Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, July 20, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Welcome to the Jungle (2013)


Jean-Claude Van Damme's comeback tour has had its ups and downs. He's won new fans and critical respect. Most of his recent films have still gone straight to video, many of them being undistinguished action flicks. Stuff like “Six Bullets” and “Dragon Eyes” hasn't allowed for much range, even if “JCVD” showed off that the star can do more than just kick high. Comedy is definitely something Van Damme has become interested in exploring. Before “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” there was “Welcome to the Jungle.” Reviews were mixed but Van Damme's performance was regularly signaled out as a highlight. The movie even played in some theaters!

Chris works at an advertising firm but isn't very happy. He has an unrequited crush on Lisa, a sexy co-worker. His stoner best friend, Jared, doesn't provide much in the way of advice. Worst, an asshole superior named Phil keeps stealing his ideas. The entire office is flown to an island for a team building exercise. Storm Rothchild, a supposed ex-military man and survivalist expert, is leading the expedition. After arriving on the island, their pilot dies. Rothchild quickly proves himself incompetent and is then attacked by a tiger. All remnants of polite society quickly crumble, Phil building a “Lord of the Flies”-style community that worships him as a god. If Chris is going to survive this, he has to learn to stand up to the office bully turned mad god.

“Welcome to the Jungle” is pretty uneven as a comedy. However, one thing is for sure. Jean-Claude Van Damme fucking owns this movie. From the moment he swaggers on-screen, Van Damme is goofing on his own image. His brochures are decorated with images of his screaming face. Later, we get an extended sequence of Van Damme yelling, a hilarious callback to “Bloodsport.” Throughout most of the film, the action star plays it totally straight. He delivers absurdist dialogue – about “Pinocchio” or fighting tigers – with heroic conviction. As the story goes on, Van Damme gets to play things weirder. This springboards off his pre-existing eccentric qualities, making sequences where he acts like a scared rabbit or sits in a wheelbarrow work really well. Whenever Van Damme is on-screen, “Welcome to the Jungle” similarly leaps to life.

Van Damme steals the show but the rest of the cast is pretty good too. Kristen Schaal is notable as a gonzo co-worker. Obsessed with bunny rabbits, her cutesy demeanor shatters to pieces throughout the film, especially during a scene where the talking stick is stolen from her. When she starts screaming profanely about shitting, Schaal produces some decent laughs. Rob Huebel plays the asshole Phil. Huebel's smarmy shenanigans are amusing, while establishing that he's a total jerk. When he's calling himself “Orko,” covered in warpaint, and being worshiped like a god, Huebel maintains that layer of fratboy assholery. Adam Brody has the thankless task of being the straight man but he is pretty fun, especially when going on tangents about his erotic fantasy novel.

Mostly, the cast is the reason “Welcome to the Jungle” is funny at all. The film has some amusing ideas. A team building exercise devolving almost immediately into drug-fueled orgies, threats of cannibalism, and a savage society is an amusing premise. Instead of building on this starting point for more absurdity, “Welcome to the Jungle” is mostly content to let it ride. Occasionally, there's a flash of goofiness. Like Huebel demanding his followers build a statue in his honor or the stoner growing edgier without his pot. Or how about Dennis “The Allstate Guy” Haysbert rambling about how he invented the BLT? The ideas are strong but the execution is usually half-baked. “Welcome to the Jungle's” absurdity is too shaggy and unformed.

Still, the film is absolutely worth seeing for Van Damme's performance. If he was in every scene, “Welcome to the Jungle” would probably be an instant comedy classic. Instead, the action star can only salvage about half of the film. The rest of “Welcome to the Jungle” is a shambling exercise in ungroomed, overly crass comedy. Considering the amount of times I laughed really hard, I guess I still got my money's worth. Mostly, I left the film hoping Van Damme gets another chance to stretch his comedy muscles soon. [6/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 2 outta 5]
[] 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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Six Bullets (2012)


By 2012, things were looking up for Jean-Claude Van Damme. “JCVD” had brought him the kind of critical praise he had rarely received up to that point. A pair of hard-hitting “Universal Soldier” sequels had reestablished his cult following. A flashy role as the bad guy in “The Expendables 2” exposed him to a mainstream audience that might have forgot he existed. (There was also that reality show in 2011 but we don't like to talk about that.) But I guess high-profile projects like these weren't coming along frequently enough to keep food on the table. The world of direct-to-video action still called to Van Damme. “Six Bullets” would appear on video store shelves in 2012. “It's a living,” I imagine the Muscles from Brussels saying in response to this.

