Damme generally seems to be having fun in “The Order.” He is clearly embracing his comedic side in the film's early scenes. The entire production is full of balletic action scenes, allowing the star to kick and leap to his heart's content. What of the supporting cast? Charlton Heston is in the movie, which seems like it should be a big deal. But don't get too excited. He's only in a few scenes and is then abruptly killed off. Heston does his job but doesn't impress. Sofia Milos appears as the tough Israeli cop who bosses Van Damme around. The two don't share much romantic chemistry, which was clearly the intended goal. Brian Thompson, previously of “Cobra,” appears as the bad guy. Thompson barks stern dialogue while wearing a silly robe. He tries to ham it up but the part isn't even that interesting.

“The Order” is about what you'd expect from a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie made in 2001. It's cheaply made, shoddily directed, sloppily written, and features some B-list talent in the supporting cast. Having said that, the film does provide some pleasures for fans of the star. The fight scenes are solid and there's some delightfully kooky humor. I mean, any movie that has Van Damme doing a split-kick in mid-air while dressed in Jewish drag can't be totally worthless! But, all together, “The Order” isn't too memorable. [6/10]

[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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Inferno (1999)


In 1929, Dashiell Hammett wrote “Red Harvest.” The novel would inspire Akira Kurosawa while creating the samurai classic, “Yojimbo.” In a fitting turn of events, Kurosawa's film would, in turn, inspire a number of other films further down the line. “Yojimbo's” premise – of a man wandering into a town and pitting the two warring gangs that control the community against each other – would be transposed into multiple genres. “A Fistful of Dollars” made it into a spaghetti western. “Last Man Standing”  placed the premise inside a gangster picture. “Omega Doom” mashes “Yojimbo” up with cyborg-themed, post-apocalyptic sci-fi. And “Inferno” re-imagines Kurosawa's classic as a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. I bet Akria never saw that one coming!

Eddie Lomax drives his motorcycle into a stretch of the desert. He intends on killing himself, to escapes traumatic memories of the war. Instead, he's confronted by a group of redneck goons. They beat him up, attempt to kill him, and steal his motorcycle. Lomax's old war buddy, Indian shaman Johnny, carries Eddie to the nearest town. There, Eddie grows close to the eccentric locals. He also discovers two gangs control the neighborhood. He decides to trick the two gangs into fighting each other, resulting in their mutual destruction and freeing the town.

“Inferno,” known overseas as “Desert Heat” and originally entitled “Coyote Moon,” was the somewhat inglorious final credit of John G. Avildsen, director of “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid.” Van Damme had the film re-edited, causing Avildsen to disown the picture. It's hard to recognize “Inferno” as the work of a A-list hit-maker like Avildsen. The movie looks pretty cheap at times. It's awash in late nineties fads, like faux-Indian mysticism, and feels fittingly dated. Despite these setbacks, “Inferno” is enjoyably goofy. The film has a great sense of humor about itself, often realizing how ridiculous it is. This is most evident in a sequence where Van Damme has acrobatic sex with two separate women, watched by a clearly curious devout Christian woman. Later, that same old lady tosses a rattlesnake at a bad guy's face. “Inferno” is silly and knows it, letting the audience in on the fun.

Helping that tone of silly fun is a colorful supporting cast. The very Mexican Danny Trejo portrays a very Indian character named Johnny. Once you look past the hilariously wrong casting, Trejo is clearly having a lot of fun. He sings, chants, prays, boozes, and fires a machine gun while swinging on a zip-line. Avildsen reunites with Mr. Miyagi, as Pat Morita plays a local oddball named Jubal Early. Jubal is waiting for a lost girlfriend to return home, still reads newspapers from the forties, fancies himself a handyman, and always wears a white suit and hat. Larry Drake shows up, leading a group of sleazy redneck villains while being amusingly sleazy himself. Vincent Schiavelli appears as a Turkish shop owner for some reason. Ford Rainey is having fun as an old man who alternates between an oxygen tank and a cigarette. Jamie Pressley plays the sexy waitress in town who, in a refreshing turn of events, ends up with the local nerd.

In fact, the goofy comic relief and eccentric cast seems to be the main reason “Inferno” was made. The action scenes don't appear to be the primary attraction. For most of the movie, Van Damme's trademark high-kicks are restrained. Most of the action in “Inferno” is devoted to motorcycle chases and shoot-outs. Granted, they aren't bad. The pyrotechnics are laid on thick, thanks to some exploding barrels. A gun battle at night makes decent use of the natural shadows. Perhaps this was an intentional move, as the film saves JCVD's trademark martial art moves for the final fight. And it's a decent one too, featuring some dramatically framed roundhouse and a slow-mo dropkick.

