Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bangers n' Mash 89: Adventures of Indiana Jones

Hey, here's a new episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show! It's devoted to the Indiana Jones franchise, a relatively short but still beloved, hugely influential series of cornerstone films.

The reason we picked this topic, besides enjoy the films, is we figured this would be a fairly easy episode to record and edit. Ha ha, how naive! The last two weeks have been very hectic for me, which meant it was a struggle to get this episode out before the end of the month. I was off from work today and spent most of today cutting and editing this episode, in hopes of getting it out before June 1st. The episode wound up going up literally within minutes of midnight. But I did it, so hoo-ray for me.

That same hectic schedule has kept the blog updates from being as busy I was hoping. I try to get a Memories and No Encores feature up once a month. I'll miss that goal, this May. So here's the plan: A new Memories essay will go up tomorrow, on the 1st. A No Encore essay will go up on the 2nd. A new Director Report Card - a fairly large one, too - will being on Friday. Hopefully I can stick with that schedule. In other words, STAY TUNED.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Roadie (1980)

Have I ever mentioned my fondness for the musical work of Mr. Marvin Aday, better known as Meat Loaf? Both of my parents considered “Bat Out of Hell” one of the ultimate rock album and it was probably the earliest music in the genre I was ever exposed to. I still love it. Yes, the songs are overblown and ridiculous. Yet the pure power of Mr. Loaf’s voice and the operatic production creates an audio experience as vivid as any movie or concert. What does any of that have to do with “Roadie,” a singularly dumb eighties rock-comedy? Well, Mr. Aday has occasionally dabbled in acting. While “Rocky Horror” and “Fight Club” are classics of some sort or another, the same can’t be said for most of the rest of his movies. So if “Roadie” is so stupid, why do I own it?

Travis W. Redfish is a truck driver living deep in southern Texas. He lives with his eccentric inventor father and has picked up a similar knack for mechanics. While driving through the desert, he spots a tour bus stuck on the side of the road. Once Redfish gets a glance at the 16 year old girl on-board, he decides to stop and help. His intuitive understanding of machines has him easily fixing the bus, causing the road manager to ask him to tag along. Soon, Redfish is traveling from band to band, saving the day each time with his superior technical skills. This earns him the reputation as the world’s greatest roadie. Meanwhile, Travis and the girl, Lola, develop romantic feelings for each other, despite her insistence of traveling to New York and loosing her virginity to Alice Cooper.

“Roadie” was directed by Alan Rudolph, a director with some sort of cult following, whose best known films include “Breakfast of Champions” and “The Secret Lives of Dentists.” I’m not especially well-versed in Rudolph’s career but, if “Roadie’ is a typical example, I’m not tempted to dig any further. “Roadie” is less a movie and more of a collection of exasperatingly dumb, vaguely music related gags. Such as a long scene of Travis and Lola in a laundry mat, where they get into a misunderstanding with a pair of DEA agents involving cocaine disguised as detergent and vice versa. Or how about a painfully long sequence devoted to the members of Blondie, including a clearly confused Debbie Harry, taking Redfish to a country club/bar/restaurant? The movie seems to be reaching for extended nuttiness, such as car chase scene that keeps topping itself in terms of collateral damage. (If that reminds you of “The Blues Brothers,” the comparison is probably intentional, as two Aykroyd and Belushi look-a-likes stop in later for a cameo.) But “Roadie’ is so rambling, unfocused, and lacking in wit that the film never reaches any sort of comedic satisfaction.

As a starring vehicle for Meat Loaf, “Roadie” does not make much of a case for its leading man’s skills. Sometimes, the rotund rock star attempts to match the script’s shrill wackiness with his own exaggerated antics. There’s a lot of yelling and hooting. Other times, Meat seems exhausted or oddly dour, especially whenever the movie attempts to engineer a dramatic moment. The worst example of this is when Redfish receives a concussion, which the film calls “brain lock.” The character stares blankly, babbling nonsensical word vomit, while the sound design rings in his and our ears. And that central love story doesn’t help matters either. “Roadie” never seems to understand how kind of gross a love story between an adult man and a teenager girl is. Lola is honestly an irritating character, constantly rambling on about her obsession with Mr. Cooper, salad, or rock stardom. That Redfish would be immediately smitten with Lola is hard to believe, considering actress Kaki Hunter is hardly conventionally attractive.

There’s a real grotesque streak running through “Roadie” and it is not endearing. Travis’ family lives in squalor. His dad, played by a blank Art Carney, sits in a wheelchair, starring at a wall of TV. His own daughter’s wedding isn’t enough to pull his attention away from the televisions. At least, I think she’s his daughter. Carney lives with two characters, named B.B. and Alice Poo. The film interchangeably refers to them as Travis’ best friend and sibling. Both characters are equally unpleasant. Alice, played by a shrieking Rhonda Bates, is introduced with whipped cream all over her face, brandishing some sort of backpack vacuum cleaner. The implausibly named Gailard Sartain slurs, sweats, and swears his way through the role of B.B. The most stomach churning scene in “Roadie” is devoted to these three characters eating barbecued ribs and corn on the cob. The food sticks to their faces, as they talk and toss undigested debris through the air. It’s sickening and these sequences in “Roadie” are deeply unpleasant.

Of course, Art Carney wasn’t the real marquee name in “Roadie.” As a movie about the rock n’ roll business, the film somehow gathered together a list of well known musicians for bit parts and cameos. Roy Orbison and Hank Williams Jr. show up in an early scene, singing in a dive bar. Don Cornelius, of “Soul Train” fame, plays Mohammad Johnson, the increasingly antagonistic road manager. The aforementioned Blondie sings an odd cover of “Ring of Fire” while Ms. Harry trades almost charming dialogue with Meat. Yes, Alice Cooper eventually appears on-screen. Alice seems pretty spaced out, his delivery being oddly relaxed, stretched out and practically businessman like. Despite “Roadie” being made during Cooper’s short lived New Wave phase, the film still drags out Alice’s shock rock goth-horror get-up. Weirdly, despite starring so many musicians, “Roadie” features very little music. Cooper briefly sings a bit of “Only Women Bleed.” Orbison and Williams warble through a rendition of “Eyes of Texas.” Meat Loaf doesn’t sing at all! How can a movie about rock, starring many rock stars, contain so little rock n’ roll?

Why Do I Own This?: “Roadie” clearly isn’t a good movie. Why does it continue to linger on my DVD shelves? Naturally, this was a movie I fished out of the Best Buy bargain bin. I had never even heard of the film but the list of talent on the back compelled me to purchase it. Hey, it was only four dollars. After watching the film, I was baffled, mildly disgusted, and mostly irritated and bored. Considering my clear dislike of the film, it would’ve been easy to fling this one on the donation pile. Yet I can’t quite bring myself to do that. “Roadie” is terrible and remains terrible upon each re-watch. All the same, it’s the only movie to star Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper, Blondie, and Art Carney! The cult film nerd in me can’t part with it, despite that obviously being the logical course of action. [4/10]

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Director Report Card: Bryan Singer (2016)

10. X-Men: Apocalypse

“X-Men” is one of those franchises were I’ve seen all the films in the series multiple times and enjoyed most of them without being especially passionate about the series. Most of the X-Men movies are pretty good but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love any of them. It’s always been that way. I watched the cartoon show as a kid, read the occasional comic, but never felt much connected to the characters or their world. My review for “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was one of the most unenthusiastic positive reviews I’ve ever written. It’s different my friend and podcast co-host JD. He’s always loved the X-Men. In high school, I can recall him excitedly hoping that supervillain Apocalypse would appear in a movie someday. Back then, I never thought it would happen. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined how popular and omnipresent superhero movies would someday become. I’ll admit now: I was wrong. Apocalypse arrives on screen in sixth (Or ninth, depending on what you count) X-Men movie. The buzz hasn’t been quite apocalyptic but has been far from great. Maybe my low expectations helped, as I found myself enjoy the latest entry in the series more then any of the prior ones.

