Saturday, 30 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Enemies Closer (2013)

If you're after a film in which Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a blonde villain killing off people who are in between him and a downed plane that has a cargo of drugs on board then this is the movie for you. And if you're not sure about seeing Van Damme in that kind of role then I am going to say that this is still quite possibly the movie for you, because he's a lot of fun in the role.

Elsewhere, Tom Everett Scott plays Henry, a forest ranger who looks after a small, isolated location near the US/Canada border. His day starts off well when he meets a young woman (Kayla, played by Linzey Cocker) who needs some assistance. They part after agreeing to meet again later, but then Henry finds things getting a lot worse when a man named Clay (Orlando Jones) gets into his home and threatens to kill him because he believes Henry was responsible, in his previous military role, for the death of his younger brother. Meanwhile, Van Damme and his henchmen are starting to kill people in the area and head towards the downed cargo.

Directed by Peter Hyams (responsible for previous Van Damme hits, Sudden Death and Timecop), Enemies Closer is another winner for the director-star team. Van Damme may be the villain this time around but he's definitely the star, despite Scott and Jones being the nominal heroic leads.

Eric Bromberg and James Bromberg are responsible for the script, the only one they have written (at this time), and they bring things together with a fun sensibility. The pacing is perfect, with the dynamics between the various characters helping a lot there, the dialogue contains a number of good lines, and there's just enough done to distract viewers from the implausibility of the whole scenario.

Scott and Jones are decent enough in their roles, whether they're fighting one another or grudgingly working together to avoid being killed, Cocker is very good in one of the best female roles I can think of from Van Damme's filmography (although that's not saying much, considering how most actresses in his movies are just there to be saved or be sexy, or both), and JCVD is the absolute highlight, giving a funny, charismatic turn as the baddie. You also get a decent selection of supporting players as both villains and possible helpers.

There are more decent Van Damme films than you might first realise from the 21st century, a fact that's easy to forget if you've had to endure some of the major stinkers, but Enemies Closer is one of his very best, allowing him to cut loose and have an infectiously good time.

8/10

You can pick up the blu ray here.
Americans can pick it up here.


Friday, 29 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: 6 Bullets (2012)

The second of a few Van Damme vehicles directed by Ernie Barbarash (who has a filmography varied enough to include films like Falcon Rising and Christmas Inheritance), 6 Bullets balances a decent amount of action with a plot that involves children being kidnapped and sold on as sex slaves, which obviously isn't the most cheerful of subject matters.

Joe Flanigan is Andrew, a mixed martial artist preparing for his next fight in a foreign city. He's accompanied by his family (wife, Monica, played by Anna-Louise Plowman, and daughter, Becky, played by Charlotte Beaumont) and they're quite the happy bunch. That changes when Becky is kidnapped. Andrew soon finds that he's out of his depth, despite his ability to beat people up as he tries to find clues to the whereabouts of his little girl. He eventually tries to hire a reluctant ex-military man (Van Damme), a man in self-imposed retirement from any such work because of his guilt over people he believes died due to his actions.

6 Bullets could have easily been a mess. The baddies here are very bad people indeed, there are scenes that will make many viewers squirm in discomfort as they arrange sales of their "commodities", but Barbarash, helped by a script written by Chad Law and Evan Law, manages to give just enough details to ensure that these people are hated before sending the good guys in to beat them all up and attempt to save some of the children.

Flanigan isn't too bad with the punches and kicks, making him a good figure to support Van Damme. The two feel like they are very different in style, with the latter giving off those years of experience and savvy as the former moves forward in a bluster of wild fight moves without any specific targets. The same can be said of their approaches to acting, with Van Damme very comfortable at this point playing both the more entertaining action beats and also the moments that develop his character. Flanigan doesn't embarrass himself, even if he doesn't emanate star quality. Plowman does well, Beaumont is very good, and you get a variety of Eastern European characters played by the likes of Uriel Emil Pollack, Louis Dempsey, and Mark Lewis.

Another of the more interesting films scattered throughout the filmography of Van Damme, and it's worth remembering that he's tried to offer more variety in his 21st century output than any other standard action movie star, 6 Bullets somehow manages to build a solid movie around a serious issue without feeling overly exploitative or mishandled, to the credit of Barbarash and the writers.

6/10

You can buy the blu here.
Americans can get a disc here.


Thursday, 28 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning (2012)

The fourth (and, at this point, final) instalment in the Universal Soldier series, this stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren in supporting roles, playing incarnations of the same characters that they played in all of the previous instalments, but gives the spotlight to Scott Adkins as the new action lead.

Adkins plays a man named John who wakes from a coma after a home invasion that left his family dead. He knows who did it, apparently, and viewers may be surprised to know that it's Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). But is John remembering the truth or has his perception of events somehow been warped? He hopes to find out as he sets off on a one-man warpath.

Director John Hyams also returns to the series, having done such a good job with the previous instalment, and this time both directs and also helps with the script, co-written by himself, Doug Magnuson, and Jon Greenlagh. Although things get a bit twisted and overly complicated as the plot starts to develop, everything seems to make just enough sense and it keeps this instalment more interesting than just another retread of the material that we've all seen before.

Action movie viewers should already be well aware of Adkins, a guy who does just well enough in the actual acting stakes to make him a viable star when it comes to vehicles bult around his physical skills. He does great work here, thanks to some superb fights that really try to convey the strength of the fighters and the impact of the hits. Andrei Arlovski also returns, and is once again impressively badass in his role, chasing down Adkins like a Terminator and forcing him to fight for his life. Van Damme and Lundgren are used sparingly throughout, which may disappoint some, but come to the fore during the third act, with the scripted idea of a torch being passed on working for both the events of the film and also outwith the screen, with the older stars able to leave things in the hands of Adkins.

Some people will tell you that this is the best of the series. It's a tough one to argue against, especially after having just watched some of the incredible fight scenes, but I put them on a par with one another. As mentioned in my review of the previous film, the original manages to feel like a more complete entertainment package, but this one is arguably more satisfying for those looking for movie action with a bit of . . . oomph (to use the technical term).

8/10

This is still a great way to get them.
Americans can buy the blu here.


Wednesday, 27 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

A decade after the previous Universal Soldier movie, this sequel came along to surprise action film fans. Van Damme is Luc Deveraux again, and Dolph Lundgren is also somehow able to return as Andrew Scott (which may surprise people who remember the state of him at the end of the first film).

The plot sees a group of terrorists kidnapping the children of the Ukrainian Prime Minister and holding them hostage in the middle of Chernobyl. There's also a bomb set to detonate. And a tough, new, UniSol (played by Andrei Arlovski). Desperate times call for desperate measures, which explains why other Universal Soldiers are sent in to try and save the hostages. Some are ready for action, Andrew Scott (Lundgren) is always spoiling for a fight, but Luc Deveraux has spent years being deprogrammed, rendering him fairly useless unless the process can be reversed in time.

Directed by John Hyams (who is rarely mentioned without it also being disclosed that he is the son of Peter Hyams, most relevant here as his father gave Van Damme some of his best work), Universal Soldier: Regeneration reboots the series in an interesting way. It removes the glossiness and lighter tone that the first movie had, replacing those things with grit and lashings of ultraviolence. You still get moments that feel fun, they're just different kinds of fun.

