Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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

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