Last of the Monster Kids

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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

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