Ten years after the events of “Days of Future Past,” the world has a more accepting if still uneasy attitude towards mutants. The X-Men are thrown around the globe. Charles Xavier’s school for mutant youths in upstate New York is now flourishing, accepting many new admissions. Mystique travels from country to country, looking for new mutants. Magneto, a wanted fugitive, lives a peaceful if secluded life with a wife and daughter in Poland. All of that is about to change. An ancient evil awakens in Egypt. The very first mutant, imprisoned thousands of years ago, is uncovered. Massively powerful, he quickly gathers followers, including Magneto. This new threat is determined to reassert mutantkinds dominance over Earth, wiping out humanity, bringing about the apocalypse for billions of people. Hopelessly outgunned, a new team of X-Men form, in hopes of saving the world.

“Apocalypse” seemingly caps off a trilogy that began with “X-Men: First Class.” That film was set during the Cold War tensions of the 1960s. “Days of Future Past” zapped Wolverine back to the mid-seventies. “Apocalypse,” meanwhile takes place in 1983. Once you look past none of the central players looking a decade older, “Apocalypse” seemingly takes advantage of period setting more then the prior two entries. Nightcrawler wears a Thriller jacket and another character, later on, moonwalks. The young Cyclops and Jean Grey go see “Return of the Jedi,” amid an adventure at the mall. An early scene is set in an underground punk/new wave bar, with all the Mohawks and leather jackets you’d expect. Maybe it’s just because I’m more familiar with that decade but it seems like “Apocalypse” is more of an eighties movie then “Days of Future Past” was a seventies movie.

If there’s one through-line in this new series of “X-Men” films, it’s the love/hate relationship between Professor X and Magneto. There’s a lot going on in “Apocalypse,” which means Erik and Charles get less screen time together then in previous flicks. Instead, both characters are given compelling arcs of their own. Magneto is given a new wife and child, happily living a simple existence with them. After momentarily revealing his powers during a work place accident, police track him down, ending his new family’s lives. Once again, Magneto has given the human world a chance, only to be punished by it. Michael Fassbender plays the supervillain as a man without hope, broken for the umpteenth time. This makes his seduction to Apocalypse’s ideology – only a few stones away from Magneto's already extreme mutant supremacy – easy to believe. Xavier, meanwhile, reconnects with Moira MacTaggert, his lost love interest from “First Class.” This renewed romance, along with the story’s other turns, challenges Charles. This is a good idea since, as introduced, he’s pretty happy as the dean of the academy. James MacAvoy’s best attributes – his considerable charm and refined grasp of drama – both get a workout.

In the years since “First Class,” the profiles of two members of the X-Men ensemble have risen considerably. Jennifer Lawrence has become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Nicholas Hoult hasn’t risen to that level but he does have the cult cache of “Fury Road” under his belt now. Expectantly, both are given bigger roles. By story’s end, Lawrence’s Mystique has more-or-less become the good guy’s leader. (Lawrence also spends more time out of the blue skinned make-up, presumably to show off those movie star good looks.) I’ve never been particularly impressed with Lawrence’s take on the character but “Apocalypse” at least takes her through the full emotional spectrum, the character going from resenting the world of man to finally embracing it. Hoult, meanwhile, nicely plays up Beast’s nerdier aspects before getting to cut loose at the end, embracing his own blue make-up, while swinging, leaping, and diving through the air.

Just as “Days of Future Past” was designed to phase out most of the original “X-Men” cast, “Apocalypse” is partially designed with introducing the next generation of characters. As the timeline has cycled closer to the modern day, younger versions of original franchise members are introduced. “Apocalypse” gives us young Cyclops, young Jean Grey and young Nightcrawler. Tye Sheridan plays young Scott Summers. While Cyclops is one of those love-him-or-hate-him characters, Sheridan is well cast in the part. Scott is still learning to use his powers at this point, putting the character in a more compelling, conflicted mode. Kodi Smit-McPhee is probably my favorites of the new additions. Smit-McPhee is already proven as a great actor. He brings a likable naïvety to Kurt Wagner while also embracing the character’s various aspects: acrobat, devout Catholic, an outsider because of his appearance, accepted among the X-Men. Not all the new/old recruits worked for me. Sophie Turner as Jean Grey reads every line flatly, seeming bored with the material.

But what about the titular villain? Apocalypse’s appearance has been mocked online since pictures of the character first surfaced, fans comparing him unfavorably to Ivan Ooze. I actually think the costume is okay, as the movie tries to bring Apocalypse’s frankly ridiculous comic design into reality. Oscar Isaac, the internet's boyfriend, got the plum role of the villain. As the omnicidal super mutant, Isaac gets a number of big monologues and impressive set pieces. However, Isaac’s charms and quirks as an actor are buried under the make-up. You get the impression that just about any actor could’ve played this part. Though “Apocalypse’s” villain is a powerful physical force, he spends most of the film telling people what to do.

If you haven’t noticed already, “X-Men: Apocalypse” has a large cast. Inevitably, certain characters are going to get the short end of the characterization stick. Aside from Magneto, Apocalypse’s other Horsemen aren’t much more then plot devices. Alexandre Shipp and Olivia Munn both perfectly captured the physical appearances of Storm and Psylocke. However, Storm’s progression from street thief, to supervillain henchman, to eventual hero seems hopelessly thinly sketched. Most of her character development seemingly happens off-screen. Munn, meanwhile, functions primarily as an action figure, using her powers to slice through cars and attack Beast. Any swagger or ability Munn has are obscured by the demands of an ensemble film. As Ben Hardy as Archangel, meanwhile, has even less to work with. The character makes a memorable entrance but, by the end, he’s reduced to a special effect. The motivation behind his villainous action are left totally unexplored.

“Apocalypse” does have a large – some would even say “bloated” – cast. However, this is a big budget summer blockbuster. I’m here for spectacle and action. In this regard, “Apocalypse” succeeds with flying colors. The film takes full advantage of the character’s superpowers. Apocalypse is decapitating people with sand. Nightcrawler uses his teleportation as a weapon, flipping opponents into danger. Psylocke has fuckin’ laser swords and whips. However, one superpowered individual steals the show. Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver, once again running away with nearly the entire movie. Expanding on the “Time in a Bottle” sequence from “Days of Future Past,” Quicksilver runs towards Xavier’s school just as it’s about to explode. Time stands still, as Quicksilver runs into the building, moving everyone out of danger’s way… But not before messing with the frozen people. Goldfish are scooped back into bowls, bed sheets are used as a net, debris is picked out of the air. We even get a cameo from Pizza Dog. The entire set piece is set to the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” the song nearly playing in its entirety. Peters perfectly clowns it up, having a ball as the irrelevant speedster.

Some have criticized Fox sticking Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine into nearly every X-Men movie. When a trailer spoiled Jackman’s surprised appearance in “Apocalypse,” that same crowd rolled their eyes. However, “Apocalypse” sparingly uses Wolverine. Earlier, I criticized the movie for reducing its characters to plot devices. But when most of your cast are defined by their superpowers, that’s not necessarily a bad idea. Dressed in a perfectly replicated Weapon X costume, Wolverine enters the story to allow the new trio of heroes a chance to escape. In other worlds, Wolverine is in full-on berserker mode, massacring a whole base full of militaristic bad guys. Considering tearing shit up is what we all want to see Wolverine do anyway, there’s nothing wrong with this. He functions as a super heroic wrecking ball, Jackman growling and fuming. There’s actually something elegant about Wolverine popping into the story, delivering a satisfying amount of carnage, and then wandering back out. (Jackman’s not even credited, by the way.)