Samson Gaul, a former government agent, specializes in rescuing kids from kidnappings and child sex rings. He was, anyway, until a mission went horribly wrong and resulted in the death of two teenage girls. Now Gaul resides in Moldova and works as a humble butcher. Mixed martial artist fighter Andrew Fayden travels to Moldova with his wife and daughter, for a big comeback fight. When his daughter disappears mysteriously, he fears the worst. He's right: His thirteen year old daughter has been abducted by white slavers, with the intention of selling her into sex work. Fayden talks Gaul into coming out of retirement to help him, forcing the agent to overcome his past and face his fears.

“Six Bullets” is Jean-Claude Van Damme's stab at the Dadsploitation genre. You know what I mean. Following “Taken's” surprise success, we've gotten a whole bunch of films starring middle-age guys, with gritty crime film atmospheres, about rescuing or avenging daughters, wives, or surrogate daughters/wives. By focusing on Van Damme rescuing teenage girls, “Six Bullets” already fits this subgenre. The film takes it even further once his character's son shows up, played by Van Damme's actual son. Kristopher Van Varenberg even gets involved in the action scenes, though he doesn't perform any spin kicks. Beyond the obvious story attempts to emulate “Taken,” “Six Bullets” also maintains that film's Eastern European setting and grimy tone. This is not a feel good action flick, featuring dead kids, grisly corpses, and prostituted teenagers.

If “Six Bullets” had just focused on Van Damme's character, it would've been a pretty standard direct-to-video action flick. It still would've been grim and violent and derivative. But at least it would've been shorter. Instead, “Six Bullets” is nearly two hours long. The last act drags on, giving far too much detail to the heroes attacking the villains' lair. In order to support that laborious length, the script gives the girl's parents a lot of screen time. There's long scenes devoted to Joe Flanagan's Andrew Flayton, beating people up and investigating leads. His wife, played by Anna-Louise Plowman, even gets on things. She's distracting guards and loading guns. The characters are strictly stock parts, so these moments are not compelling in the least. You can feel “Six Bullets” straining to be taken more seriously.

Director Ernie Barbarash has previously been involved with direct-to-video horror movie sequels,  like “Cube Zero” and “Stir of Echoes 2.” He carries that horror influence to “Six Bullets.” In addition to the grim tone, Van Damme also has reoccurring hallucinations of the little girls he got killed. This stuff is pretty overdone but Barbarash does have an alright handle on the action scenes. An opening knife fight is pretty cool, concluding with a giant explosion. A shirtless fight Van Damme has in the butcher shop is solid. As is the sequence where he dons night vision goggles and beats some thugs with sticks. By the end, “Six Bullets” collapses into stale shoot-outs. But at least the director does give us the appropriate amount of bang for our buck. This is the second of three collaboration between Barbarash and Jean-Claude, so I guess they must like working together.

Considering its trendy premise and longer than average run time, I suspect “Six Bullets” was originally intended for a theatrical release. If dropped into theaters in January or February, it probably would've earned some decent cash. Even after his millennium comeback, I guess studios weren't willing to gamble that much cash on Van Damme. “Six Bullets” is pretty lame. Too bleak to be a fun action flick, and too generic to be anything else, it does not stand out among the star's other direct-to-video fare. [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


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: The Shepherd: Border Patrol (2008)


Isaac Florentine has worked his way up through the world of low budget action movies. He made films with reliable B-list stars like Olivier Grunner, Antonio Sabata Jr., Gary Daniels and Dolph. (In addition to directing countless episodes of “Power Rangers” and “WMAC Masters.”) Florentine would find his brawny muse in the form of Scott Adkins, turning each other into cult favorites in the process. It was probably inevitable that Florentine would make a film with Van Damme. Despite the unwieldy title, “The Shepherd: Border Patrol” is another movie that is better than its direct-to-video release would suggest.