Writer Victor Ostrovsky wisely decides to ignore the previous instalment, which also wisely ignored the two awful TV movies that came out in 1998, and instead simply throws viewers into a world that still has a working UniSol program, one that has naturally progressed from the science on display in the first film.

Although playing a different version of his character from the first film, Van Damme does well in the lead role. He spends less time in a mindless state, thinking his way around the confrontations  ahead even more than he did in either of the previous movies. Lundgren is a lot of fun again, and his character hews slightly closer to how he played him the first time around (tough, persistent, and not entirely mentally stable), and Arlovski is good enough in the role of the main villain. He's not the most charismatic of people but he definitely emanates menace and brings the right physicality to the role.

A lot of people now think that this film, and the sequel, ends up bettering the first film. I disagree. It's an excellent action movie, and even more enjoyable as a proper return to form for JCVD, but it doesn't match the first for the mix of action, characters, interesting ideas, and humour.

7/10

This is a good way to own the series.
Americans can buy the blu here.


Tuesday, 26 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Until Death (2007)

If you're shooting a movie about a corrupt cop who is addicted to heroin then you may not immediately think of getting Jean-Claude Van Damme for the lead role, yet here we are with Until Death.

Van Damme plays Anthony Stowe, an officer who is clearly spiralling from bad to worse. His wife (Selina Giles) is getting ready to leave him, he betrays colleagues who approach him in confidence, and there's every chance that he is being more of a help than a hindrance to a dangerous drug dealer (Stephen Rea) who used to work alongside him. Which makes it awkward when he is almost killed and then has a change of heart, wanting to right a number of wrongs when he has gone through rehabilitation and gets back on his feet.

This is a dark film, no denying that, but it manages to avoid being a bleak one. Writers Dan Harris and James Portolese plot things nicely, dragging viewers down with the lead character until he hits bottom and starts to swim back up to the light (as it were), highlighting a lot of his worst traits while also painting a bigger picture of someone who may not have started off as a bad apple, and who may find his way back from the edge.

Director Dan Harris also does a good job. Things are paced well, with tension throughout drawn from the consequences of the main character, and he gets surprisingly good performances from everyone involved while taking viewers on a journey that feels more like an Abel Ferrara movie than a Van Damme vehicle.

And Van Damme gives one of his better performances, an unflattering turn that gives a hint to what he would give us just a year later in JCVD. Stephen Rea is always good value. I was bemused when I saw his name listed in this, which I still thought of as a standard Van Damme movie before the plot started to unfold, but the film needs an actor with the presence to outdo our lead in terms of being a bad man doing bad things, and Rea fits the bill perfectly. Selina Giles does well, Gary Beadle is the stereotypical police chief, and Mark Dymond, Trevor Cooper and Stephen Lord all give better supporting performances than those seen in other Van Damme films from the years preceding this one.

It's ironic that this film, all about a man who almost dies and then tries to turn things around, is wedged here amongst the worst of the Van Damme movies. The resurrection of his career may not have been a smooth trajectory but he obviously took stock at some point and made more of a determined effort to put right a few wrongs.

6/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can pick it up here.


Monday, 25 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Wake Of Death (2004)

Having seen the best of Van Damme and the very worst of Van Damme, I have to nominate Wake Of Death as his dullest film. I had pretty much forgotten it all just after the end credits rolled, which made gathering my thoughts for a review tougher than it had been for any other Van Damme film.

Van Damme plays Ben Archer, a man who is set on a quest for revenge when his wife is killed in a Triad hit, and his child is taken away. This is all to do with a young woman named Kim (Valerie Tian), who happens to be an illegal Chinese immigrant with a powerful, dangerous father (Simon Yam).

Directed by Philippe Martinez, who does a competent job but nothing to make himself stand out as a great talent, the most amazing thing about Wake Of Death is that it also took four people to write it. Four people. That's not what you'd expect for a fairly straightforward revenge movie, but the film manages not to feel too muddled, even if nothing is done to give viewers a decent set-piece that can be taken away from the film when it's finished.

Van Damme gives another of his underwhelming performances, the norm from him at this time, and although Tian, Yam, Philip Tan, and Tony Schiena do alright, they don't give any standout performances to make up for the lack of presence from our leading man.

It's perhaps most interesting to look at the struggle of Van Damme at this time by looking at the topics he chose to explore while moving himself further and further away from the action movie idol role he used to occupy. In Hell gets much closer to the feeling of a proper prison movie than Death Warrant, this film uses illegal immigration as a starting point for the plot, Until Death is a surprisingly interesting look at a corrupt cop seeking a path to redemption, and 6 Bullets revolves around children being kidnapped into lives of sex slavery. Some of the themes resonate more than others, but it's admirable to see that Van Damme at least kept trying different things, even if he sometimes felt completely out of his depth.

Unfortunately, none of those thoughts, or admiration, make this particular film any better. It's not terrible but the dullness makes it a bit of a slog.

3/10

Here's the DVD.
Americans can get it here.


Sunday, 24 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: In Hell (2003)

You may remember, back when I reviewed Death Warrant, that I said putting an action star in a prison movie doesn't usually result in an actual prison movie. You instead get an action movie that happens to be set in a prison. Well, mainly because Van Damme's star had waned so much, In Hell is actually a prison movie.

Van Damme plays a man who is devastated when his wife is raped and murdered. He's even more devastated when the killer gets off with the crime. So devastated that he walks up to him in the middle of the court building and shoots him dead. This gets him put in prison, and it's an exceptionally tough prison that also has fights arranged between inmates for the entertainment of the warden.

Written by Eric James Virgets and Jorge Alvarez (the only script from either of them at this moment, although they've worked on some other movies in various departments), In Hell is a surprisingly solemn treatment of material that could have easily been turned into a fightfest. In fact, it's a bit too solemn at times, with the middle section bogged down by the plight of the main character and the thoughts that lead him towards the final act.

Director Ringo Lam keeps everything grounded in the dirt-caked reality of the situation, and even the fight scenes here are removed from the cinematic high-kicking and fancy work of past Van Damme movies. When action occurs here, it is borne of desperation. It's interesting to note that Lam made three movies with Van Damme and only managed to make the most of his star when placing him in material that wasn't trying to be too similar to everything that he'd already done.

JCVD is good in the lead role, actually giving a performance that doesn't count on him just smiling and then kicking people in the face. It's not among his very best but it's certainly up there. Elsewhere, Lawrence Taylor plays the kind of large, black inmate who imparts sparse words of wisdom like he's just wondered in from a Stephen King story, and Lloyd Batista is okay as the loathsome authority figure. Alan Davidson and Chris Moir both do okay as two other prisoners who affect our hero in different ways.

In Hell is a solid movie, and a surprisingly solid PRISON movie. It may lack the easier entertainment factor of Death Warrant but it does more than enough to make it worth your time. It's full of cliches, predictable moments, and a general lack of believability too, but that is often part of the package with these movies.

6/10

The DVD can be bought here.
Americans can buy it here.


Saturday, 23 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Derailed (2002)

And so it has come to this at last, the film that I deem the very worst yet in the filmography of Jean-Claude Camille Fran├žois Van Varenberg. There are still a couple of his films that I have never seen, at this moment, but I cannot imagine anything worse than this. Just how bad is it? Well it feels as if it was originally created as a vehicle for Steven Seagal. Not prime Seagal, no, but the Seagal of today. It's THAT bad.

