Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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

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