“Apocalypse” has a truly massive finale. His full potential unlocked, Magneto proceeds to wreck havoc on the entire world. Whole cities are turn apart by his magnetic abilities, the San Francisco Bridge and the Sydney Opera House both being destroyed. In all this CGI chaos, “Apocalypse” focuses back on the individuals. The heroic X-Men pair off with villains. Beast battles Psylocke, Nightcrawler fights Angel, Cyclops struggles with Storm. Before the end, the film packs in several fan-pleasing moments of spectacle. Professor X and Apocalypse battle on the astral plane, the supervillain's trademark growing abilities being incorporated in an organic way. The full range of Jean Grey’s powers are hinted at, providing viewers with an iconic image that’s long overdue. A giant metal X is slammed into the ground, a comic book worthy shot. With so much mayhem, the final fate of the villain comes off as a bit of an afterthought. But who can complain when we get this many kick-ass moments?

Truthfully, “Apocalypse” is juggling a lot of narrative balls. The film has to split screen time between eleven major characters. Sometimes, the viewer has to remind themselves where everyone is in relation to the other cast members. When you’re cutting back and forth between Cyclops’ training, Apocalypse recruiting his assistants, Xavier infiltrating the CIA, and Magneto mourning his wife and child, audiences could be forgiven for becoming confused. Eventually, most everyone is gathered in one place, though it takes well. However, considering this year has already had two superhero movies that did middling jobs of balancing a loaded cast, “Apocalypse” does remarkably well making spacing out its plot and dividing focus among its ensemble.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” is maybe the most comic book-y comic book movie yet made, surpassing “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the previous record holder for that title. It has the massive stakes and massive cast of a major crossover event. Despite the apocalypse promised in its title, the film maintains a free-wheeling sense of fun, constantly topping its previous huge set pieces. Of course, plenty of crumbs are left for future installments. Many character exit the film in amusingly comic accurate costumes, promising more adventures. Hints towards Mr. Sinister and X-23 are dropped, for the upcoming third “Wolverine” flick. Bryan Singer has already promised the next film will take us to the nineties and outer space. So D’Ken, Lilandra, and Dark Phoenix could be heading for the big screen. Despite some serious flaws, “Apocalypse” makes the franchise fun again by embracing the wild possibilities of its source material. [Grade: B+]

Friday, May 27, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Enemies Closer (2013)

After two successful collaborations with his son, Jean-Claude Van Damme would re-team with Peter Hyams for the first time since “Sudden Death.” The elder Hyams’ days as a top action director was long behind him. His previous films where “Beyond a Reason Doubt” and “A Sound of Thunder,” both flops. Maybe Peter was hoping on riding Van Damme’s newly renewed cult popularity to some success of his own? “Enemies Closer” went direct-to-video in most of the world. However, the reviews were decent and the film provided the action icon with another latter-day chance to show off his still sharp skills.

Henry is a former marine now working as a park ranger on a forested island between the U.S. and Canadian border. His relatively quiet existence, and a chance at romance with a pretty female camper, is interrupted by two events on the same night. First, a man named Clay marches into his cabin. Clay’s brother was part of Henry’s military squad in the Middle East. Blaming Henry for his brother’s death, Clay is determined to take revenge. Meanwhile, a vicious drug cartel, led by a French-Canadian militant vegan, lands on the island to retrieve a lost shipment of heroin. Inevitably, the villains take aim at Henry and Clay, forcing the two sworn enemies to work together if they hope to survive.

Disappointingly, Van Damme is not the main character of “Enemies Closer.” However, he’s absolutely the main reason to see it. With a wreath of wild hair atop his leathery head, Jean-Claude enters the film in full Canadian Mountie regalia. That’s just the first of several delightfully kooky elements the script provides Van Damme with. Named Xander, the bad guy is a murderous vegan. He bemoans cow farts contributing to green house gases and the effects of gasoline on the environment. One of “Enemies Closer’s” best moments is a monologue from Van Damme. He details a traumatic childhood memory, where a beloved pet goose wound up as foie gras, that led him to both veganism and murder. The film is happy to note Xander’s devotion to animal life but his disregard for human life. Van Damme exits the film cackling wildly. He joyously hams it up all throughout “Enemies Closer,” gesticulating with a quirky body language. It’s the kind of happily ridiculous JCVD performance I’ve been waiting to see for a while now.

Van Damme is highly entertaining but what about the film’s actual heroes? “Enemies Closer” isn’t quite a “Die Hard” rip-off, as the terrorists invading a limited location are aware of the everyman-turned-action-hero from the beginning. Tom Everett Scott’s Henry is no John McClane either. Scott’s easy going nature are well suited to the early scenes of him patrolling the park. Once the action breaks out, Scott seems weirdly out of his element. Orlando “7 Up Yours!” Jones plays Clay. Jones’ character arc is entirely routine. He starts out as a man with nothing to loose, blaming a stranger for the death of his brother. Naturally, Clay and Henry overcome their differences before the end. Neither Scott nor Jones are bad actors. Yet neither character, especially compared to Van Damme’s kooky bad guy, hold the audience’s attention very well.

“Enemies Closer’s” goals as an action flick are decidedly modest. Do not go in expecting the brutal combat and explicit violence of the later “Universal Soldier” sequels. Hyams takes a few cues from his son’s films, as “Enemies Closer” features some diverting MMA-style tumbles and tosses. Unsurprisingly, the best action beats belong to Van Damme. Early on, he cracks a CD in half and slices an opponent up with the sharp edges. He tosses guys over shoulder, climbs storage lockers, and turns a keyboard into a deadly weapon. Later in the film, he stabs some guys with a random stick. There’s a convincing fall out of a tree and at least one big explosion. The gun play – which is mostly what Scott and Jones do – is not particularly memorable. At the very least, Hyams’ direction is moody, as the island’s forest is characterized by smoky shadows.

“Enemies Closer” is unambitious but that’s kind of okay. Running only 85 minutes, it’s clear the film was intended to be nothing more then a mildly amusing action-packed snack. The plot is nothing special and the heroes are unremarkable. Truthfully, it’s all worth it to see Jean-Claude Van Damme decimate the scenery as a homicidal animal activist. If the movie had just tossed the routine story out and focused on Van Damme’s lovably nutty character, it could’ve been an instant cult classic. As it is, “Enemies Closer” is a good time while it’s on and certainly succeeds at its humble goals. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 2 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

Jean-Claude Van Damme has happily taken advantage his renewed cult status and recent meme-dom. That upcoming "Kickboxer" remake remains his highest profile project in years and should be heading to theaters later this year. Van Damme is so excited about it that work has already begun on a sequel. Meanwhile, the Muscles from Brussels will also be soon starring in a hilarious sounding Amazon series, which sounds like a kookier series-length take on "JCVD." You can bet I'll be seeking out both projects.

It's doubtful Van Damme will ever regain the level of fame he attained in the nineties. Despite that, his career has continued to evolve in fascinating directions, as the most compellingly eccentric of the classic action stars continues to be a pop culture figure not quite like any other. This marathon has been blast. I'll go ahead and announce that "JCVD-A-THON: The Return" is already on the docket for next year. Until then, Film Thoughts has a lot of other stuff planned. Stay tuned and keep kickin'.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

Damn, who would’ve thought “Universal Soldier” would be such a long-lived franchise? As I’ve said before, it’s not like the original is some universally beloved, unassailable classic or anything. After “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” became a minor sensation among genre film fans, suddenly the idea of a sixth “Universal Soldier” movie didn’t seem unappealing at all. Director John Hyams, Van Damme, and Dolph all returned for “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.” The sequel also added Scott Adkins, more-or-less the modern equivalent of what Van Damme was in the late eighties. “Day of Reckoning” would push the surprisingly long-running series into a totally new direction. That change of tone made the film divisive but it won some rave reviews, quickly garnering a following even larger then what “Regeneration” gained.