Yet it still manages to avoid the very lowest rating possible, mainly because I have a soft spot for both Van Damme and Laura Harting, who at least has a sizable role here.

The plot sees JCVD meeting up with Harring and escorting her on a train journey. Going along with them is a batch of a nasty viral weapon, a very dangerous strain of smallpox, that has to be kept safe. Harting stole it, some baddies want it, action thriller hijinks ensue.

It's easy to pin down what doesn't work here because there is pretty much nothing that works. From the script to direction, this is a film almost farcical in how slapdash and cheap the whole thing feels. The motivation for the characters never feels anywhere close to plausible, things are overly complicated at times when a simpler approach would have worked better, and I should mention that the the writers, Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch, also decide to get Van Damme's family (wife and children, with his onscreen son played by one of his actual children, Kristopher Van Varenberg) on board the dangerous train. That is the sort of thing that might prove amusing in some of the other scripts that Anderson and Gierasch have written, including some fun creature features, but it feels far too contrived here.

Director Bob Misiorowski has, unsurprisingly, not directed any other movie after this one. Considering the lack of skill on display here, I can only be thankful that he's yet to find another idea he wants to turn into an ugly mess. Had it not been for the presence of the two leads here, this would be a film without any redeemable qualities. Visuals, score, special effects, all are poor. In fact, some of the special effects and stunt sequences in the second half of the film are SO bad that you would be forgiven for thinking that you were watching some spoof co-created by the Zucker brothers. I defy anyone to watch the moment that features Van Damme riding a bike across the top of the train and tell me that they believed it was really happening. I made more realistic set-pieces when I was a child playing with my Action Man figures.

Nobody else in the cast is too recognisable so I won't bother listing them here. Tomas Arana plays the villain of the piece, and does so on a par with many of the other supporting players, sadly. Susan Gibney is a little better, playing Van Damme's wife, but, bearing in mind that it's better to say nothing at all if you cannot say anything nice, I won't comment on anyone else.

If this wasn't a Van Damme movie then I would never have checked it out. If Laura Harring hadn't been his co-star then I probably wouldn't have made it beyond the first 10 minutes. Not recommended. Not recommended at all. You could say that the title was picked as much for the state of Van Damme's career as it was for the relevance to the plot.

2/10

Brave souls can buy it here.
Brave American souls can buy it here.




Friday, 22 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: The Order (2001)

The Order is another Van Damme film directed by Sheldon Lettich (who worked on about seven of them altogether, mainly as director but a couple of times with a writing credit only) and it's one of his weaker efforts. There are times when it skirts close to the fun adventurous tone that is clearly being aimed for but many more times when it just falls flat, even while viewers chuckle at Van Damme trying to evade aggressive captors while he's dressed up as a Hasidic Jew.

A plodding prologue shows viewers what happened many years ago when one Christian Crusader (played by Van Damme) decided to break off from the main group and bring together members of each religious order for a better way forward, guided by sacred texts that he was inspired to write. That man was killed, the last chapter of the sacred texts lost, and the potential new religion almost snuffed out before it had a chance to flourish.
In the present day, Van Damme plays Rudy Cafmeyer, a thief who might just end up searching for the sacred texts and encountering the small remnants of the loyal religious order when his father (Vernon Dobtcheff) goes missing on a visit to Jerusalem.

The Order could have gone in two directions. Either a fun romp that puts Van Damme out of his depth while a very few recognise him as some kind of chosen one who will find the sacred texts, perhaps, or a darker thriller, showing an organisation that has grown in power and influence over the years. Instead, it picks a third option that misguidedly mixes a bit of both. You get the fun moments, and Van Damme gets a few fight scenes, but you also get scenes that show Brian Thompson taking charge of the order and looking to move things forward with a less passive attitude than his predecessors.

I have mentioned this a few times now, and take no pleasure in it, but this is another film that is hindered by the fact it was made at a time when Van Damme seemed unable to emanate the charisma that had helped him to sell many of his earlier films. That sometimes doesn't matter when the rest of the cast work well, but they aren't good enough here. Thompson does well with his scenes, I always like to see him onscreen, and Charlton Heston appears for a few minutes, but neither Dobtcheff or Sofia Milos (playing a female officer tasked with looking after Van Damme's character until he can be deported) are very good.

The script, co-written by Les Weldon and Van Damme, isn't very good either. It tells viewers everything they need to know but does it in a way that is both clumsy and dull. It's also surprisingly humourless in scenes when you suspect a different leading man could have been given some fun dialogue and interactions with other characters.

All in all, this is a pretty bad film. The blame can be shared equally between director, writers, and star. Which means more blame gets heaped on Van Damme because he wears both his star hat AND co-writer hat when he wasn't really up to the task of either role.

3/10

I couldn't find many decent versions of the movie on disc so here is one Amazon.com link.


Thursday, 21 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Replicant (2001)

Another day, another film in which Jean-Claude Van Damme ends up an enemy of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Replicant is another interesting oddity from a time when, to put a positive spin on it, Van Damme was trying to take part in some different films that used his skills to varying effect. Did he overestimate his ability to make more than "just" action movies, or did he have a very optimistic agent with poor judgement? Or did he just get unlucky at times?

Michael Rooker plays Jake Riley, your typical movie cop. He's often angry, doesn't like being told what to do by people in suits, and has a personal connection to his most notorious case, chasing a serial killer - JCVD - who likes to kill women and set them on fire (hence him being dubbed "The Torch"). It turns out that a government agency has somehow created a clone of the killer - JCVD - and they want Riley to look after him and use him to apprehend "The Torch". As you might imagine, Riley doesn't like the idea. And he definitely doesn't like the replicant, who is given a fair amount of mistreatment and abuse until he starts to show how useful he can be, thanks to a ridiculous notion of genetic memories and a telepathic link. It's then a standard bit of cat and mouse action with a few fight scenes thrown in.

Like many of his movies from this period, Replicant isn't quite sure exactly what it wants to be. I'm not sure if Van Damme was just bad at picking projects with focus or whether the scripts - and this one was written by Les Weldon and Lawrence David Riggins - ended up being twisted out of shape in order to better fit their star actor. There are times when this feels gritty and grimy a la Seven and times when it's just another action film that happens to have more than one Van Damme in the mix (e.g. his first fight scene against two agents looking to take him back from Rooker).

Director Ringo Lam at least keeps things consistent when it comes to the visual style, and he doesn't overcomplicate things as the plot trundles along from A to B. He also doesn't stretch his leads, with Van Damme just having to move from ignorant innocent to slightly less-ignorant fighter (and, in his other role, evil dude who is just evil at all times) and Rooker doing his gruff and grumpy act that he can do so well.

There are some other people in the cast but this is really all about the relationship between the two leads, a familiarly tense dynamic that is done well. This could have been spun in a number of different ways (e.g. it's the kind of premise that often makes for an action comedy) but everyone involved plays it straight and keeps it quite dark.

Not without entertaining moments, despite the wobbly central idea, Replicant just falls short of being as good, or as much fun, as it could be. But it remains a surprisingly decent film. And it's much better than Maximum Risk (the other JCVD film that Ringo Lam directed).

6/10

You can pick up this pack here.
Americans may want to pick up this pack.


Wednesday, 20 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Inferno (1999)

AKA Desert Heat.