Due to Jean-Claude Van Damme's last few features flopping, “Inferno” was another film of his destined for the home media market. That's arguably where the film belong, as I can't imagine the cheesy photography looking decent on a theater screen. Yet that chintzy presentation ends up working for the movie. The tone is kept light, the cast is having fun, and Jean-Claude embraces his comedic side. A tongue-in-cheek slice of Southern fried silliness, “Inferno” is a surprisingly amicable entry from Van Damme's years in Direct-to-Video Purgatory. [7/10]

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Legionnaire (1998)


His movies still did okay business overseas but, in America, Jean-Claude Van Damme's career was beginning to fall apart. Some of it was financial, as his last couple features had flopped stateside. Some of it was personal, as his drug problem was taking its toll. However the ratio breaks down, wide releases seemed increasingly less probable for his films. “Legionnaire” was originally conceived for theaters but would end up going direct-to-video. It was far from the last Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle to be released in that manner. In fact, home video is where most of his movies would end up for the next decade. The years spent in DTV Purgatory begin here.

The year is 1920. French boxer Alain Lefevre has been paid by a local mobster to take a fall in his next match. Alain changes his mind while in the ring, winning the bout. On the run from the mob, he joins the French Foreign Legion. Soon afterwards, he arrives in North Africa, where Morocco is currently warring against the Berber rebellion. As the war crawls on, he is haunted by memories of the girl he left behind. Among the blood and sand, Lefevre makes friends and enemies. Soon, as the Rif warriors close in, Lefevre realizes he may die in this foreign land.

“Legionnaire” is a somewhat melodramatic war drama. Director Peter MacDonald, formerly of “Rambo III,” employs a rather histrionic visual sense. There's plenty of shots of the sun reflecting off the blowing sand dunes. Slow motion and misty flashbacks put in token appearances. The script matches this presentations. “Legionnaire” is about the manly bonds one form in combat. We know this because the film references that idea several times, both in dialogue and narration. The story, fraught with betrayal and brotherhood, sacrifices and mercy killings, hits several expected beats. There's the new recruit who can't quite hack it and the sadistic superior officer, among other cliches.

The script isn't what makes “Legionnaire” interesting. The film represents a deliberate effort by Jean-Claude Van Damme to star in a different kind of movie. He performs zero splits or roundhouse kicks in this film. In fact, there's no karate in “Legionnaire” at all. Which certainly makes sense for the setting and character but is still surprising. It's clear that Van Damme – who co-produced the film, by the way – was more concerned about showing off his acting chops than his high kicks. This plan mostly works. Van Damme gives a fine performance in “Legionnaire.” While conversing with his fellow soldiers, he says a lot with a shrug or a blink. As hammy as the script may get, Van Damme never overdoes it, balancing emotion and duty perfectly. When defeat seems certain, the resigned look in the Belgian's eyes says a lot. Van Damme's performance is widely better than the movie it's appearing in.

As an action film, “Legionnaire” veers towards the grim side of things. The violence itself is not especially graphic. The bullet wounds produce enough blood to justify the R rating but there are no dismembered bodies. The glimpses we get at the wounded or dead soldiers are brief. However, the impact of the violence is heavy. People scream in agony while shot with bullets or blown back by explosions. As the Rif forces close in, a sense of hopelessness begins to inhabit the violence. “Legionnaire' gives off a real sense that these characters aren't going to survive. Most of them don't. While any message about the senselessness of war are lost in the overwrought script, the film does capture a suitably bleak atmosphere.

Van Damme leads the cast but there are a few other recognizable faces. The generously envowled Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje plays Luther, a black man who has fled racial persecution in the American South. Akinnouye-Agbaje is actually quite good in the part, bringing a certain degree of pathos and humor to the part. Nicholas Farrell is interesting as Mackintosh, a British solider with a gambling problem. His character is slightly underwritten but Farrell manages to make that look like complexity. Daniel Caltagirone appears as Guido, the inexperienced Italian solider longing for his girl back home. Caltagirone's fate is easy to guess but he's likable in the part, seeming like a wide-eyed kid.

