Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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

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