Inferno is one of those odd little movies that somehow gets itself a decent cast, has some decent humour, and has the potential to be a hidden gem. The reason that it never realises that potential lies with director John G. Avildsen, as well as Jean-Claude Van Damme (still struggling to recapture that onscreen charisma that helped him become a star over a decade previously).

Van Damme plays Eddie Lomax, a man who starts the film drunk in the middle of a desert area. He's staggering around and talking to someone, a person who may just be a figment of his imagination, and about to kill himself. His drinking and gun-waving ends up interrupted by some locals who beat him and take a motorbike that we was intending to deliver to his friend (Danny Trejo). This leads to Eddie eventually reaching a nearby town and pitting two gangs against one another while he helps to cut down their numbers.

Another reworking of Yojimbo (which is namechecked at the end, for anyone who misses it while the plot unfolds), Inferno feels very much like it is unsure of where it wants to go. The violence doesn't have the impact that it should, the moments of humour feel out of place, and scenes that skirt close to being sweaty and sleazy are too short to help the overall feel of the film. Writer Tom O'Rourke has fun but I'm not sure that director John G. Avildsen is on the same wavelength, perhaps more worried about the visual style or delivering moments that action movie fans will expect.

Aside from our leading man, the supporting cast here is generally well selected. You get Trejo, of course. Gabrielle Fitzpatrick is the woman who may catch the eye of the lead, and she does okay, but you also get Silas Weir Mitchell, Pat Morita, Larry Drake, and Jaime Pressly, as well as a horribly inappropriate bit of casting in the shape of Vincent Schiavelli playing a Mr Singh.

This should have been more in line with Last Man Standing, but with fists and feet replacing the guns from that film. I think ramping up the impact of the violence and the exploits of the bad guys would have made things ultimately more enjoyable. But it didn't do that. So what we end up with is an action thriller that titillates occasionally with the content (a couple of moments of sudden violence, one main sex scene) but is really playing it safe, for the most part. Casual JCVD fans should find it enjoyable enough though.

4/10

You can pick up the disc here.
Americans can get it here.


Tuesday, 19 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Universal Soldier: The Return (1999)

Is Universal Soldier: The Return a good movie? Not really. It's the weakest of the Universal Soldier movies that star Van Damme and it wastes a couple of the main stars. Having said that, it's a lot better than the other Universal Soldier movies that were developed with the idea of turning the brand into a viable TV mini-series. It's also a lot better than other Van Damme movies you can pick from this time.

Van Damme returns as Luc, now a normal man after having all of the UniSol implants and tech removed from his body. He works for the company, training new soldiers and keeping an eye on things. One of those soldiers is a mean badass played by Bill Goldberg, and he doesn't like Luc all that much. That wouldn't be a problem, if only the supercomputer running things (SETH, voiced by Michael Jai White, who also plays him in humanoid form in the second half of the movie) wasn't about to turn all super-evil and turn the soldiers against the puny humans around them.

As of today, this is the only film directed by Mic Rodgers (who has carved himself quite a career in the realm of stunt work). That's a bit of a shame, because Rodgers does just fine in the big chair. There's a lot of goodwill to claw back after the previous entries in the series, films that are justifiably ignored by the script (written by John Fasano and William Malone), and there aren't enough action sequences to detract from the relatively low budget, but this isn't a bad way to get things back on track and return some value to the brand name.

Van Damme does just fine in his lead role here, it's a character he is comfortable with and the premise doesn't ask him to do anything too difficult (like emote or convince viewers that he has a degree in bioengineering), and both Goldberg and White bring solid physicality to their antagonists. Kiana Tom has a sizable role, sizable in comparison to other female roles in JCVD movies anyway, and does well enough, and there are supporting turns from the ever-dependable Xander Berkeley and Daniel Von Bargen.

I know that people often go on about the next two films in this series. They say that they're a marked step up and usually recommend people just diving straight in (because they are pretty much standalone action films making use of the UniSol idea). There's no doubt that they're better. That doesn't make this one bad though. It's just . . . not really good.

5/10

This is a good way to own the series.
Americans can go for this mix.


Monday, 18 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Knock Off (1998)

Knock Off doesn't know what it wants to be. That is the first problem it has. It also pairs Jean-Claude Van Damme up with Rob Schneider. That is the second problem. The fact that the action sequences aren't all that good doesn't help either.

Here's the plot. In fact, no. The plot is so cringe-inducing and risible that I can't bring myself to detail it here. Let's just say that Schneider and Van Damme run a business that sell knock off jeans and they get involved in a scheme that involves the CIA, murder, treachery, and dangerous jeans that have been laced with powerful explosives. Yes, this is a film based around exploding jeans.

Director Tsui Hark obviously thought that he could put things together in a way that would recreate the messy fun of Double Team but he ends up misfiring. There's one pretty good action sequence at about the halfway mark, the rest of the film is a damp squib. Visually ugly, never as amusing as it thinks it is, and lacking any character that you could care for.

Writer Steven E. de Souza should take a large portion of the blame. His script is consistently awful from start to finish. Not only does it lack decent dialogue and characterisation, it devolves into an utter mess after the first 20 minutes or so. It's hard to believe that this is penned by the man who gave us so many other modern action classics.

Van Damme flashes his smile here but it feels, in line with the film, lazy and insincere. He's selling a screen presence that isn't there, sadly. As for Schneider, I won't automatically dismiss him from movies because I don't mind him in the right role. This isn't the right role. Nobody here is in a role that feels right for them, not even Paul Sorvino as a stern CIA agent, and that's the kind of thing that Sorvino could probably do in his sleep. Wyman Wong does okay with his small role, and Lela Rochon tries her best, but this is not a film designed to showcase the talents of the actors involved.

If you want to see one action movie about exploding jeans then I can heartily recommend this as being the film for you. Otherwise, avoid it at all costs. It's STILL not the worst film in the Van Damme filmography (that one is still to come, from the many I have already seen) but it's definitely a contender.

2/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can pick up this pack.


Sunday, 17 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Legionnaire (1998)

Even in the filmography of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Legionnaire stands out as a bit of an oddity. More dramatic than most of his other movies, it comes close to making some interesting points at times, but ultimately falls short.

Van Damme plays someone who, unsurprisingly, ends up in the French Foreign Legion. There he makes one or two friends, suffers at the hands of a tough Sergeant (Steven Berkoff), and finds reserves of inner strength that end up making him an ideal legionnaire.

Because this is a film that I spent years accidentally avoiding (there just always seemed to be a better viewing option when I remembered that it existed) I was always under the impression that this was another riff on A.W.O.L.: Absent Without Leave AKA Lionheart. I assumed that Van Damme would start the film as a legionnaire and then have to escape and end up fighting to win cash and the respect and love of those in awe of his ass-kicking abilities. It's not that kind of film at all, and everyone should be aware of that going into it.

This is more of a straight drama with one or two moments of "action" (I've placed the word in quotation marks because the scenes in the third act are the kind of battlefield confrontations not to be confused with more easily entertaining martial arts moments).

Written by Sheldon Lettich and Rebecca Morrison, based on a story idea by Lettich and Van Damme, Legionnaire also incorporates some gangsters and a boxing match that our hero is supposed to throw, all in the opening act of the film, and it's obvious that all of the main players thought they could stretch the range of Van Damme while also incorporating elements that would keep his fans happy. They don't manage that, mainly because they forget to make things entertaining enough, with the script unhelped by the flat direction from Peter MacDonald (although a quick look at his directorial filmography shows that he may have peaked with his first film, Rambo III).