Ultimately, I think “Legionnaire” went direct-to-video not because it was bad but because it was hard to market. A dour war epic is probably not what most people want to see when they pay for a ticket to a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. The script is standard and the direction is somewhat tacky but the performances elevate the material, creating a moderately interesting film about an underexplored period in history. It's not a special movie but is probably better than you're expecting, considering the circumstances. [6/10]

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



Monday, July 10, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Knock Off (1998)


In 1997, Jean-Claude Van Damme starred in “Double Team,” a film directed by legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark. That motion picture was completely insane, received some of the worst reviews of Van Damme's career, and flopped extremely hard. Instead of running away from this failure, Van Damme immediately re-teamed with Hark. I don't know, maybe he had a contract to fulfill or something. Their second film together was “Knock Off,” which also received terrible reviews and flopped equally as hard at the box office. The film is also insane, though admittedly only a quarter as nuts as “Double Team.” Van Damme claims he was so high at the time that he barely remembers making it. If everyone involved in “Knock Off's” production was also as high as a kite, it would certainly explain a lot.

“Knock Off” is another action movie set in 1997, against the backdrop of Hong Kong reverting back to Chinese rule. Weirdly, this doesn't play much of a role in the plot. Instead, the story revolves around Marcus Ray and Tommy Hendricks, managers of a blue jean factory. Ray is getting involved in knock off goods, while Tommy is actually an undercover CIA agent sent to investigate the counterfeit trade. The two stumble upon a plot by unknown terrorists to smuggle nano-bombs – explosives the size of buttons that are more powerful than dynamite – into goods all over the world. Once the bombs are in place, they'll hold the globe hostage. Ray and Tommy have to figure out whose responsible and save the world.

As I said, “Knock Off” is nuttier than George Washington Carver's science experiments. One of the earliest scenes in the movie features Van Damme and Rob Schneider participating in a rickshaw race, with Jean-Claude pulling the cart. Midway through the race, they crash through a fish market. Schneider grabs a eel and begins to whip Van Damme's ass with it. That's just the beginning. “Knock Off” features spiny fruits being used as weapons, missiles hidden inside vaults, and a building shaped like a Buddha statue which then explodes in a green cloud. List of unlikely objects that also explode over the course of the film's run time: A pizza truck, an Asian man, baby dolls, and a toy T-Rex. The film tries to mine Van Damme stripping out of his clothes for suspense. It doesn't quite top the utter madness of “Double Team” but it comes awfully close.

Tsui Hark's direction is equally mad. Hark's camera zooms inside multiple objects, like a falling apart bootleg sneaker, a bamboo stalk, a rifle scope, in-between paintings, and a hundred other things. Sometimes, “Knock Off” is so frenetic that the afterimages appear around the characters, Hark's imagination apparently moving faster than his camera. Likewise, “Knock Off” features some creatively choreographed action. Van Damme runs along an overturned van, tossing cans at his enemies. He fights his way out of a crowded warehouse, eventually flipping onto a motorcycle. Fights in a parking garage or office focus more on Van Damme and his opponent tumbling over each other. In the last act, the star is caught between sliding and swinging shipping containers, juggling other fighters atop the platforms. It's amazingly original action.

As I mentioned above, “Knock Off” co-stars Rob Schneider. This was Schneider second turn as a comic relief sidekick in a goofy nineties action movie, following his similar role in “Judge Dredd.” Schneider is annoying on the best of days but his schtick blends surprisingly well with “Knock Off's” manic tone. Scenes where he is nearly seduced by his boss or complains about those spiny fruits are kind of funny. Moreover, Schneider actually has some decent chemistry with Van Damme. The two play off each other well. This is most obvious in a scene where they trade food at a restaurant while Van Damme ruins Schneider's shirts with gratuitous flexing. Van Damme might have been high the whole time but he seems to be having fun. That positive energy rubs off on Schneider, accomplishing the impossible and making him entertaining too.

“Knock Off's” cast is fun in general. Lela Rochon – who also had an uncredited part in “Breakin',” it turns out – appears as Ray and Tommy's boss. She starts out as another sassy black woman but eventually develops a stronger streak. She even gets in on the action at the end, machine gunning some bad guys. (That doesn't make up for the embarrassing way the camera drools over her though.) Michael Wong appears as a Hong Kong detective working the case alongside our heroes. Wong projects an easy-going charm that is works well inside a movie this goofy. Paul Sorvino shows up as the shifty CIA agent who eventually reveals himself to be not so trustworthy. Sorvino is clearly enjoying himself in the part.

“Knock Off” does not have the immediate cult appeal of “Double Team,” strictly because it doesn't have Dennis Rodman cracking basketball puns or Mickey Rourke fighting a tiger. However, the film is indeed crazy enough to be an absolutely gleeful viewing experience. The action scenes are fantastically orchestrated and the rest of the movie is unforgettably bonkers. I mean, shit, they even got Sparks to sing the theme song! The two films Van Damme made with Tsui Hark might not have been popular at the box office but, watched years later in the comfort of your own home, they more than satisfy. [7/10]

[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 an outboard boat motor. I'll count it.