A serious, grim-faced Jean-Claude Van Damme continued in his attempt to do generally good acting work in films of reasonable-to-good quality with this film. Released in 2004 this Philippe Martinez (taking over from HK filmmaker Ringo Lam who apparently left the project early on) blend of Chinese Triad flick and Bronson-esque revenge picture might be a tad incoherent (If anyone has any idea just who Van Damme’s cronies were, and exactly what he didfor them back in the day…), but Van Damme gives it his all. This is especially so in a scene where he actually takes his anger out on the little girl verbally, and one drunk and crying scene where he is in clear emotional distress. He is not terribly restrained here, but hey, any emotion coming from Van Damme is a pretty startling discovery for many people. I mean, can you imagine Seagal playing scenes like these? Hell no. Seagal always has to be unflappable on screen (save perhaps “Machete”where he was the bad guy), and that’s one of his problems. He don’t do vulnerability, folks (that would require effort). Van Damme, by contrast, is seemingly happy to be seen as a tortured soul on screen.
The film has a dark, violent (but slick) quality for those inclined to enjoy this sort of thing. Although a little sketchy on the details of Van Damme’s background, I really liked the plot in this one. It has a definite Asian action movie vibe. It might not be the best of Van Damme’s films of the last decade (that would be“Replicant” or “Until Death”) and it’s certainly not better than his two best films early in his career (“Bloodsport”and “Wrong Bet”), but Van Damme is really trying hard, and you could do much, much worse (“Derailed”, “The Quest”,and “Street Fighter” all come immediately to mind).
Director Martinez has a bit of the Michael Bay/Michael Oblowitz school of filmmaking in him, except unlike Bay or Oblowitz, he’s talented enough to know when to pile on the stylistic touches (a particularly effective, if slightly over-edited car chase comes to mind. Yes, Van Damme involved in a car chase. He also shoots guns a lot) and when not to. Meanwhile, the opening song and accompanying titles have a bit of a Bond vibe about them, which is cool. Van Damme’s requisite sex scene and frequent viewing of his body, however, are even more gratuitous than usual, especially at his age.
Simon Yam (the leading man from the Hong Kong Category III classic “Naked Killer”) makes for quite a good, grim-faced adversary for the former ‘Muscles from Brussels’, even if several of the other performances are a tad ordinary (Tony Schiena springs to mind. A decent martial artist but terrible actor). He speaks OK English, but more than anything, Yam says so much when he’s not saying anything at all. And what the hell was Burt ‘Kato’ Kwouk doing here in such a trivial cameo role? A true WTF? moment if ever I’ve seen one. Did he lose money playing mah-jong or something? (Do they even bet money on mah-jong? Hell if I know).
The screenplay is by Martinez, Kristina Hamilton, Mick Davis (“The Invisible”), and Laurent Fellous. It probably contains a couple of characters too many, but unless you’re expecting wall-to-wall action I can’t see anyone coming out of this at least somewhat satisfied. Worth a look, at any rate, for anyone still paying attention to JCVD’s career. It’s such a shame some of Van Damme’s recent films weren’t made earlier in his career, given that few people care anymore, because he’s really improving as an actor by great strides.