Van Damme tries his best here but his acting isn't up to par. It's probably not all his fault though, considering there are equally disappointing turns from Nicholas Farrell and Berkoff. The only one who manages to do well is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, mainly because he's given a role that doesn't feel like an over the top caricature.

It's hard to imagine who will get the most out of this film. Fans who wanted to see more of his acting in a period setting after The Quest? Anyone who wanted a film in which JCVD helped to defend Morocco against an army of rebel warriors? If you are in either of those two groups then this film is for you. Everyone else may want to look elsewhere instead.

4/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can pick it up here.


Saturday, 16 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Double Team (1997)

There are so many things that you could mention about Double Team that would (correction = SHOULD) make me nod in agreement with you as we conclude that it's a fairly terrible film. Let's face it, just the fact that it pairs Jean-Claude Van Damme up with Dennis Rodman gives you enough ammunition, and that's just the sprinkling of hundreds and thousands on top of this action comedy knickerbocker glory.

Van Damme plays an anti-terrorist agent named Jack Quinn, a man reluctantly brought back into duty when an elusive criminal named Stavros (Mickey Rourke) reappears and starts to cause no small amount of trouble. Things go sideways, a child dies, and Quinn is knocked out in an explosion. He comes to in a facilty named "The Colony", he's informed that his pregnant wife has been told that he is dead, and he also finds out that the place is nearly impossible to escape from. So he escapes. Which leads him to Dennis Rodman, a handy dealer in dangerous goods who might be the key to helping him track down Stavros and putting an end to his criminal plans.

Although they might not be the best people to watch onscreen, Double Team has one hell of a cast. As well as Van Damme, Rourke, and Rodman, you also get Paul Freeman as a fellow agent/"guest" at The Colony. And, well, those are the only names worth mentioning, I suppose, but what other film can you say features that particular quartet of actors? AND features a scene that has JCVD delivering a sidekick to a tiger? No other film delivers such goodness.

Written by Don Jakoby and Paul Mones, this is enjoyably over the top from start (with Van Damme driving a huge truck through a building as we see him end a successful mission) to finish (a showdown that involves that tiger, a motorbike, and a number of mines). It mixes in elements of James Bond, some buddy comedy moments, and a very entertaining turn from Rourke as the crazy villain.

Tsui Hark may not want to remind anyone that he directed this but he's got nothing to be ashamed of. Okay, I hated this the first time I watched it. I somehow ended up revisiting it and ended up not hating it. Now I quite like it for what it is. Nobody involved is taking things too seriously, with the possible exception of Rourke, and it rattles along at a cracking pace to ensure viewers are never bored.

I still think that someone - anyone - else in the Rodman role could have improved things, and I would have relished the thought of seeing Van Damme interact with someone more naturally funny or cool (imagine if this had been made with a quirky performance from Nicolas Cage in place of Rodman - GOLD), but I am going to be one of the few people nowadays who doesn't think that this is deserving of half of the disdain it seemed to receive when released back in 1997. It's a fun, disposable, action flick.

6/10

You can buy the DVD here.
Americans can pick it up here.


Friday, 15 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Maximum Risk (1996)

Maximum Risk is another film that gives us two Van Dammes for the price of one. Okay, one of them only appears briefly but the plot of the film centres around the fact that Van Damme is a twin so we can include this movie in the list of films that have more than one JCVD for your money. Unfortunately, it's probably one of the least entertaining, although not without some redeeming qualities.

Van Damme plays a cop who finds out that he had a twin brother when he is called by a colleague to a crime scene that features a corpse of someone who looks just like him. It turns out that his deceased twin brother was involved with the Russian mafia and corrupt FBI agents, and was also engaged to a beautiful woman (Natasha Henstridge). Van Damme decides to deal with some bad guys while getting revenge, and also ensures that he gets some quality time with Henstridge.

The best thing you can say about this movie is that it's not dull. In fact, if only things were crafted with a bit more care, or if more money was available, this could have been another winner in the Van Damme filmography. The script from Larry Ferguson isn't too concerned with anything that doesn't move characters towards the next chase or fight sequence, which would be commendable if those scenes were a bit better than they are. The direction from Ringo Lam is decidedly average when viewers might rightly expect more from him, although the action is at least shot much more competently than many other features that Van Damme would star in over the next decade or so.

The leading man is about as good as he usually is here. He doesn't often differentiate from his usual performing style (certainly not at this stage in his career) which means that fans will be kept happy enough while detractors will keep avoiding his movies. Henstridge makes a bit more of an impression than many of the other women who have starred alongside him, but that's more to do with her being who she is rather than anything inherent in the source material. As for the supporting cast, they're a ragged group of interesting actors, rent-a-villains and unfamiliar faces populating the groups of amassed henchmen. More recognisable names include Jean-Hugues Anglade, Zach Grenier (okay, I recognised him straight away), Paul Ben-Victor and Frank Senger.

Although a relatively painless watch, Maximum Risk isn't one I can imagine a lot of people rewatching (despite the fact that I just did). It's disposable entertainment for a late night when you don't want your brain to do any work, and you may even want to force it to have a rest under the influence of your favourite alcoholic beverage. It's inferior fare, but the star power and a few decent sequences make it just below average, as opposed to truly awful.

4/10

Buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.


Thursday, 14 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: The Quest (1996)

Adding another string to his bow here, Jean-Claude Van Damme both stars AND directs this film (based on a story that he worked on with Frank Dux, according to the credits). Which helps to explain why it feels like nothing more than a period version of Bloodsport, although it's nowhere near as good as that film.

Christopher Dubois (Van Damme) is a thief who uses his skills to help out a local group of orphans. Crossing paths with both local gangsters and the police, Dubois then realises that it's time he got himself out of the city, before he is arrested or killed. He ends up crossing paths with an upper-class con man (Roger Moore) and his assistant (Jack McGee). There are one or two twists, they are joined by a reporter (Janet Gunn) and boxing champion (James Remar), and everyone eventually ends up at a prestigious fighting tournament.

Some days I really don't like The Quest and some days I do. It depends on what mood I am in, I guess, and how charitable I am feeling. The opening scenes, framed by an elderly Dubois who fights some thugs and then starts to tell his story, are quite ridiculous, and also quite amusing. And things pick up once Moore and McGee appear. Sadly, things dip when the characters reach the tournament, which is when you'd expect it to become an even better movie.

Van Damme shows that he's certainly learned enough behind the camera to deliver a standard vehicle for himself, and does fine with the action sequences, but he cannot overcome the fact that a) this just feels like Bloodsport, but not done as well, and b) the script by Steve Klein and Paul Mones doesn't work as well as anyone thinks it does.

Thankfully, the cast act oblivious to the shortcomings of the material that they're given. Van Damme is doing his usual thing, Moore gives one of the most enjoyable supporting performances you will find in the entire Van Damme filmography, and McGee is good alongside him, which is why the pacing of the film is helped by their introductions. Remar is also good to see, and has a couple of great moments, Gunn is as underserved as most actresses in JCVD vehicles, and Abdel Qissi is the impressive badass who must eventually be defeated in the tournament.

Formulaic, uneven in tone, inferior to so many other Van Damme films, and missing some other decent characters when it comes to the actual fighters, The Quest is still good fun for those who can appreciate its unique charm.