Everyman John is awoken in the middle of the night but his young daughter, who thinks there are monsters in the house. She’s right. Three men in black masks beat John bloody before dragging his wife and daughter down stairs. Before killing them both, the leader reveals himself to John as Luc Deveraux, Universal Soldier and former hero. After awaking in a hospital bed, John suffers from confusion and warped memories. He’s also determined to track down the man that murdered his family. This path puts him into a bloody confrontation with a cult of deprogrammed Universal Soldiers, led by Deveraux, waging a guerilla war against the U.S. government. Yet everything is not what it seems, not even John’s own desires.

“Day of Reckoning” has few connections to the previous “Universal Soldier” films. Aside from a wildly different interpretation of Luc Deveraux, Lundgren’s Andrew Scott, and the concept of government created super soldiers, the story is totally unrelated. In truth, the film is more of a psychologically tinged horror/thriller then a proper action flick. The hero is doggedly pursued by an unstoppable villain, who dispatches enemies in very violent ways. This isn’t unlike a slasher flick and, until Scott Adkins begins fighting back around the half-way point, “Day of Reckoning” feels more horrific then action-y. The themes of memories, identity, and manipulation were probably influenced by David Lynch films like “Lost Highway” and “Muholland Dr.” Deveraux’s brainwashed cult of soldiers and their swampland hideout were intentionally modeled after Kurtz’ jungle stronghold in “Apocalypse Now.” Mostly, the film’s dark, downbeat tone is wildly different then the popcorn fun of the original “Universal Soldier” and its 1999 follow-up.

Another element that pushes “Day of Reckoning” to the edge of horror is its brutal violence. From its opening minutes, it’s incredibly bloody. The first scene is shot from Adkins’ perspective, disoriented and blinking to replicate someone suddenly awoken in the middle of the night. His face is beaten raw with a tire iron. Each head shot leaves a dripping splatter of grey matter on the walls. When a UniSol attacks a brothel, gaping holes are blown in people, victims are blasted across the room, and the walls are painted red. Faces are shattered into pulp, skull and brains tossed into the air, with gunfire and even a baseball bat. Hands and feet are cleaved in half with an axe. Skin is slashed with a machete. Limbs are twisted apart and an eighteen inch long blade is driven through someone’s head. By the end, Scott Adkins is covered head to toe in gore. “Day of Reckoning” is as bloody as the best latter day horror film and utilizes its violence just as dynamically.

While tossing a shit ton of fake blood into the air, “Day of Reckoning” also provides a display for the skills of its leading men. Andrei Arlovski returns from “Regeneration” as the most homicidal of the super soldiers. The scuffle between Arlovski and Adkins in a cramped hotel room is exciting. So is the car chase that climaxes with a Jeep spinning three times through the air. However, the first proper fight between Adkins and Arlovski overshadows them both. The two men wrestle through a sporting goods store. They toss each other through shelves and wield baseball bats like bo staffs. Adkins’ incredibly acrobatic skills are shown off, when he does a spinning back flip into his opponent’s face. The climax of the film has Adkins rampaging through the UniSol base, tearing each of the henchmen apart with bullets and blades. Hyam shoots the scene in a series of long shots, creating a hypnotic swirl of violence and fantastically choreographed action. Adkins’ fights with Lundgren and Van Damme truthfully pale in comparison, even if both feature a lot of flipping, kicking, and brutal contact.

“Regeneration” managed to find an interesting moral about the way governments misuse their soldiers. “Day of Reckoning” has some even heavier themes on its mind. Throughout the course of the film, John discovers that he’s actually a clone of one of Deveraux’s men. Later on, he learns that his family was never real and that his memories of them were implant in his head by – you guessed it – the government. Even after taking out the bad guys, John continues to discover yet more manipulation in his life. His masterful massacre of the rogue UniSols was also planned. The same people who put the false memories in his head also hoped he’d exterminate the renegades. These story turns keep the audience guessing and sometimes threatens to spin the film in a convoluted direction. If these themes and ideas solidify into a coherent whole – beyond “Don’t trust the government,” I guess – I’m not sure how. Yet it’s certainly far more ambitious then you’d expect from the fifth sequel to a barely remembered nineties action flick.

I knew going into this one that it was mostly a display for Adkins and Arlovski’s talents. Adkins is an extremely talented martial artist. The film gives him several opportunities to show off his aerial kicks and tumbling dives. Adkins is also a decent actor, mining okay pathos from John’s loss and anger. Arlovski suffices at playing an inhuman murder machine but neither this film nor the previous “UniSol” story provided chances for anything more. If you’re expecting a lot of Van Damme or Lundgren, you might be disappointed. Their scenes count though. Dolph gets to deliver two insane monologues, something he’s gotten increasingly good at. Van Damme isn’t Marlon Brando, even if his shaved head is obviously meant to recall him. His face slathered in black and white war paint, like a voodoo houngan, is certainly a memorable image. Van Damme’s performance seems halfway between a nihilistic philosopher and a tired soldier. Which is appropriate, and effectively sinister, even if I would’ve perhaps preferred something more colorful.

“Day of Reckoning” does feel a bit like an original screenplay that was hastily retrofitted for the “UniSol” franchise. The film won’t win any awards for its representation of women. Adkins’ love interest provides little to the story and is forgotten by the end. Most of the film’s women are either strippers or prostitutes and usually wind up graphically murdered. I can see why the story’s bleak tone and extreme content turned some people off. “Day of Reckoning” is still a bold statement, featuring impressive action and an ambitious storyline. If another film is made – and Hyams has hinted at that – perhaps it could explore Van Damme’s character some more. What happened to Luc Deveraux to explain the changes between “Regeneration” and this film? Well, that's what I'd like to see anyway. [7/10]

[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

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

I don’t think many people cared about the “Universal Soldier” franchise before 2009. The original was occasionally recalled fondly as an above-average Van Damme vehicle and a fairly entertaining popcorn flick. Nobody gave a shit about any of the previous sequels. That all changed with “Universal Soldier: Regeneration.” Following “JCVD” and “The Expendables,” Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren were the most relevant they had been in years. The son of previous Van Damme collaborator, Peter Hyam, director John Hyam had made his name with documentaries about MMA. Hyam would bring that same intensity and urgency to this film. Despite being a direct-to-video fourth sequel to a barely remembered nineties movie, “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” quickly gained fans.

Ignoring all prior “UniSol” sequels, “Regeneration” brings the misbegotten franchise into the modern day. The children of the Russian Prime Minister are kidnapped by an even more deadly, new model of Universal Soldier. Procured by a rogue scientist, the NextGen UniSol is working with Ukrainian terrorists, whose base of operation is inside the ruins of Chernobyl. The U.S. army tries to retrieve the children but the super soldier makes quick work of all of them. With few other options, Luc Deveraux is recruited. However, Deveraux has a serious case of PTSD and, with the help of a therapist, has slowly been reentering normal society. Will the formerly great UniSol be able to stand up to the new model, especially when an old enemy also enters the fray?

Minutes after beginning, “Regeneration” leads with extremely brutal, bloody action. The opening scene is devoted to the girl being abducted by the bad guys. The bullets hit extremely hard, blood spurting from every wound, splattering on glass and chrome. Vehicles crash, the metal twisting and the tires shrieking. After that mission, the NGU’s broken arms and scourged skin are treated in a cold, scientific manner. When Luc Deveraux is finally unleashed in the film’s final act, Van Damme cleaves through a small army with a knife. The arterial spray flies freely and, while the stab wounds are occasionally lingered on, the focus is on brutal and bloody efficiency. The hardest hits are reserved for the man-on-man melees. Van Damme and Dolph’s duel has the two titans tossed through windows, shelves, walls and tables. After diving thirty feet out a building, the fight concludes with a metal pipe through the forehead and a shotgun to the brain. Deveraux’s final fight with the NGU is no less vicious, as it features an even higher fall, harsher kicks and punches, and an explosion making mince meat of a grown man. It’s awesome.