Along the Mexican/American border, something fishy is going on. A rogue group of disenfranchised Iraq War vets have taken over the local drug business, driving out the Mexican cartels. They outfit their drug mules with explosive vests, increasing the danger. The border patrol brings in Jack Robideaux, a New Orleans cop, to investigate. Turns out Robideaux has a personal grudge to settle with the drug dealers. His quest for vengeance soon takes him to Mexico, where he and his partner are right in the middle of the cartel's business. Much fighting and shooting ensues.

What distinguishes Isaac Florentine's films from standard direct-to-video drivel is the director's hard-hitting action scenes. Florentine knows how to please action fans. An early scene in “The Shepherd” has Van Damme getting into a bar room brawl just to establish he's a bad-ass. Later, there's a gloriously gratuitous fight scene between Jean-Claude and a prisoner in a Mexican jail. This fine line between gritty and ridiculous hits its peak when the bad guys outfit a bus – currently occupied with nuns and priests – with machine guns, leading to an explosion and car crash filled chase. Florentine makes sure each blow is felt by the audience. Limbs are snapped. Enemies are flipped. Bodies are twisted. Florentine often emphasizes Van Damme and Scott Adkins' acrobatic finishing moves with slow-motion. That would be tacky if it wasn't done to punctuate the sheer power of these attacks. Florentine's direction combines flashier modern techniques with old school-style wallop.

As a Van Damme movie, “The Shepherd” is similar in tone to “Wake of Death.” Jack Robideaux is a tired guy. His failures and mistakes – specifically the death of his daughter – weigh heavily on his mind. He doesn't know if it's possible to find any inner peace but avenging this mistake is his best chance. However, “The Shepherd” is way more upbeat than “Wake of Death” and the like. First off, Van Damme has a pet bunny to keep him company. Yeah, the rabbit is connected to his dead daughter. However, the contrast of Van Damme's serious character and his cutesy bunny rabbit lightens the mood considerably. He also tells a handful of jokes, when refusing a bribe from a crook, going on a quasi-date with a drunk lady, or getting coffee spilled on his shirt. It's not Van Damme's best role but does play on his built-in charm more than some of his other recent films.

It also helps that JCVD has some decent chemistry with the supporting cast. For most of the film, Van Damme is paired up with Gary McDonald's Agent Pawnell or Natalie Robb's Captain Garcia. McDonald is nicely chummy while Robb's feminine but tough energy compliments Van Damme very well. The scenes focused on the two of them, trading quibs and having adventures, makes “The Shepherd” feel a bit like a buddy cop movies. The villains are strongly acted too. Stephen Lord is nicely sleazy as the leader of the rogue marines. However, Scott Adkins really steals the show. Adkins manages to be intimidating with minimal dialogue. His deadly kicks and take downs speak for him. The true climax of the film is the amazing, knock-down, drag-out fight between Van Damme and Adkins. (Though Lord does get an amusingly absurd death scene.)

Trying to find some sort of political or social statement in low budget action flicks like this is a fools' errand. However, it's clear something is going on inside “The Shepherd's” head. There's plenty of room in the story for a more traditional, exploitative tale of “good American cops fight evil Mexican drug cartel.” Making the villains American soldiers changes the context. Florentine seems to linger on this decision, forcing American flags and other patriotic imagery into the foreground. Of course, the film's hero is played by a Belgium, while his female sidekicks is of mixed heritage. Is “The Shepherd” some sort of comment on the frequently hypocritical way Americans treat people from other countries? I'm not sure but it certainly makes the film interesting.

“The Shepherd: Border Patrol” ended up being a pretty awesome little action flick, with fantastically orchestrated fight scenes and some charming writing decisions. It'll probably help if you keep your expectations fairly low. And if you're a fan of Van Damme and Adkins' strain of old school action theatrics. For that perhaps thin demographic, “The Shepherd” is surprisingly satisfying. It's fitting that Adkins and Van Damme would work together. The younger star clearly idolizes Jean-Claude, patterning his own fighting style after the Muscles from Brussels. They've done other films together since this one and will hopefully team up again soon. Watching the two tussle was certainly a highlight of this movie. [8/10]

[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

Monday, July 17, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Until Death (2007)


When determining which films to cover for my second Jean-Claude Van Damme marathon, I had plenty of options. The guy did a bunch of movies during his direct-to-video years, most of them undistinguished from each other. Even big fans have little to say about the likes of “Second-in-Command” or “The Hard Corps.” I first dismissed “Until Death” as another easily skipped film, due to its generic title and equally unremarkable DVD cover art. Digging a little deeper revealed that this one is better regarded than most. Reliable sources said Van Damme gave a good performance and that the film was more than just a direct-to-video action fest. Well, gee whiz, sounds like “Until Death” is worth checking out after all.