6/10

You can buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.


Wednesday, 13 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Sudden Death (1995)

AKA Die Hard at an ice hockey match.
AAKA the one in which Van Damme fights someone in a big penguin mascot outfit.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is a traumatised fireman who now works as a fire marshall at an ice hockey stadium. He's also the father of two kids that live with his ex-wife, and she isn't impressed when he just stops by to announce that he has tickets for a big game happening that very evening. Relenting, but with a warning not to do it again, the mother allows the kids to go with their father, who takes them along, settles them in for the match, and then starts his standard work duties. The timing is unfortunate, because a very nasty man (Powers Boothe) has chosen that evening to take a number of hostages, including the Vice President (Raymond J. Barry), and make himself a very rich man with the help of some armed accomplices and a number of bombs.

Directed by Peter Hyams, responsible for a number of entertaining Van Damme vehicles, Sudden Death is much more interested in fun and thrills than any kind of tension or believability. The script by Gene Quintano, based on a story/idea from Karen Elise Baldwin, does what is needed to get everything in place (the people involved, the bombs, the police on the outside) and then concentrates on either creating enjoyable set-pieces or letting Powers Boothe be as mean as possible, even if he's talking to a small child. Think about everything for more than a few seceonds and the silliness means that it falls apart but Hyams keeps things moving along briskly enough to distract you from minor details like logic.

Despite a decent smattering of supporting players, including Barry, this film really belongs to Van Damme and Boothe. It would be easy to call it a battle of braun vs brains but our hero also gets to show moments of ingenuity as he desperately tries to save a building full of people who are blissfully unaware of the danger they are in. He also manages to keep an admirably straight face while taking part in that aforementioned fight against someone in a big penguin mascot outfit. Boothe gives a performance that deserves to sit right up there alongside the better action movie villain turns from the '80s and '90s. He's calm, cocky, and without any hint of redeemable qualities.

I'm not sure if this remains an underseen film, it certainly feels as if it came along at the very end of Van Damme's initial wave of popularity (his filmography starts to get pretty spotty from now on, to say the least), but I highly recommend it to action movie fans, especially if you don't mind something with a bit of polish and some humour in the mix.

7/10

The blu is here.
Americans can buy it here.


Tuesday, 12 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Street Fighter (1994)

Movies based on videogames are hard to get right. Movies based on videogame beat 'em ups are, arguably, even harder to get right. Videogames don't REALLY have to worry about things like plotting and fully-formed characters, although fans may argue that the best ones do have enough of both, and when they're turned into movies it is often the case that fans are disappointed, either by the casting or by the way in which a plot has been forced to fit around elements that now feel too far removed from the essence of the game. Maybe it's because I was never a huge videogame player that I actually enjoy quite a few of these movies. Mortal Kombat remains my favourite, but I've also enjoyed DOA: Dead Or Alive, and I even quite liked Double Dragon (although it's been years since I saw it so don't take that as a current, informed, opinion). And I find myself revisiting and enjoying Street Fighter a lot more than I ever thought I would.

Raul Julia plays Bison, a maniac who has taken lots of people hostage and demanded an astronomical sum of money. He aims to use that money to build his own empire but there are a number of people out to stop him, including Colonel Guile (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a plucky reporter named Chun-Li (Ming-na Wen), and a pair of reluctant fighters named Ken (Damian Chapa) and Ryu (Byron Mann).

Written and directed by Steven E. de Souza (a man responsible for some of your favourite '80s action movies), Street Fighter is a film that gets a few things right and quite a number of things wrong. And I'm not sure which camp the casting of Van Damme as Guile belongs to.

There's no doubt that this movie is missing the dynamism of the game, as well as a lot of the special moves that came about after much skilled thumb-swirling and button-bashing, so it's almost inevitable that fans were disappointed by it (which is what I remember being the general consensus at the time). Some of the characters feel as they should, Andrew Bryniarski is particularly enjoyable as Zangief, but a lot of them are either near-unrecognisable or given short shrift in favour of time spent with Van Damme doing his star turn.

There's also no doubt (in my mind) that there's still plenty of fun to be had here. The fights may lack any oomph, to use the technical term, but everyone has fun in their roles, the tone is just close enough to goofy throughout, and you get a performance from Raul Julia that stands out as one for the ages. The man may "only" be portraying a videogame villain but, damn, he steals the entire movie, helped by a script that gives him some truly wonderful lines of dialogue to relish. You may one day have a list of a dozen movies based on videogames that you rank above this one, but none of them will have a moment to rival that in which Julia replies to someone who is reminding him of the time he raided their village.

It's not a knockout, but I tend to like this more every time I watch it. Maybe other people will feel the same way, as unlikely as that may seem to some of you.

7/10

UK folks can buy the film here.
Americans can buy this edition.


Monday, 11 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Hard Target (1993)

Jean-Claude Van Damme starring in a film that is yet another version of The Most Dangerous Game, what could possibly make this any better? Perhaps the fact that it was also John Woo making his first feature in America, after amassing such a loyal fanbase of his Hong Kong films. Would we get some impressive slo-mo moments, two guns being fired while characters dive across the screen, and doves flying into the air? Of course we would, which makes Hard Target a film that provides just as much fun today as it did when first released a quarter of a century ago (yes, it's been 25 years).

Van Damme plays the wonderfully-monikered Chance Boudreaux, a drifter in New Orleans who cannot get himself back into a job he has been selected for until he earns enough money to pay his union dues. But he can't pay those dues until he gets a job, of course, so finds himself in a vicious circle. For about half a minute. The chance to earn some money comes about when a young woman (Natasha, played by Yancy Butler) wants to hire someone as she searches for her missing father, an ex-veteran who fell on hard times. The pair start to do their amateur detective work, eventually piecing together evidence to realise what viewers have known from the very beginning; Natasha's father was paid by people who then chased him down and killed him before he could reach a designated safe point.

Like many other people, I really liked Hard Target when I first saw it. But I believe that I liked it then purely for the Van Damme factor. I wasn't familiar enough with John Woo to know of his style, I hadn't seen too many previous incarnations of this material (apart from The Running Man, which managed to feel a bit removed from the original idea because of the additional comments on the media and manipulation of the masses), and nobody else in the cast made much of an impression, simply because I was waiting for the next scene that would put Van Damme front and centre again.

Rewatching the movie with more knowledge tucked away into my brainparts has led me to find even more reasons to keep it marked as a fun action thriller, and one I am always happy to revisit. Van Damme may have the top billing but he's not the star here. The star here is Woo, clearly having a lot of fun with the cast and resources at his disposal. His style is stamped all over this, almost from the very first scene, as a statement of intent. "I have come to your shores," it says, "and this is why you wanted me here in the first place, so take it or leave it."

The script, by Chuck Pfarrer, is focused more on fun than any sense of realism, allowing for some decent exchanges between all of the main characters, and also some absolutely wonderful lines uttered by Lance Henriksen (the main villain).

Speaking of Henriksen, he almost steals this entire movie, which is easier for him to do as Woo balances things between allowing his leading man to have some leading man moments and allowing himself plenty of Woo-isms. Henricksen and Arnold Vosloo have a lot of fun with their roles, Van Damme gets to deliver some impressive smackdowns (including a great moment that sees him dealing with a rattlesnake), Butler does okay in her role (it's a bit underwritten but far from the worst female role in the action genre, especially from this time, and I can't help thinking a more recognisable actress could have lifted things slightly), and there's good support from Willie C. Carpenter, Kasi Lemmons, and the great Wilford Brimley.