The action scenes just aren’t intense in content. Hyam’s direction is kinetic but smooth. The car chase, for example, has a fabulous sense of motion. The camera rolls along with the vehicles, as bullets shatter the glass and the cars smash into each other. Despite all the chaos going on, Hyam’s hand remains steady. The action scenes are characterized by slickly edited, longish shots. Such as when Van Damme runs into battle, blowing away bad guys and effortlessly dodging explosions. A sequence that practically feels like a horror movie is devoted to the NGU stalking the other soldiers, cornering them and dispatching them with a retractable wrist-blade. Even a smaller moment, such as when Mike Pyle’s hero sneaks into Chernobyl and quietly disarms some enemies, has a fluidness to the action. “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” is not just hard hitting but is cleanly and stylishly directed.

The previous “Universal Soldier” movies were not exactly the type of movies to feature smart, insightful subtext. The original had the thinnest wisp of a point about the military establishment making normal people into inhuman killing machines. “Regeneration” runs with this, taking the theme much further. When Devereux is first introduced, he’s the spitting image of a shell-shocked soldier. He’s quiet, withdrawn, on medication, yet still prone to violent outbursts. When the government decides it needs him, they break into his home and drag him off. Luc is dropped onto a treadmill, pumped full of drugs, tossed into training, and back on the battlefield in hours. They don’t care about his well-being. The movie’s final image makes this point even more abundantly clear. The war machine rolls on, using up good men. In the world of “Universal Soldier,” even death can’t keep the government from exploiting its soldiers.

“Regeneration” is a strong film but it has one serious flaw. The story is seemingly without a primary protagonist. Van Damme’s Devereux is obviously the hero we want to root for but he’s on the sidelines until nearly the end of the movie. Andrei Arlovski, a MMA fighter of some renown who is credited as “The Pitbull,” plays the NGU and gets top-billing. Arlovski is physically intimidating and does well in the part but the villain intentionally has no personality. Which leaves Mike Pyle, another professional fighter, as Captain Kevin Burke. Burke is the most morally ethical of the characters, leads the various failed military charges, and helps save the hostages. Despite that, he exits the film well before the end and, truthfully, only has a handful of scenes to himself. Without a solid lead character for the audience to focus on, “Regeneration” ends up sometimes feeling like nothing but a series of (beautifully orchestrated) action scenes.

It almost feels like the film was written with Pyle as the main hero and Arlovski as the primary villain, the producers assuming Van Damme and Lundgren wouldn’t return. I have no proof of this but I suspect that Jean-Claude and Dolph’s insertion into the movie was the result of a quickie rewrite. Whatever the reason, the film is better because of their participation. The tired, worn-out quality on Van Damme’s face adds another sad dimension to Deveraux. By the film’s end, he is sadly resigned to his role in life. A nice touch is Van Damme closing his eyes during a brief moment of quiet, as if he’s a warrior monk centering himself before striking again. Arlovski is a pretty great villain but Dolph brings some perverse fun to the film. As in the original, Andrew Scott is unhinged from the moment he appears. Before crushing the mad scientist’s head with his bare hands, Dolph turns a previous line of dialogue against him. The casual way he decides to murder a pair of children is equally chilling and morbidly funny. These action stars may be pushing retirement age but “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” makes it clear that they can still kick some serious ass.

“Universal Soldier: Regeneration” may not have the sturdiest script but, as far as break-neck action goes, it delivers in spades. It’s not a dumb movie either, with some real ideas on its mind. The film is another proud addition to the line of alt-action flicks, providing hard-hitting alternatives to the CGI-filled spectacles of Hollywood, that also includes “The Raid” and the films of Isaac Florentine. And who would’ve expected that from the fifth film in a series most people probably don’t even remember? [8/10]

[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

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


We hadn’t heard from Jean-Claude Van Damme much by 2008. Oh, he was still making movies. But they came and went without much notice, disappearing onto video store shelves where nobody but hardened action cinema fans watched them. Which made the sudden buzz “JCVD” received on the festival circuit all the more surprising. Van Damme had starred as himself in a primarily subtitled dramedy. The film was getting good reviews but the star’s performance was getting great reviews. Considering Van Damme’s skills as a thespian were rarely lauded, it was an unexpected turn of events. So was a star mostly associated with undistinguished schlock appearing in a heavily-meta foreign language film. “JCVD” spurned a renewed interest in Van Damme’s career, helping cement his modern day status as a cult favorite. At the very least, the film proved the action star wasn’t going down without a fight.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is not doing too hot. He breaks his back in mediocre action films for unappreciative directors. An ex-wife has taken him to court over custody of their daughter, a fight he’s struggling to win. The scripts aren’t getting any better, the paychecks are getting smaller, and the money is starting to dry up. While visiting his Belgian home town, exhausted from the flight, he enters a post office. His hope is to wire some much needed cash to his lawyer in L.A. Unbeknownst to him, a group of thugs have taken the bank hostage. Van Damme is pulled into their haphazard scheme, forced to participate.

Usually when an actor stars as themselves in a film, the story is making a statement about fame. “JCVD,” oddly, doesn’t go down that path. Perhaps the implication is that Van Damme’s fame is of a particularly precarious nature. He remains an icon in Brussels and, several times throughout the film, fans ask for photographs or questions with the star. One of his captors is an especially passionate fan. He discusses John Woo with his idol and has him kick a cigarette out of a hostage’s mouth. “JCVD” is, in fact, a highly personal tale of redemption.  Jean-Claude wants to make art but those aren’t the scripts he’s getting offered. He’s desperate not to loose his daughter but the deck is stacked against him. When he winds up in a hostage situation, it seems like the latest pitfall in a long string of set backs. However, as the long day goes on, the action star realizes he can save other people’s lives. For real, this time. Furthering how personal a project “JCVD” was for its lead, his actual parents also appear in the film.

Despite whatever ego he might have displayed off-screen, Van Damme devotees know the star’s eccentric, earthy humanity has always been one of his best attributes. “JCVD” builds upon this. He’s always been charming but it’s rare that this much visible thought has gone into one of his performances. The movie creates an intentional contrast between his on-screen persona and his “real” personality. During the hostage situation, Van Damme panics, cowers and hides. During a cab ride with a chatty driver, he’s grumpy, exhausted from the jet lag. He stutters and yells while on the phone with negotiators, visibly nervous. He argues with his agent, who offers him scripts that have already been filmed. When he discovers he’s lost a part to Steven Seagal – who promised to cut his pony tail for the film – he’s dismayed. When the conclusion comes, the star accepts his fate with dignity and grace. Not only is it a compelling performance, it’s a touching one.

“JCVD’s” self-aware tendencies extend pass casting the lead actor as himself. The movie is happy to play with the film format. “JCVD” begins with a stunning single shot. Set to Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times,” the long sequence has Van Damme kicking, punching, shooting, exploding, and setting enemies on fire. Amusingly, the long shot is bungled at the end by a faulty prop. The camera pulls back and we realize Van Damme is on a film set, run by a picky but apathetic director. This playfulness continues through the film, with the non-linear storytelling, creative camera angles, and flights of fancy imagined by the protagonist. This tendency climaxes with an amazing monologue. After floating above the set, Van Damme talks directly to the audience. The partially improvised speech has Jean-Claude reflecting on his childhood, long march towards fame, his success, his drug abuse and womanizing, and his current situation. It concludes with him wondering aloud why his dreams came true when so few others do and begging God for a second chance. It’s a deeply personal and powerful moment, clearly the centerpiece of the entire film.

Despite some astonishing moments and a fantastic lead performance, “JCVD” has flaws. The slightly ramshackle script does not have an even flow. Sometimes scenes go on too long, awkwardly rambling into each other. Van Damme is the only character that truly gets developed. The bank robbers often come off as loosely drawn caricatures. The Van Damme fanboy, for example, is somewhat cartoonish while his bullying brother is thinly sketched. Despite the quiet humor of the film, “JCVD” is dourly directed. The entire film is shot in grey, cloud-choked skies always overhead. The interior of the post office is presented through a sickly green. “JCVD” is a funny and thoughtful film but, visually, it’s miserable looking.