Anthony Stowe is a scumbag. He's a police detective in the New Orleans French quarter but is as dirty as can be. Stowe is a heroine addict. He takes bribes from the mob. He has rough sex with prostitutes when he's supposed to be on a date with his wife. Upon discovering his wife is pregnant with another man's child, Anthony melts down entirely. A mob deal with an ex-cop goes bad and Stowe ends up with a bullet in his brain. He survives but is plunged into a coma. Six months later, he wakes up. Given a second chance at life, Stowe attempts to put his past behind him and reconnect with those he hurt. However, his criminal activities will catch up with him eventually.

Despite the stock title and cover art, “Until Death” is another low-key Van Damme movie. The film is, essentially, a cross between a domestic drama and the action-filled crime picture you'd expect. The middle section, after Anthony awakens from his coma, is devoted to his relationship with his wife. There's zero kicking, fighting, or shooting during this portion of the film. If you started watching the movie half-way through, you would probably have no idea this is an action flick. However, the gun fights and violence do return eventually. (Van Damme still doesn't kick anyone though.) Surprisingly, director Simon Fellows does a good job of balancing these two tones. “Until Death's” two halves are quite different but both work well.

For hardcore Jean-Claude Van Damme fans, “Until Death” is a must-see. The film allows the martial arts star to really stretch his acting muscles. For roughly the first fifty minutes, Van Damme gets to play a utterly corrupt, miserable anti-hero. The star has spoken frankly about his drug addiction. In “Until Death,” he portrays a drug addict. Van Damme carries that haggard, strung-out look on his face perfectly. Probably because he saw it in the mirror when he woke up every morning during his wildest years. Stowe is a total burn-out most of the time. Occasionally, a nihilistic anger rise out of him, resulting in violence and beatings. He's a nasty, nasty character.

After taking a bullet to the brain, Stowe awakens as a new man. This change shows the diversity of Van Damme's acting skills. He's just as believable as a man recovering from a coma as he is as an unrepentant junkie. Van Damme peppers his performance with twitches, slow speech, and an uncomfortable body language, mirroring someone still adapting to moving again. It's a surprisingly nuanced bit of acting. The latter part of “Until Death,” devoted to Stowe befriending a young kid and trying to reconnect with his wife, are unexpectedly touching. Van Damme has solid chemistry with Selina Giles, the actress who portrays his wife. You can feel the tension between the two. The chance that they might work things out is oddly compelling. Inserting a low-key familial drama into the middle of a shoot-out filled action movie probably seemed like a weird idea. In practice, it works pretty well.

“Until Death” is still an action movie. Simon Fellows' direction is actually pretty cool. He utilizes smooth pans around rooms, usually spinning the camera upside down. This nicely replicates the distorted frame of the mind of the main character. Fellows' approach is calmer during the domestic sequences, which makes sense. By the end, when the violence resumes, the more active camera movement returns. There's little in the way of kicking and punching in “Until Death.” The focus is on gun fights. This works well though, as the squibs are big and colorful and the audience feels the impact of the shots. I don't even mind the occasional CGI Fellows sneaks in, as he usually uses it for a surreal or disorientating effect.

