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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

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