25 April 2008 | theskylabadventure
A huge surprise
Having recently revisited my old Van Damme collection (my wife has developed a bit of a crush on JC), I have made my way through all the classics (Bloodsport, AWOL, Kickboxer, Death Warrant, Universal Soldier etc) and hugely enjoyed revelling in the guilty pleasure of watching a short, white Belgian dude kick the living snot out of everyone else on the screen. Why else would anyone go to see a Van Damme picture?
The last film I came to was Nowhere to Run. Having not seen it in a good ten years, and remembering it as slow-paced, indulgent and severely lacking in arse-kicking, I was not really expecting to be at all impressed. It's funny, looking through most of the reviews here, that two groups of people have clearly emerged. The first group, the Van Damme fans, are all complaining that this is not your average VD film and bitching about how they were cheated into watching a serious drama.
The other group are all up in arms at the fact that anyone would make a serious drama and cast Van Damme in it. I have a name for this group, but I doubt IMDb would publish it. Let's just call them w*nkers. Why the w*nkers, who clearly have an abundant dislike for the Muscles from Brussells, would go to see a film with his name above the title is beyond me. Cinesnobs have no place at a Van Damme show. I'll leave it at that.
The reason I felt compelled to write this review is that I am, admittedly, a bit of a Cinesnob, but I'm also happy to take a film for what it is. I like James Bond, I like Sonny Chiba, I like blaxploitation and I also fricking like Van Damme movies! What I did not expect, was for "a serious drama starring Van Damme" (trying saying that out loud without snickering) to be so Damme good! (Get it?)
The story is pretty simple, JC is an escaped con who happens upon a sleepy little town which is about to be pulverised by a nihilistic land developer (not surprisingly, a British one, played with appropriate menace by Joss Ackland). He befriends a little boy (not in the Michael Jackson way, though the boy in question is, ironically, Macaulay Culkin's younger brother, Kieran) and consequently gets rather chummy with the boy's mother. Happily, she is both widowed and incredibly hot. As if her being a still distraught widow weren't enough, she is also being harassed to a rather unreasonable degree by Ted Levine, who is hilarious and brilliant and the land developer's chief henchman. Cue Van Damme.
Sounds like the ideal recipe for another typical action flick, so I am willing to forgive those VD fans who felt cheated. What we actually end up with is a genuinely moving, well paced and hugely enjoyable action drama. It may sound unthinkable, but JC actually pulls his character off perfectly. Sam is mistrusting, awkward but ultimately striving to be a decent person. Director Mark Harmon made a very savvy decision in keeping JC's dialogue to a minimum, leaving him the task of creating a believable character with his face and body language alone. Don't believe the naysayers, JC delivers a truly surprising performance.
Rosanna Arquette also handles her role well, even if the character is flying dangerously close to stereotype. Her performance grounds the whole story, and we both care for her plight and admire her determination (the men in the audience will also admire her perfectly formed semi-naked body). The two kids were bound to be annoying, but they're certainly nowhere close to being as bad as they could have been.
The real star of this film is the consistently beautiful cinematography by the relatively unknown David Gribble. With scenery like this, you'd be hard pressed to go wrong with the external stuff, but the interiors are equally well shot.
The big let down, both in terms of cinematography and the film as a whole, is the truly lame action. There are only a handful of action sequences in the whole show, but they're easily the dullest moments in the film. When you have a good story, solid characters and a really well-cast group of fine actors, do you really need to throw in a bunch of crappy fights? Sadly, if you're selling this as a Van Damme picture, the answer is yes. So they had the courage to put JC in a serious role and give him the chance to prove that he can actually act, but they didn't have the balls to actually sell the film on this basis. The trailer says "Van Damme, as you've never seen him before" and then just gives us a bunch of poor action clips. Is it any wonder that nobody who actually bothered to see this film liked it?
If it weren't bad enough that the action scenes are badly shot and clumsily edited, they're also punctuated by really poor one-liners from JC ("Strike 3, you're out!" and "Au revoir, f**ker" are among the worst). One gets the feeling that there were differences in the opinions of the director and the star and the opinions of the producers and studio folk. Presumably, someone thought they had found a happy balance. Someone was wrong, and the film really suffers as a consequence.
If you can overlook this, and you're not watching the film either to complain that it's not a solid action flick or to complain that Van Damme is in a drama, you'll probably find yourself surprisingly impressed with the film.