“Until Death” doesn't exactly give you what you expect. However, sometimes something different is good. I admire the filmmakers for attempting to sneak a tricky personal drama into a direct-to-video Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. The star does indeed give an excellent performance. The visual presentation is better than usual. The emotions are never exactly powerful but the movie gives it a shot. And did I mention Stephen Rea plays the hammy crime boss? “Until Death” is better than “In Hell,” “Legionnaire,” and “Wake of Death,” all of which similarly attempted to be equal parts drama and action films. Don't get your expectations up too high but this movie is still way better than it has any right to be. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 1 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick


Sunday, July 16, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Wake of Death (2004)


Legend has it that Jean-Claude Van Damme was always more popular internationally then he was domestically. The box office receipts certainly support that theory. I have no idea if this was still true in 2004. However, “Wake of Death” suggests the star still had some sort of commercial following in Hong Kong. The film co-stars Simon Yam, who is fairly obscure on this coast but a genuine movie star in Asia. Yam has been nominated ten times for the Hong Kong equivalent to the Oscars and headlined films like the “Young and Dangerous” series. So he was a pretty big get for the latest in Van Damme's long line of straight-to-video action flicks. Does this suggest that “Wake of Death” is better than your average DTV action movie? Well, sort of.

Ben Archer's official job title is bouncer. His unofficial job title is mob enforcer. However, he's sick of the criminal life and wants to devote himself to his wife, Cynthia, and their young son, Nicholas. Said wife is a social worker who, because of her Chinese background, is focused on the slave trade coming out of Asia. Stowing away among the latest batch of immigrants is a young girl named Kim, who Cynthia adopts. Kim hopes to escape her father, a brutal Triad gangster named Sun Quan. Quan is on her trail, however. He comes to America, murders Cynthia, and kidnaps Nicholas. Ben is forced to revisit his darker life to get revenge and rescue his son.

“Wake of Death” is not an upbeat motion picture. As far as low budget action flicks go, it's pretty dour. The script seems designed to give the star more chances to emote than usual. An early scene, where Van Damme admits to his mob bosses that he's sick of violence and ready to retire, seems autobiographical on Van Damme's end. His scenes with his wife are heavy on the muted declarations of love. After her death, several scenes are devoted to Jean-Claude weeping in agony over her corpse. His emotions are high-strung, yelling at kids and steaming in rage at his enemies. This is a higher level of drama than you'd expect from a straight-to-video shoot-em-up made in 2004.

Philippe Martinez – who has few other credits of note, except for that movie where Val Kilmer tries to kill girls in bikinis in a sauna or whatever – directed “Wake of Death.” The project, however, was intended for Ringo Lam. Combined with Yam's presence and the darker tone, it suggests that “Wake of Death” was meant to be a gritty crime picture. That goal conflicts with the film's need to be a big action movie. The action sequences are impressive. A machete-wielding hitman bursts into Van Damme's house before getting spin-kicked through a glass door. A motorcycle chase through a mall features plenty of ramping and leaping through the air. A solid car chase concludes with a tanker truck going up in a massive explosion. All these stunts are done with practical effects, which is refreshing, especially after the wonky CGI in “Derailed” and “The Order.” However, moments like this feel a little out of place in a dark film about grieving for your loved ones.

“Wake of Death's” determination to be taken super seriously results in an unsightly cruel streak. One extended sequence has Van Damme's mob buddies torturing a Triad informer. There's lot of shouting, profanity, and brutality in this moment. Martinez's direction becomes overly stylized in these scenes, relying too much on flash-cuts and harsh edits. Martinez's grip on the film is a little shaky in general. An early shoot-out jitters a little too much. The director's weaknesses become very apparent in the final act. The climatic gun fight is a little disorientating, despite occasional flashes of cool action. (Such as a knife to the groin.) Martinez then concludes the film by writing “The End” on the screen, which is certainly unexpected.

There's a few things about “Wake of Death” that makes it sort of interesting. Van Damme getting to cry so much is something different. Attempting to smuggle serious emotions into a standard crime story is ambitious. Yam is a solid villain, the action is cool, and the concept has merit. Ultimately, “Wake of Death” is a little too grim for its own good. There's something juvenile about the focus on the gloomy atmosphere, the explicit violence, and the nihilistic viewpoint. [6/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 3 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick


Saturday, July 15, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: In Hell (2003)


The first time I had heard of “In Hell” – and, honestly, one of the last times I heard of “In Hell” – was a commercial for a television screening of the film on the USA Network. I didn't think it was odd, at the time, that a new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie would go straight-to-television. This says a lot about where Van Damme's career was in 2003. The once popular and successful Muscle from Brussels was strictly a B-list talent by that point. In 2017, I was actually kind of excited to finally watch “In Hell.” Jean-Claude and Ringo Lam's previous collaborations resulted in the surprisingly entertaining “Maximum Risk” and “Replicant.” Their third, and final, film together is a very different beast but still worth checking out.