Despite Van Damme giving an award-worthy performance and getting excellent reviews, “JCVD” was disappointingly but unsurprisingly absent come award season. The Muscle from Brussels didn’t go home with any statues but “JCVD” did allow for a happy reevaluation of his talent. Suddenly, his films became fondly recalled points of nostalgia and his skills as a performer were better respected. The movies started getting better too. For these reasons and more, “JCVD” is obviously essential viewing for anyone interested in Van Damme and has already developed a cult following of its own. [8/10]

[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

Monday, May 23, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Replicant (2001)

For most of the previous decade, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career was ice cold. His late eighties/early nineties glory days were long gone. His eventual reappraisal as a cult figure hadn’t yet happened. At most points during the 2000s, if Van Damme was in a movie, that usually meant it was an unremarkable affair destined to premiere on television or video store shelves. I could have picked any number of films to represent this low period. However, I decided on “Replicant” for a specific reason. I remember seeing a trailer or commercial for the film. At the time, it surprised me that a punchline like Van Damme could still headline a movie. He was so washed up even a kid recognized it. Years later, it’s time to judge “Replicant” on its own merits.

The city of Seattle is being terrorized by a serial killer. Known as the Torch, he breaks into the homes of single mothers, beats them to death, and then burns the building down. Detective Jake Riley is obsessed with the Torch and has been pursuing him doggedly for years now. After being forced into retirement, a secret government sector presents Riley with an unusual proposition. Using a piece of the killer’s hair recovered from a crime scene, scientists have created an adult age clone of the killer. The Replicant has the mentality of the child and a psychic connection with the real murderer. Riley takes the clone into his own home and treats him cruelly at first. As they draw closer to catching the killer, he develops an odd fondness for the copy.

I have good news to report: “Replicant” is very entertaining! The film is Van Damme’s second collaboration with Ringo Lam, one of those crazy Hong Kong filmmakers he likes. As a result, “Replicant” has an endearing kooky streak. I’m not talking about the ridiculous plot. (Why would the government go to the expense of cloning the guy when a number of easier, cheaper options must be available?) Instead, I’m referring to the oddball combo of genres. The film mashes up big action, silly sci-fi, crime thriller and a bizarre sense of humor. Moreover, “Replicant” seems to have some thematic concerns on its mind. It’s not so much a nature vs. nurture debate as it’s an interest in the effects of bad parenting. The Torch was abused by his mother and became an unhinged serial killer. The Replicant is treated cruelly at first as well. However, after Det. Riley opens his heart to the strange man, the Replicant’s good nature is revealed. None of this really crystallizes into a coherent whole but it certainly makes “Replicant” consistently interesting.

Once again, Van Damme is playing duel roles in a film. However, Van Damme’s performance is far more divergent then his work in “Double Impact.” As the titular character, he’s playing something akin to an idiot man-child. After plopping out of his artificial womb, the speechless Replicant watches an educational video where an older woman teaches him how to sit. (The ability to perform splits, however, seems born into him.) After Riley takes him home, the clone gets chained up in the basement, like an abused dog. This leads to an especially bizarre/homoerotic sequence where Michael Rooker stripes Van Damme down to his underwear. As unexpected as that moment is, the peak of weirdo humor in “Replicant” comes when the clone befriends a prostitute. While visiting her hotel room, he awkwardly dry-humps the woman until orgasm. The scene of Van Damme confused by the wet stain on his sweatpants afterwards truly must be seen to be believed.

Van Damme has played a villain a few times throughout his career. However, few of them compared to the sleazy psychopath he portrays in “Replicant.” Topped with greasy long hair and usually wearing a ratty leather jacket, the Torch hangs out in a dark apartment filled with madly scrawled notes. The Torch’s murderous M.O. is deeply Freudian. By beating and burning mothers, he’s repeatedly killing his own abusive mother. This is best illustrated when he goes nuts in the morgue and empties a handgun into his recently dead mom. The script is not especially cutting edge. The movie frequently cuts to sloppily shot flashbacks, where we see his tortured youth. However, Van Damme is awfully committed to the part. He makes the serial killer creepy and frightening.

Despite getting top billing and obviously being the star of the show, Van Damme is not truly the protagonist of “Replicant.” Michael Rooker plays Detective Riley, the man who actually motivates the plot. Rooker has always excelled at playing gruff characters. Even while ostensibly playing this film’s hero, he doesn’t back down on that gruffness. Riley is hilariously mean-spirited throughout the film. Despite the Replicant obviously being an innocent, Rooker still treats the character as if he’s the serial killer. This includes beating him, chaining him to a sink, and yelling profanity at him. Rooker is far too convincing as crazy, making it difficult to buy him as a hero. Having said that, “Replicant” still works pretty well as a grimy police thriller. The moments devoted to seeking out the murderer’s victims, where the cast look at grisly crime scene photos, are surprisingly effective.

This is still a Van Damme movie though, which means there has to be some high-kicking action. “Replicant” succeeds at this as well! Like I said, the Replicant has a built-in knowledge of martial arts. When Riley decides to test out the clone’s possible murderous tendencies, it leads to Van Damme (or his stunt double, anyway) kicking, leaping, and swinging around a warehouse. Naturally, “Replicant” provides some Van Damme-on-Van Damme action. The first occurs in a random bar and concludes with the good JCVD break-dancing on a pool table. At the conclusion, the doubles perfectly match each other. This means spinning roundhouse kicks are met with spinning roundhouse kicks, uppercuts countered with uppercuts. All of this is pretty awesome but it’s not the best stunt in “Replicant.” That occurs when the bad JCVD steals an ambulance. Rooker hangs off the door of the vehicle as it smashes through the parking garbage, sparks flying everywhere. The sequence concludes with the ambulance doing a spinning flip down a staircase. It’s an awesome car wreck and one I totally did not see coming.

Maybe my low expectations helped. “Replicant” is amusingly weird in spots. Jean-Claude Van Damme as a speechless child-like humanoid stumbling through an adult world is certainly a sight you won’t see anywhere else. As a sci-fi flick, it’s totally implausible and frequently ridiculous. As an action movie, it definitely provides the goods. As an off-beat genre film, it’s most entertaining. Truthfully, I’m surprised it doesn’t have more of a following. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 4 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[X] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

JCVD-A-THON: Universal Solider: The Return (1999)

By 1999, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career had hit a low point. “Double Team” and “Knock Off” were box office flops. 1998’s “Legionnaire” was the first of his films to go direct-to-video but far from the last. Van Damme says he was clean by this point but the Cocaine Years had taken their toll. His star power was bottoming out. As one last desperate attempt to recapture the public’s attention, the action icon employed the strategy of starring in a sequel to a previously successful film. I don’t know if “Universal Soldier” was that hot of a property by 1999. I guess those TV movies kept the title in audience’s minds? It was also one of JCVD’s biggest mainstream hits. Either way, “Universal Soldier: The Return” did not reignite Van Damme fever. The film’s failure would begin the Muscle from Brussels’ long exile to the straight-to-video netherworld.

In the years since the first “Universal Soldier,” Luc Deveraux has been striped of his cybernetic add-ons and psychological programming. He’s mostly human now. He even married his love interest from the first film, fathered a daughter, and became a widower. Now, Deveraux works as a consultant with the government, who is pumping out Universal Soldiers with the help of a super-computer named S.E.T.H. However, budget cuts soon force the closure of the UniSol program. S.E.T.H. does not take kindly to this. He takes control of the remaining UniSols, holds the government facility hostage, and violently kills anyone who opposes him. Deveraux goes on the run with another reporter until S.E.T.H., inhabiting a super-powered UniSol body, kidnaps Luc’s daughter. Now the fight is personal.

