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Sunday, July 23, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Kill 'Em All (2017)

The year is 2017. Jean-Claude Van Damme's career is probably at its highest point in decades. His super-meta Amazon pilot is going to series. The newly relaunched “Kickboxer” franchise is continuing with him. His status as a cult icon is secure. But low budget action movies must still be made. Which brings us to “Kill 'Em All.” There were some reasons to anticipate this one. The film is the directorial debut of Peter Malota, an Albanian stuntman and actor who has made several films with Van Damme. Stuntmen have proven strong choices to direct action flicks in the past. Meanwhile, the supporting cast was good, including Peter Stormare and Maria Chonchita Alonso. Most of Van Damme's recent work has been pretty solid. Yet, when “Kill 'Em All” hit DVD earlier this year, the reception was muted. Even fans didn't seem to like this one very much.

Nurse Suzanne is interviewed by government agents. The hospital she works at was the sight of a brutal attack. An injured foreign diplomat, along with his bodyguard, Philip, were wheeled into the emergency room. A group of vicious killer followed them, killing anyone who got in their way. Suzanne and Philip did what they could to survive the attack. As she's interviewed, Suzanne learns more about the past of this mysterious Philip. He was a survivor of the Yugoslavia/Serbian war, on a quest to avenge his father's murder. But not everything is as it appears to be.

On paper, “Kill 'Em All” should've been a straight-forward potboiler. It's just two people running through an isolated location, getting into a series of fights. With a few adjustments, it could've been “Die Hard in a Hospital.” Instead, the film's trio of screenwriters had something more elaborate in mind. “Kill 'Em All” constantly jumps around in time. We leap between Suzanne's interrogation, the events in the hospital, the immediate aftermath, and the character's various backstories. This constantly shifting timeline is distracting, an attempt to make a simple story seem more complex by approaching it in a convoluted manner. “Kill 'Em All” only gets more unnecessarily tangled as it goes on. The film has been described as inspired by “The Usual Suspects.” As the story reaches its conclusion, and we discover some identities aren't what they appear to be, “Kill 'Em All” practically becomes a rip-off of Bryan Singer's often imitated crime thriller.

These days, it's pretty easy to tell which projects Jean-Claude Van Damme is genuinely excited for and which ones he's just doing for the paycheck. Compare his lively performance in “Welcome to the Jungle” to his performance here. Jean-Claude seems very tired, his eyelids heavy. Yes, I know his character is recovering from gunshot wounds but the star does too good of a job replicating that fatigued mindset. He delivers his dialogue through an exhausted cloud. He spends most of the film glaring at his enemies. Only during a handful of scenes, such as delivering the killing blow to his archenemies, does he come to life. Truthfully, most of the film revolves around Autumn Reeser's Suzanne. Reeser is okay but her overly sardonic line delivery is sometimes annoying. She's not very believable during her action scenes either.

Even the potentially colorful supporting cast is a bit underutilized. Yes, Peter Stormere gets reams of dialogue to himself, often expounding on the character's histories. Stormere brings some nicely prickly energy to the part, as is expected. However, too often, he's just delivering exposition. Maria Choncita Alonso plays the good cop to Stormere's bad cop, attempting to make friends with Suzanne. Alonso gets an occasional moment of cute humor but, other than that, she's wasted in the part. Van Damme's son, Kris, appears in the film. Weirdly, he isn't cast as a younger version of Jean-Claude's character. (The actor in that part appears to be twelve years old, which makes no sense, since the flashback is set in 1981.) Instead, Kris plays a random thug and shares a pretty cool fight scene with his dad.

To a certain breed of action fan, “Kill 'Em All” is probably most worth seeing because Van Damme and Daniel Bernhardt have a fight scene. Bernhardt starred in the “Bloodsport” sequels and has often been considered Van Damme's lower budget equivalent. Indeed, the fight between the two is a highlight of “Kill 'Em All.” The melee has the pair trading kicks before it explodes through a window and onto a roof top. Bernhardt is a solid villain too, growling and intimidating those around him. Sadly, the rest of the action in “Kill 'Em All” is disappointing. There's some solid combat. A knife fight in a hallway is cool. However, too much of the film is composed of indistinct shoot-outs. Sometimes, Malota's direction is even a little shaky. A fight between Van Damme and a burly henchman would've been cooler if Malota didn't throw in some weird handheld camerawork.

Setting a nasty, disposable little action picture like “Kill 'Em All” against the backdrop of the Bosnian Genocide is probably in questionable taste. (In this context, even the title has unfortunate connotations.) Considering director Malota is from Albania, a country with close connections to the war, perhaps that was a personal decision. Either way, it makes the scenes set during the conflict feel really weird. I can't help but wonder if Van Damme appeared in “Kill 'Em All” as a favor to his friend. He doesn't seem especially invested in the material. If the script had gotten out of its own way more often, this could've been a decent bit of pulp. Instead, it's a convoluted and frustrating experience, not worth the energy the audience will have to put into it. [5/10]

[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

Van Damme is keeping busy. In addition to the forthcoming “Kickboxer” sequels and the “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” series, he'll soon be appearing in the film “Black Water.” That movie will re-team him with Dolph Lundgren and Patrick Kilpatrick. Hopefully it'll be good, though I'm not getting my hopes up too high. (There's also the chance that his second directional credit, the completed but yet to be released “Full Love,” will see the light of day eventually. I'm not holding my breath.)

At the beginning of JCVD-A-THON: THE RETURN, I wondered if devoting a marathon to the star's direct-to-video stuff was a good idea or a bad one. Some of the films were as exactly as dire as I feared but a few surprised me. It's interesting to see that Van Damme has been experimenting with his public image for so long. Over all, this was an enjoyable project. I probably don't have enough material for another JCVD-A-THON but I'm sure I'll be talking about the Muscles from Brussels again in the near future. Despite some of his questionable features, I remain a fan.

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