Kyle LeBlanc is working overseas in Russia, living happily with his wife. While coming home from work, his wife is murdered by an intruder. After the man gets off on a technicality, LeBlanc shoots the murderer to death in the courtroom. Kyle is given a harsh sentence in a Russian prison. The conditions are hellish, rape and murder commonplace among the inmates. In particular, the wardens delight in forcing the prisoners to fight to the death. Kyle gives up hope at first but soon rediscovers the will to survive, participating in the fights. Even this solution is not as simple as it appears.

As he has done occasionally, “In Hell” seems designed to subvert your expectations for a Jean-Claude Van Damme hero. After discovering his wife's attacker, we get a pretty cool chase through the city streets, with some traditional kicking and diving. However, after Kyle arrives at a prison, the movie becomes a very different creature. Van Damme attempts to kill himself, first by hanging and then by bashing his head against the wall. Jean-Claude's hero spends most of the movie in a stupor, terminally depressed. When he regains the will to live, it's survival for its own sake, without love or compassion for other people. During the fight scenes, Van Damme deploys few of his trademark kicks. By the final act, LeBlanc has had a philosophical change of heart and refuses to fight. All of this is fairly at odds with the usual kind of Van Dammage we've come to expect.

Lam's previous team-ups with Van Damme were fairly serious affairs but distinguished by bursts of quirky humor. “In Hell” does have some eccentricities but is mostly a very grim film. The prison setting is made as gritty as possible. Van Damme's cellmate, a large black man, makes a habit of smothering other prisoners to death with his bare hands. Later, the same character sets a guy in a wheel chair on fire, with much attention paid to the burning man's agonized death. An early scene shows a guard selling an attractive new inmate to another man, who then brutally rapes him. The isolation chamber, where LeBlanc spends part of the film, is also where the prison's sewage system drains. So, yes, “In Hell” features its share of poo. Lam roughly follows the beats of the prison genre. The sadistic wardens and inevitable riots both appear. But this is a far rougher film than “Death Warrant.”

Befitting that darker tone, the fight scenes in “In Hell” are brutal and unforgiving. Van Damme gets his ass kicked several times, even being beaten with a shovel. After he grows a beard and starts training, LeBlanc becomes a vicious fighter. The punches result in bloodied faces. The throws produce shattered limbs. After getting his crotch slammed into a sign, LeBlanc bites a huge chunk out of a man's neck. The towering Micheal Bailey Smith appears as another prisoner, brought in specifically to fight Van Damme, who is even more brutal in dispatching his foes. “In Hell” is not a “fun” action film, the violence designed to be impactful and heavy.

Despite the commitment to realism, Ringo Lam can't help but sneak some odd touches into the film. Some of these work better than others. Van Damme's dead wife is represented by moths, one of which seemingly communicate with him throughout the film. Later, the moth turns into a ghost-like, fully interactive hallucination of his wife. Which is unexpected, at the very least. Contained within the prison is a giant, masked, deformed mongoloid who fights like a vicious animal. Van Damme ends up making friends with this killer. This stuff is quirky and likable. Other stylistic touches are distracting. Such as the techno music that plays during several fight scenes. Or the mostly unneeded voice-over, from Van Damme's cellmate, which feature heavy-handed ruminations on the nature of humankind.

I didn't like “In Hell” as much as “Maximum Risk” or “Replicant.” It's not meant to be enjoyed on that level, going for something more serious and thoughtful. You have to be in a particular mood to appreciate something this dour. However, it is an interesting film. Van Damme gives a good performance. The action is impressively brutal. Lam brings some unique touches to the story. The idea of a “Midnight Express”-style prison drama starring Jean-Claude Van Damme probably could have turned out much worst, at the very least. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 1 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

Friday, July 14, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Derailed (2002)


As I mentioned at the start of this marathon, I've been a guest on the delightfully specific Jean-Pod Van Damme podcast a few times. That show's host, Marcus, is a Van Damme enthusiast and expert. He probably has something good to say about every one of the star's features... Except “Derailed.” He considers “Derailed” the absolute low-point of Van Damme's career and, by far, his worst film. Going into “Derailed,” I was wondering if the film really could be that bad. I was not misled. “Derailed” is easily the worst movie Jean-Claude Van Damme has ever starred in. It might be one of the worst movies I've ever seen, period.