“Universal Soldier: The Return” is the first Van Damme movie I’ve seen that I would described as dumb without any endearment. As a sequel, it doesn’t build upon the original intelligently. I kind of doubt that Deveraux would willingly work for the government, considering what they did to him. Or that he would re-adapt to human life so easily. Or that the program would even exist any more, after the huge fuck-ups last time. A super-computer rebelling against its own termination is an old cliché, which “The Return” brings nothing new to. Moreover, it seems to me that the invention of complex artificial intelligence would render the UniSols obsolete. If you have that technology, why not just build robots? Beyond that, the story takes several dumb turns. Such as the random appearance of a strip club/phone sex hub, the even sillier bar fight that follows, Deveraux and the lady reporter falling in love in the space of a few hours, and the obnoxious punk rock hacker who waltz into the story without much reason.

The script is lousy but Jean-Claude Van Damme is doing his best to elevate the material. Unlike his last few films, where the star didn’t seem that invested in the material, Van Damme appears very jovial throughout “The Return.” His energy runs high, he smiles a lot, cracks joke, and trades romantic banter with his female co-stars. This is at least the fourth time he’s played a father. That too seems to contribute to his high spirits. The scenes he shares with Karis Bryant, the actress playing his daughter, are genuinely charming and sweet. By this point, Van Damme had kicked coke and was on the way to remarrying his third wife, who he’s still married to. That makes a lot of difference, I suspect. The script is still crappy but the star visibly having fun definitely counts for something.

Dolph Lundgren’s career wasn’t doing too hot by 1999 either. However, I guess his character going into a wood chipper discouraged the producers from bringing him back. Instead, two new villains vex Luc Deveraux this time. Pro-wrestler Bill Goldberg plays Romeo, an antagonistic UniSol. The soldiers deliberately lacked personality last time. Romeo, however, displays anger and a sense of humor even before the rebellion. Every time Goldberg shows up, Van Damme defeats him, causing the wrestler to crack an exceedingly lame one-liner. It’s mildly amusing at first but quickly grows tiresome with repetition. Instead of adapting his wrestling persona to the character, Goldberg basically just plays his wrestling persona. Michael Jai White’s distinctive baritone is immediately recognizable coming out of S.E.T.H.’s computer brain. When S.E.T.H. uploads his consciousness into a human body, White obviously puts in an appearance. Playing a cold and logical killer restrains White’s immeasurable charm and comedic timing. However, White still has an impressive screen presence and solid acting chops, making him a more-than-worthy successor to Dolph.

Many of the action sequences in “Universal Soldier: The Return” are underscored by obnoxiously loud proto-nu-metal. This is, of course, ridiculous and drains a lot of positive energy out of the sequences. Few of the action scenes are that memorable. The film opens with a mildly exciting speed boat chase, even if that scene turns out to be a dumb training exercise. There are several shoot-outs in the military facility, many of them devolving into bad guys firing and the good guys ducking behind walls. Van Damme’s expected gymnastics are unusually restrained. I swear he doesn’t kick someone until nearly an hour in. However, once the kicking happens, the film picks up considerably speed. A fight scene in the hospital is pretty cool, concluding with a bad UniSol launched into an industrial washing machine. The final fight between Van Damme and White has both stars giving it their all. Jean-Claude leaping off chairs and walls is awkward but the original Universal Soldier and Black Dynamite happily beat the crap out of each other. White’s raw physicality and powerful kicks actually make Van Damme seem out-classed, however briefly.

William Malone, primarily known as a horror director of debatable talent, co-wrote “Universal Soldier: The Return.” Not surprisingly, the sequel suffers from many of the same obnoxious story gaps and stylistic quirks as Malone’s directorial work. “The Return” isn’t quite bad enough to be entirely terrible. It’s also not unintentionally funny enough to transcend quality and become campy fun. Instead, it’s an underwhelming sequel, seemingly made to cash-in on the original’s dwindling recognition and boost its star’s falling status. On the other hand, it’s also only 79 minutes long, so you won’t waste much time watching it. [5/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 4 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[X] Dancing*
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

*The briefest of head bops.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Double Team (1997)

By 1997, Jean-Claude Van Damme was basically a pop culture punchline. His movies weren’t exactly loosing money at the box office but the profit margin was growing smaller with each new release. A decade of bad reviews and – perhaps more importantly – changing public taste concerning the action genre had taken its toll. “Double Team” would combine the action star with Dennis Rodman, another flamboyant icon of nineties cheese. The film received the most toxic reviews of Van Damme’s career, won three Razzies, and did meager business at the box office. In the nineteen years since its release, “Double Team” has acquired a reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good classic. Is this status deserved?

Government agent Jack Quinn has stepped away from the anti-terrorism business. While enjoying retirement with his pregnant wife, he is drawn back for One Last Mission. Madman-for-hire Stavros, an old enemy of Jack’s, has reemerged. Naturally, the mission goes horribly wrong, ending with Stavros’ son being killed. Afterwards, Jack is declared dead by the government and held hostage on an island for decommissioned spies. During his incarceration, Stavros kidnaps Jack’s wife, her delivery date growing closer and closer. After a daring escape, Jack partners with Yaz, an eccentric weapons dealer he previously meet. The two worked together to rescue his wife and stop the bad guy.

Whether or not you consider “Double Team” so bad it’s good depends on your definition of both “bad” and “good.” After successfully bringing John Woo to Hollywood, Van Damme teamed with another Hong Kong filmmaker. But Tsui Hark is a far more eccentric talent then Woo. “Double Team” is completely bonkers, in the way a lot of Hong Kong cinema gleefully is. The film plays less like a mainstream blockbuster and more like an Italian James Bond rip-off from the sixties. To that already kooky pot, it adds elements of a kung-fu movie, a buddy cop flick, a revenge storyline, and about fifty basketball puns. The resulting stew is so goofy, so wildly excessive in conception and divergent in tone, that it couldn’t have been anything but a box office failure and a cult favorite.

Take, for example, the action sequences. The film begins with Van Damme driving some sort of armored truck up a non-existent ramp and through a train car. The first proper action scene is a shoot-out in an amusement park. The machine gun fire takes out a clown, foam cartoon mascots, a popcorn machine, and a girl in a chicken mask. Van Damme leaps from an exploding neon sign and break dances around some bullets. Van Damme and Mickey Rourke fight through a hospital, the hero repeatedly pushing a baby out of the chaos while face-kicking his opponent. By the end of the movie, he kicks a tiger in the head. In a bizarre bit of product placement, a Coca-Cola machine is used to shield the good guys from a massive, CGI fireball that destroys the Colosseum. Yet this is not the peak of “Double Team’s” absurdity. That occurs when an assassin throws his shoes at Van Damme and attempts to stab him with a switchblade held between his toes. Why his toes? Why not! Despite the utter insanity, Tsui Hark directs each scene with a kinetic, energetic style. “Double Team” is gloriously mad but never unfocused.

Aside from the toe-assisted knife-wielding, my favorite part of “Double Team” is a bizarre plot stop-off at the start of the second act. After failing to stop Stavros and being shot in the back, Jack wakes up on a strange island. There, former spies – declared dead by their governments – are held so that their skills and secrets can be used on future cases. The ocean around the island is guarded by underwater laser arrays. Before curfew, each spy must press their fingerprint to a panel to prevent suicide gas from being released. There are no murderous balloons or stylish cardigans but this still appears to be a reference to surreal spy cult classic, “The Prisoner.” Of course, Van Damme and Patrick McGoonen have slightly different responses to captivity. Van Damme trains inside his hut, wrestling his bathtub, holding his breathe for longer periods each day, and performing upside down crunches in the doorway. His escape is no less ridiculous, as he pushes a guy into the lasers and dangles outside a cargo plane. It’s amazing.