Booby-traps, armed people riding motorbikes to track their potential victims, grenades being lobbed around with a distinct lack of real care, and let's not forget a damn fine mullet being worn by Van Damme, this has all of these treats and a lot more. Watch it, enjoy it, and rewatch it whenever you feel the urge. Which may happen more often than you expect.

7/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy a version here.


Sunday, 10 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Nowhere To Run (1993)

The funniest thing about revisiting the filmography of Jean-Claude Van Damme is finding out how others view his films, and also finding out that some of them weren't the popular hits that the younger version of me thought they were. Take this film, for example. I thought Nowhere To Run was an easy success for JCVD. It wasn't. It made money, but it didn't make lots and lots of money.

The plot sees Van Damme playing an escaped prisoner who ends up being in the right place at the right time for one single mother (Rosanna Arquette) who is being given a hard time by developers who want her to sell her home and stop getting in the way of a potential gold mine (metaphorically). Joss Ackland is the main baddie, but he uses Ted Levine to oversee the actual dirty work, and also makes use of a local law enforcement officer (Lonnie, played by Edward Blatchford).

Based on a script by Joe Eszterhas, Leslie Bohem, and Randy Feldman, Nowhere To Run is simply an updated riff on Shane, with extra moments that allow the leading man to either take his clothes off or ride about on a motorbike and look cool (or allow his stunt double to do that anyway, which is how it appears in a number of scenes). The pacing works well, despite this being far from the most action-heavy of Van Damme's movies from this time, and the characters are developed just enough beyond the paper-thin to help you care about how things pan out.

It helps that the cast all do a good job. As well as the two leads warming up to one another throughout, leading to some gratuitous nudity and sexy sex time, you get decent turns from Ackland and Blatchford, and a scene-stealing performance from Levine, who benefits the most from the script. You also get a couple of great child performances, from Kieran Culkin and Tiffany Taubman, both of whom latch on to Van Damme with an ease and innocence that kids can have within their first encounter with an adult they decide is okay by them.

Director Robert Harmon does decidedly okay work, but it's a shame that he didn't decide to shake things up a bit, either in terms of some more creative acton sequences or in terms of giving more time to character moments for Arquette and Levine, the former underserved and the latter having so much fun that viewers could have been rewarded by having more of him.

Nowhere To Run remains an enjoyable slice of entertainment, and Van Damme exudes enough charisma here to make it feel completely natural that the film was adapted to fit him into the lead role, but it's also very disposable, and ultimately easily forgettable.

6/10

The disc be here.
Americans can purchase it here.


Saturday, 9 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Universal Soldier (1992)

I'm always surprised that Jean-Claude Van Damme didn't spend more time mixing his action with either sci-fi or horror because some of his better, or at least more interesting, films (Cyborg, Timecop, Replicant, and this one being the main titles I can think of). This is a sci-fi action movie with one or two moments that feel very much lifted from the horror genre, and it's superbly entertaining stuff.

JCVD and Dolph Lundgren are two soldiers who die in combat. Unfortunately, they each died at the hands of the other. Lundgren went crazy, see, and was killing innocent people, cutting off their ears, and using them to make a necklace. When the two are given a second life in the military UniSol project, all goes well for a while before memories start floating back to the surface and causing glitches. Van Damme goes on the run with a plucky reporter (Veronica Roberts, played by Ally Walker), and Lundgren starts killing anyone who gets in between him and the traitor he is determined to fatally punish. And he still has his thing about ears.

Before they became known as world-destroyers, director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin made some fantastic little b-movies that had the benefit of either a great pool of talent or a great blend of ideas, or both. Devlin wrote the screenplay here, he wasn't in full producer mode yet, and Emmerich was moving up from the likes of Ghost Chase and Moon 44, and this already shows some signs of how their future careers would pan out. You get that great central idea, you get some fantastic set-pieces, there's a supporting cast that features a number of familiar faces I will mention below, and they're not worried about squeezing everything into a tight 90 minutes (which works here, but doesn't necessarily work for all of their movies).

Van Damme gives one of his best performances here, mixing his favoured naivete with great fighting moves and some fleeting nudity to please a large portion of his fanbase. Having said that, Lundgren steals the show with his maniacal villain. His enjoyably over the top performance is what helps to keep this near the top of the JCVD pile. Walker also does very well, she's one of the quirkier female leads to work alongside our action star, and she has a nice balance of vulnerability, bravery, and comedic line delivery. Ralf Moeller is another UniSol, Ed O'Ross is the man in charge of the whole operation for a short while, Jerry Orbach is a doctor who helped create the soldiers, and Tommy 'Tiny' Lister is hard to miss in his small role (can you ever describe his screentime as a small role, considering the size of the guy?).

If you haven't seen Universal Soldier by now, and if you are a fan of action movies, then you owe it to yourself. It holds up almost as well today as it did back in the early '90s, remaining a top-tier outing for both Van Damme AND Lundgren.

8/10

This is a good way to own most of the notable entries in the series.
Americans may just want the original on Blu.


Friday, 8 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Double Impact (1991)

Double Impact is the film in which we found out that the actor Jean-Claude Van Damme likes working alongside best is . . .  Jean-Claude Van Damme. Twins, clones, different timeline versions of himself, there are many plot devices that have been used to give viewers double the Van Damme-age, and it all started here.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is Alex, a nice martial artist who lives with his uncle, Frank (Geoffrey Lewis), and helps out in the running of their business. But it turns out that Frank isn't actually his uncle. And he has a twin brother named Chad, currently living in Hong Kong. Unbeknownst to Alex and Chad, they were separated as babies after the murder of their parents by two evil businessmen (Nigel Griffith, played by Alan Scarfe, and Raymond Zhang, played by Philip Chan). The time is right to get back what rightfully belongs to them, and get some good old-fashioned revenge.

Okay, the process of lining one Van Damme up alongside another may not have been as easy back in 1991 as it is nowadays but there are a lot of scenes here that work well, due in no small part to how well JCVD sells both of the different characters and also their interactions. Alex is the nicer guy, and the martial artist. Chad is a badass who tends to use guns, but can also do alright with his hands and feet when necessary. Director Sheldon Lettich isn't exactly asking for a nuanced performance from his star but things could have still ended up a lot worse.

Lewis is wonderful in his supporting role, at times parental and caring while at other times just wanting to bang heads together and get his two Van Dammes to stop squabbling and fulfil their potential. Alonna Shaw does well as the woman in between the twins, being the girlfriend of Chad and causing a certain amount of jealousy after initially mistaking Alex for her fella, and Corinna Everson makes quite an impression as a tough henchwoman. Scarfe and Chan are the typical bad guys who try to stay hidden behind their wall of muscle, and you can't blame them when that wall of muscle contains the mighty Bolo Yeung.

After their previous movie together, Death Warrant, it feels like Lettich and Van Damme worked together to come up with something much more fun, which this is. The pacing could be tighter, it could have done with some more Bolo Yeung (but what movie starring Bolo Yeung couldn't?), and it felt a bit odd at this point to see Van Damme using guns as much as he was using his martial arts, but this remains a fun time.

