Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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

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