By casting Dennis Rodman in a lead role, “Double Team” was setting itself up for critical ridicule. Audiences are always hostile when notorious figures from one panel of pop culture foolhardily attempt to cross over into another. (See also: Carrey, Mariah. Hilton, Paris.) Rodman’s acting is frequently stiff, as he chokes out his lines in an incredulous monotone. His dialogue mostly being composed of basketball puns, crude double entendres, and quips about his ridiculous inventions doesn’t help any. Rodman is pretty terrible but his flamboyant style adds to “Double Team’s” campy appeal. The character’s base is a gay leather bar, which he sells giant guns out of. Rodman’s outrageous style, bizarre hair-cuts, and nebulous sexuality seem attuned with the film’s insane content. And this is before he tosses an exploding coin, leaps out of an airplane inside an inflatable balloon, and grabs a baby while driving a motorcycle through the Colosseum.

Van Damme’s star was fading. The public’s patience for Denis Rodman was waning. “Double Team” further stacked the deck against itself by casting Mickey Rourke as the villain. Rourke was officially washed up by 1997. Determined to match Van Damme’s martial art skills, Rourke underwent a heavy training regiment. He displays this during the climatic show-down, where he shows off his toned, glistening pecs and jump kicks. (Weirdly, Jean-Claude keeps his shirt on.) Rourke fluctuates between acting like a sleazy, snake-lipped conman and a monosyllabic psychopath. His grudge against Jack Quinn is personal but the film doesn’t do a good job of illustrating this. Adding another weird layer to “Double Team” is the theme of fatherhood. Quinn indirectly killed Stavros’ son, so he kidnaps Quinn’s unborn child. What relation does this concept have with the film’s kooky spy story and high-kicking action? Not much.

In addition to everything else, there’s also a scene where Van Damme dresses up like a goth teenager. That “Double Team” received a harsh greeting from critics and the public isn’t a shock. The script is a total mess and the execution is completely ridiculous. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t fun. In fact, “Double Team” is a blast from beginning to end. Put yourself on the film’s outrageous wavelength and you might have a good time with it too. [8/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 5 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt*
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[X] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

*He fights a bathtub. I’m counting it.

Friday, May 20, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: The Quest (1996)

The underwhelming box office of “Sudden Death” didn’t end Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career but it probably took some luster off his star power. That film was the fourth in a five picture deal with Universal Pictures, which concluded with “The Quest.” If one accepts the perception that Van Damme was a coke-fueled egomaniac at the time, “The Quest” is undoubtedly the peak of his hubris. For the Muscle from Brussels not only starred in the film but he also directed it. The production was disorganized, the critical reception was unanimously negative, and the box office receipts were just okay. Even among Van Damme fanatics, the action star’s directorial debut is not especially well regarded.

The year is 1925. Fighters from all over the world are being summoned to the Lost City of Taibet. There, the best fighters from each country are competing in a secret tournament. The winner will take home a huge, solid gold statue of a dragon. Chris DuBois, a French pickpocket living in New York, doesn’t know anything about this. Through a series of unlikely events, involving gangsters and pirates, DuBois is sold into slavery on Muay Thai Island. Six months of training leaves DuBois a martial arts expert. Another encounter with the pirate, along with an American journalist and boxer, has Chris entering the tournament.

The concept for “The Quest” is co-credited to Van Damme and the real life Frank Dux. Dux sued to get his name on the film. He claims the star stole the idea from him, reportedly conceived in 1991 under the ridiculous title of “Enter the New Dragon: The Kumite.” Considering this is the fourth movie Van Damme has starred in about an underground fighting ring, I kind of doubt the star/director needed Dux’s help. “The Quest” is equally derivative of “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer.” Once again, Van Damme is a foreigner in an Asian country, fighting to survive and never surrendering. Once again, he faces a physically intimidating opponent who beats people to death in the ring. (A giant Mongolian guy is traded out for a giant Chinese guy.) However, this time, Van Damme doesn’t have any relationship with the villain’s victim. He doesn’t fight for revenge or to prove himself. The star has returned to the same well too many times, the material growing thinner with every new visit.

If “The Quest” has a defining gimmick, it’s the international aspect of its story. Each fighter is from a different country, utilizing a fighting technique unique to that nation. The Japanese guy is a Sumo wrestler. The Turkish fighter is an expert in Turkish wrestling. The Brazilian fighter uses capoeira. The Scottish guy wears a kilt. The Spanish fighter’s skill set includes some flamenco moves. The martial arts of China, Korea, Siam, and Okinawa all put in an appearance. Before Van Damme steps in, the American representative is a bare-knuckle boxer. If it wasn’t set in the 1920s, “The Quest” would actually have more in common with the “Street Fighter” video games then the “Street Fighter” film Van Damme previously starred in. (Though the Brazilian fighter really needed to be a green-skinned man-ape for the comparison to really clear.)

“The Quest” admittedly does not lack in the weird qualities Jean-Claude often brings to his film. Van Damme is introduced in clown make-up, juggling bowling pins and walking on stilts. He even kicks some dudes with the stilts. What is ostensibly motivating the hero is the group of street orphans and pickpockets he watches out for. That’s right, at the beginning of his martial arts epic, Van Damme cast himself as an off-brand Fagin with a group of Dickensian ragamuffins. This is aside from the framing device, which features Van Damme in some old age make-up, beating up some thugs, and reading a bartender his life story. Van Damme doesn’t bring anything new to his fourth role as a naïve and hopeful newcomer in a brutal fighting competition. It’s the eccentric qualities that make the part memorable.

But that’s Van Damme, the leading man. What about Van Damme, the director? “The Quest” is mostly fight scenes. As you’d expect, an experienced action star has no problem framing fight scenes in clear ways. However, his flourishes as a filmmaker are often distracting. Intense blows and finishing moves are frequently shot in slow motion. Van Damme uses this so often that the effect quickly becomes comical. Crash zooms and dutch angles even crop up a few times. Every shot of the sumo wrestler is accentuated by gurgling stomach sound effects, every jiggle of his gut and man-boobs being lingered on. Van Damme’s direction is frequently overdone. The fight choreography is great but the action isn’t quite as exciting as perhaps it should’ve been. The action high-light of the movie occurs at the end, when the battle between DuBois and the Mongolian villain explodes outside the ring. A funny shot has the two men rampaging through a small building, the fight shown only from outside.

Because so much of “The Quest’s” run time is devoted to mortal combat, there’s not much time for character development. DuBois becomes a kicking and punching machine before too long. Abdel Qissi, who previously played the end boss in “Lionheart,” is Khan the Mongolian. He’s pretty good at glowering angrily but I’m not sure he even has any dialogue. The flashiest of the supporting players is Roger Moore as Lord Edgar Dobbs, the pirate that starts Chris on his quest. Moore has a ridiculous subplot about trying to steal the gold dragon statue via blimp. Moore is at maximum foppishness here, so silly it’s hard to take. (Apparently, in his memoir, Roger Moore referred to “The Quest” as his least favorite of all his films.) James Remar has a pretty good part as Maxie Devine, the boxer. He brings some alright grit to a role mostly composed of him shouting encouragement from the sidelines. Janet Gunn, as the reporter, is apparently set up as Van Damme’s love interest but she contributes so little to the film. The character is a non-entity.

The making of “The Quest” was troubled. Money ran low mid-way through and the crew nearly quit. You wouldn’t think the difficult production, mediocre box office, and forgettable quality would make Van Damme eager to direct another movie. His follow-up effort was filmed in 2010 and has been re-edited several times since. It has cycled through three titles – “Full Love,” “Soldiers,” “The Eagle Path,” and now back to “Full Love” – and still hasn’t seen a proper release. Pointedly, Van Damme hasn’t starred in a movie about an underground fighting ring since this one. Both of these factoids may be for the best, as “The Quest” is by far the least memorable of the films I’ve watched for this marathon. [5/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 3 outta 5]
[X] 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