Oh, just one more thing, that shot of Van Damme appearing out of the darkness at the controls of a crane cab is superb. It's just a short moment, you'll know it when you see it, but it's SO well done that I felt I had to end this review by mentioning it.

7/10

You can treat yourself to Doble Impacto here.
Americans can get their Double in this triple.



Thursday, 7 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Death Warrant (1990)

Death Warrant has always been an odd film for me. I didn't really like it when I first saw it, mainly because it felt a bit boring to me compared to other Van Damme vehicles, and it's one that I have often opted to avoid rewatching over the years.

Coming back to it, as an adult who can still usually be as easily pleased as the teenage me, I am still not a big fan. It's not actually boring, although it remains less exciting when compared to other Van Damme movies, but it's certainly lacking something. Grit, extra dollops of cheese, some more fights, one of these things might have helped to make this a better film.

JCVD goes undercover in a prison that has seen a large number of new inmates dying. His main contact is Amanda Beckett (Cynthia Gibb), who tries to investigate from the outside while posing as his wife during visits. He makes a friend in the shape of a prisoner named Hawkins (Robert Guillaume) but he makes a lot more enemies, and some of them are powerful enough to keep him inside until he's been permanently taken care of.

If you put an action star in prison then you get an action movie set in a prison, and that's the main thing to bear in mind here (same rule applies to the likes of Lock Up and Escape Plan). There are some of the expected prison movie tropes but it's almost as if they're being given a nod because they have to be. They don't add to the movie at all, and don't ever feel as authentic as they would in an actual prison movie. The prime example is the moment in which Van Damme first enters his cell and is threatened by someone who states that payment is expected, and payment doesn't have to be made in cash. Van Damme deals with this quickly enough, and viewers know that he's not going to experience the many standard worries, threats and battles that other new prisoners tend to go through in prison movies.

Considering the potential for violence, Death Warrant feels quite tame, which makes it essential that Van Damme does well enough with his actual acting. He does, thankfully, and a decent enough cast surround him. Guillaume is the best of them all, Gibb does her best with a role that doesn't treat her well at all, Art LaFleur is good as the sadistic warden (is there any other kind?), and Patrick Kilpatrick makes a memorable appearance.

Despite being more polished than some of his other films, this never feels as good as any of the others. It is, ironically, the lack of conviction that sinks it. Viewers know that they're not going to see their hero have actual prison problems, which leaves them waiting for the fights, and they're just not as impressive or frequent as they should be (and, quite frankly, the main villain makes a grand gesture so stupid that there's not even a satisfying final battle).

Still fun? Yes. But it's not half as much fun as almost any other JCVD film from this period that you could watch instead.

6/10

Pick it up on Blu here.
Americans can get it here.


Wednesday, 6 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: A.W.O.L: Absent Without Leave (1990)

AKA Lionheart.

If there's one thing that Jean-Claude Van Damme loves more than kicking people in the face it's kicking people in the face for the sake of helping out others. He has played a lot of characters through the years who were hunting down bad guys, but he's also often played someone who ends up fighting to help a loved one/family member. A.W.O.L. (as I will be calling it, it's all I remember from the VHS box years ago) falls into the latter category, and it succeeds because it's so unabashedly sweet and emotionally manipulative. That, and the fact that it features plenty of enjoyable fight scenes.

JCVD plays Lyon, a soldier who goes AWOL when he hears about the death of his brother, leaving one woman a widow and one little girl without a father. His brother's widow doesn't really want his help, at least not initially, which is a bit of a pain in the ass, because Lyon is being pursued by military folk who want to drag him back, and he's also quickly made a name, and some money, for himself in an underground fight club scene. His body is being put through the wringer, but it will all be worth it if he can stick around long enough to earn one big final payout.

Apparently based on an earlier screenplay by S. N. Warren (his only film credit, from what I could see), this has been crafted into a perfect star vehicle by the lead and director Sheldon Lettich. It's obvious that both men are savvy about how to appeal to a wide demographic here. The fights feel slicker, with more moments in which the lack of actual contact seems obvious, than in Van Damme's earlier movies, the story allows for moments when people can have actual feelings, and the leading man shows his butt.

Acting is as you'd expect, certainly from Van Damme, who once again offsets his limitations by playing someone almost naively good-natured. Harrison Page is a good "sidekick", playing a man who helps out Lyon while also seeing the chance to make some decent money, Deborah Rennard is enjoyably cool and powerful as Cynthia, the woman in charge of the fights, and Brian Thompson is always a welcome presence, even if he's sorely wasted in his role (seriously, you get Brian Thompson in an action movie and don't really throw him into the actual action?).

My memory may be hazy here, I was a teenager and have never spent my days trying to "take the temperature" of the state of the movie business, but this movie felt like the final push that turned Van Damme into an action star for both male and female viewers. It has a lot of elements that were already in place - his martial arts skills, his looks, his good guy roles - but it packaged everything in a more appealing way, with a dash of everything to make it a great choice for a date night movie.

And, you know what, it's STILL a great choice.

7/10

There's a blu available here.
Americans can get a special edition here.


Tuesday, 5 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Kickboxer (1989)

It's the same old story. You travel around the world, supporting your kickboxing brother, watch him rendered immobile and unconscious at the hands of a vicious Thailand fighter, and then beseech a little old man to train you to a level that will allow you to avenge your brother and become known to locals as "Nok Su Kow" (translation = "White Warrior"). Not forgetting to leave yourself a little bit of time for a few drinks and a dance.


Van Damme plays Kurt Sloane, the younger brother to Eric (played by Dennis Alexio). When he sees Eric painfully defeated by the ruthless Tong Po (Michael Qissi), he swears to get revenge. Unfortunately, nobody will train him, and the idea of him becoming good enough to fight Tong Po is laughable to many. Until he is finally accepted as a student by Xian Chow (Dennis Chan). Before you can say "let's fill up the middle section of this movie with one montage after another" you start to get one montage after another showing Kurt progressing through his martial arts education. But will he get his shot at Tong Po?

Like many of the other enjoyable martial arts movies from this time, this is a simple underdog story that pits a talented student who needs guidance against a proper "boo, hiss" baddie. The script by Glenn A. Bruce hits all of the beats that you'd expect, with a lot of good humour here and there, and also makes some predictable mis-steps (the dialogue between the two brothers is pretty cheesy and bad, and a sexual assault is thrown into the script in a way that feels like nothing more than an extra motivator for our hero).

Directors Mark DiSalle and David Worth do good work (considering the filmography of both men, this may remain their best directorial effort) and they seem to know how to just follow the simple script, keep the pace moving along in between training and fight scenes, and let their star do what viewers have paid to see him do.

Van Damme has a lot of fun onscreen, not least of all in THAT dancing scene, and it's not surprising that he would spend the next five years being one of the big headline stars in the action genre. Dennis Chan is a lot of fun as the eccentric teacher, Haskell V. Anderson III is also enjoyable as Winston, a stranger who becomes a good friend to Kurt, and Rochelle Ashana does quite well as Xian Chow's niece, Mylee. Alexio and Qissi aren't anywhere near as good, but they aren't called upon to do much more than look mean and angry most of the time.

It may not be the very best from Van Damme but Kickboxer is definitely top-tier stuff for fans of the star. The fights, the montage sequences, the cheesy/wonderful soundtrack, the splits - this has all of the right ingredients to satisfy your cinematic fast food craving.

7/10

Get some here.