“Derailed's” plot doesn't make much sense but I'll try and untangle it the best I can. Galina Konstantin is a circus performer turned international thief. She has stolen a vile of biological weapons from the Slovakian government. Jacques Kristoff, an intentional agent of some sort, is sent to capture Konstantin. Once he grabs her, the two are sent home, via train. A group of terrorists board the train, with the intention of stealing the bio-weapon for their own means. That sounds simple enough, being yet another variation on the “Die Hard” formula. “Derailed” complicates matters but releasing some of the contagion, infecting the passengers with small pox. There's something about the government planning to bomb the train, one of Jacques' partners being aligned with the terrorists, and other bullshit added to an overcrowded stew.

When it comes to low budget action movies, I keep my expectations measured. At the very least, the action scenes should be easy to follow. “Derailed” does not accomplish this seemingly simple goal. In fact, the action is utterly incompetent in its construction and execution. In several scenes, the fights are so frenziedly edited that you can barely understand what's happening. At one point, Van Damme is wrestling with a bad guy in a hallway, the position of the characters moving suddenly from shot to shot. Another scene, hampered by some truly atrocious green screen effects, has our hero riding a motorcycle over the train... At apparently the same speed as somebody standing on the opposite side of the car? Another moment, before Van Damme performs a spinning body-slam, jerks forward in time without explanation. This is Jean-Claude Van Damme we're working with, a man who knows how to perform impressive action. “Derailed” is so chopped and scattered that his work becomes impossible to appreciate.

“Derailed” isn't just incoherent directed but also deeply tacky. Director Bob Misiorowski was a regular of Nu Image/Millennium Pictures' productions, with his most notable previous credit being “Shark Attack.” His attempts to spruce up “Derailed” are misguided. Misiorowski employs slow motion for the most random bullshit. Van Damme seemingly poking an enemy into slumber is emphasized with slow-mo. One scene is portrayed in split-screen. There's no point to this, as putting two chaotic fight scenes next to each makes both hard to follow. Another sequence features still images flashing on-screen, while Van Damme dangles from the train. Other scenes are highlighted by image blurring. Did I mention the Howie Scream also puts in a pointless appearance? When “Derailed” isn't using garish tricks like this, he indulges in some truly godawful CGI. An early car crash blossoms into a ridiculously overdone explosion. Later, two CGI trains crash into each other in a way that makes zero sense. Its baffling in its badness.

It's clear that Jean-Claude Van Damme isn't especially proud of “Derailed.” Throughout the film, his expressions vary between bored and irritated. In another blatant attempt to emulate “Die Hard,” Jacques' wife and kids are on the train. Van Damme's real life son, Kristopher, plays his son here. The only time Jean-Claude comes to life throughout “Derailed” is when he's practicing roundhouse kicks with his boy. Otherwise, the film's supporting cast is disheartening. Laura Harring appears as the thief/acrobat. Harring shows none of the talent she displayed in “Mulholland Dr.,” instead giving a garish and obnoxious performance. Susan Gibney is bitchy as Jacques' wife. The hostages include a cowboy, an Australian, and a concert violinist, each one broad stereotypes. Even the bad guy, played by a baffled Tomas Arana, seems pretty bored.

“Derailed” too perfectly sums up the kind of schlock Nu Image/Millennium Productions specialized in at the time. The mixture of shitty CGI, derivative writing, and incoherent action were standard practice at the company. Even by these low standards, the film finds new ways to baffle the viewer with its incompetence. “Derailed” might've become enjoyably bad – one of Van Damme's foes attacks him with a fork – if it wasn't incredibly boring. By the last half-hour, I had completely lost the ability to care or understand anything that was happening in this movie. The film is garbage of the highest degree and it's a bummer that Van Damme had to star in it. [2/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 3 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick