If you’re a regular listener then you’re probably expecting this slot to be occupied by our main themed episode, but we’re changing things around a little this month, and that topic, a look at the work of renowned Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-wai, will be a two-parter straddling this month and next. But if there’s one thing we like around here as much as tenuous, even tortured, links, then of late it’s watching and discussing Jean-Claude Van Damme films.
As such (and here’s the tenuous, tortured part), we thought we could pair up Wong Kar-wai with another lauded Hong Kong director, Ringo Lam, and specifically the three films on which he worked with our boy from Brussels: Maximum Risk, Replicant and In Hell. While we do, sadly, seem to have exhausted “JCVD fighting animals”, these films do at least extend the connections of penguins (lamentably this time only a metaphorical penguin, so no chance of him roundhouse-kicking that) and Van Damme playing multiple roles in the same film, including an unknown brother. There’s even a continuation of the magnificent Double Team’s “super-dodgy wigs”.
So, three American films from the late 90s to early 2000s by a respected Hong Kong action director, one of them with a script by the writer of Raging Sharks and Shark in Venice? What could possibly go wrong?
The mid-90s; remember those? Hell of a time. Turns out to have been golden hour for big budget action movies, but we weren’t to know that. We were in our mid-teens, in love with Hong Kong heroic bloodshed, and if anyone so much as looked at a pair of matching handguns our brains probably started melting out of our ears. In 1993 John Woo made the hop across the Pacific to make his US debut with Hard Target, which my comrades have spoken about at some length already in a prior ‘cast. At that point the movie’s star, one JCVD, had a bit of momentum behind him, and it’s not hard to imagine that he saw in that movie’s success something of a formula. So it was Van Damme himself suggested tapping up more Hong Kong talent, this time City on Fire director Ringo Lam, for another high profile outing in the form of 1996’s Maximum Risk.
Pair Van Damme up with a smokin’ hot twenty-something rising star in the form of Natasha Henstridge, a trans-Atlantic “Paris cops vs New York Ruskie gangsters” plot, a hot pinch of mistaken identity, shake over ice and watch the kudos (and cash) come rollin’ on in.
Alain Moreau (explains the accent) is a Nice cop whose attention is called by his colleague Sebastien (Jean-Hughes Actually French Anglade) to the appearance of a corpse which looks staggeringly similar to Alain. Actually, it’s identical. We the audience have been privvy in the first five minutes of the movie as to how the corpsage evented itself, but I’m not going to bother too much with that because it is quite unintentionally funny and the only moment I actually enjoyed in the entire movie, so I’d quite like to keep it for myself if you don’t mind. Anyhoo a bit of rummaging around in a lawyer’s office reveals two things: an adoption agreement and a large, angry Russian psycho with a red face called… Red Face. Red Face duly gets his comeuppance as he is knocked cold by Alain and thrown into the raging furnace that is the now-torched office. Ha! There’ll be no coming back from that!
Alain discovers that the dead man is in fact his identical twin, Mikhail Suverov, separated at an early age and raised by a wealthy gangster on the streets of New York’s Little Odessa. Mikhail had apparently been making a clean break from that way of life and was in search of his brother when the Russians caught up with him in Nice. Determined to get to the bottom of all this rather than, y’know, having the sense one would assume of a seasoned detective and keeping well clear of incredibly dangerous gangsters on an entirely separate continent, Alain reckons it would be a hoot to fly to New York and have a poke around in Mikhail’s old life. Along the way he is, obviously, mistaken for his twin brother who nobody had any reason to know about, and subsequently Mikhail’s problems are now Alain’s problems. Oh, and Mikhail’s girlfriend too, because there’s nothing morally repugnant about sleeping with a woman who legitimately thinks you’re her partner as opposed to his twin brother. Hee hee! Hilarity ensues.
Only it doesn’t.
This podcast has laboured tirelessly now to bring to your attention that the only thing conceivably better than “a Van Damme” is “two Van Dammes,” (I think the collective noun is a “split” of Van Dammes), so consider this an apology of sorts. Almost nothing about Maximum Risk makes sense, from the plot, to the casting, to the fact that Ringo Lam would look at this script and think “Yes!” I watched this movie two nights ago, and I already remember almost nothing of it bar the funny bit I mentioned at the start, and the sight of Natasha Henstridge naked, which is exactly why Natasha Henstridge was cast in this movie. It’s really sad to think it’s taken almost a quarter century to bury this kind of lecherous gaze in mainstream movies (which this kind of was at the time), but dare I say the movie’s worst crime is to be so utterly forgettable. There are a couple of “oh, that guy!” performances in here (poor Zach Grenier, I’m looking at you), but it otherwise has a cast you have never heard of nor seen since.
And the script, ohhhhhh the script. From the bizarrely earnest to the earnestly bizarre, we run the gamut from “Parents always lie to their children, to prepare them for the way they will be treated later by the government,” to “You’ve gotten a lot harder since you’ve been away.”
Oh, and did I mention this was an action movie? I did, didn’t I, right at the start. Well it’s not. It lied. It has no action in it whatsoever, so I’m not sure if this is an action movie with no action, or everyone involved thought it was a thriller in which case it has no thrills. I think the latter might be true because this was apparently originally to be called “The Exchange” but that wasn’t deemed “Van Damme” enough of a title. Never mind that it made a lot more sense.
I don’t think one has to stretch one’s intellect all that much to see why Lam never did get to make his Face/Off (actually, we’ll talk about that more in a minute), though the misguided career opportunity afforded by Van Damme, which no doubt came from a genuine place, certainly explains how these two ended up in each other’s company so much over the coming years.
I see no reason to recommend anyone ever watching this movie.
In Replicant_ we are introduced to our boy JCVD playing a serial killer. Naughty boy. Edward “the Torch” Garrotte has been leaving a trail of incinerated mothers across Seattle, with the lead investigator, Michael Rooker’s Detective Jake Riley unable to capture him, although he comes close in the film’s kick off cross town chase. However, as he’s retiring (somewhat early, it seems, Rooker’s not that old) so he’s closing the book on it and going home to be a family man.
Garrotte, however, isn’t done with the detective, making threatening phone calls and generally being a bit of a nuisance, so when a shady and apparently institutionally insane government agency shows up offering him another chance to get his man, he accepts. In stark defiance of all science, logic and reason, they have grown a clone of Garotte as a prototype of a terrorist capturing system, as their totally-a-thing genetic memories can be used to track them down, once they have been reactivated by… well, lets not look for explanations that don’t exist, even in the film’s universe.
To be fair to Riley, his first thought – we know exactly what he looks like now, let’s plaster the city with mugshots – is a very reasonable one, however one that can’t be done for the reason that a film has to be perpetrated upon us. So, instead, Riley is given custody of the replicant Garrotte, who is a quick study of gymnastics but essentially has the mind of a child otherwise, to try to raise, I guess, with the hopes of prompting clues to the real Garrotte’s location. Oh, and they’re apparently psychically linked too, because, screw it, why not. I’m only disappointed that they didn’t give them lightsabers.
Listeners, at this point we’re twenty minutes into the film, into which it has packed an impressively dense amount of nonsense. I had perhaps been hoping this would escalate into another Double Team, of podcasts passim. Sadly, the film settles into a nice relaxing coma for the next hour with very little of interest happening, apart perhaps from a few scenes where an understandably stressed and confused Riley takes out his frustrations physically and verbally on Clone Garrotte, which comes across a lot like child abuse, or kicking a puppy.
It picks up a little in the final stretch, with a fight in a geriatric ward where they’re throwing old geezers in wheelchairs at each other in a pretty decent action sequence, but that’s very much too little too late after a flat middle that’s taking a stupid concept altogether too seriously. I can’t lay much of the blame at Van Damme or Rooker’s feet, or even Ringo Lam’s, who are all more or less doing as well as they can with the material available to them. Lawrence Riggins and Les Weldon’s script just isn’t up to snuff, with a premise that needs to be either much more, or much less ridiculous.
While, as you’ve probably gathered by now, I do not recommend you seek out Replicant, I also can’t bring myself to say that I hate it. It’s ultimately a bit too dull to have too strong an opinion on it, which I certainly wasn’t expecting after that opening salvo of silliness. Back down the memory hole you go, and I shall never think of you again, unless I revisit the vaguely similarly themed Jet Li vehicle Unleashed, or Danny the Dog in some parts of the world, which I recall being a great deal more fun than this.
Russia has an independence day. It’s the 12th of June, and was first observed in 1992. It “celebrates” the “””independence””” of Russia from the Soviet Union, as if one wasn’t a synecdoche for the other.
I mention this because a) it’s ridiculous (it’d be like the United Kingdom celebrating its independence from the British Empire), and b) learning this was the only point during Ringo Lam’s In Hell that I wasn’t bored, irritated, or both.
JCVD’s Kyle LeBlanc is an American (it’s so obvious!) working in Russia. His wife is murdered by a Russian mafioso, who is acquitted due to his family connections and influence, and an enraged LeBlanc then murders him outside of the courtroom after the trial. Despite the whole “powerful and untouchable mafia” thing, LeBlanc apparently need not fear any retribution, and indeed the whole “murdered a mafioso” plot point is never mentioned, nor, I suspect thought of, again by the three screenwriters (here seems an opportune moment to mention that this is the sole screenwriting credit of the three).
Instead, he is sent to a Russian prison, one where a curiously large number of the Russian guards and Russian prisoners are played by Latino and Italian actors, because, and I don’t know if you’ve guessed this yet, In Hell is a festering pile of crap. In said prison he makes fast enemies of Andrei, another mafioso, and befriends Chris Moir’s Billy, the subject of repeated rapings by Andrei.
A bunch of things then happen. Kyle is put into an extended stint in solitary confinement because… he fought back when attacked? Or didn’t fight back well enough? I’m really not clear on this at all. Then the film thinks it’s Rocky for a brief moment, and when he emerges Kyle is now a champion fighter, defeating, and killing, all and sundry in the prison’s regular fights. Until, that is, the ghost of his dead wife appears to him (who may or may not also be a possibly magical moth, because the film definitely thinks it’s The Lord of the Rings at one point, and I kept expecting Van Damme to be rescued from his cell by a giant eagle), said ghost telling him that he’s “lost himself”.
LeBlanc now refuses to fight, and inexplicably the corrupt prison authorities, who run the fights, decide that they can’t kill him because it will make him a martyr, despite the entire population clearly being certain to not give a shit, since they’re all murderers and Mafiosi. Except Billy, who is dead, and definitely had a character.
Kyle will, of course, fight again, but as part of an escape plan. But before that there is also an appearance by Chunk from The Goonies’ Russian cousin, because why the hell not? And just to complete the misery, the whole thing is narrated, for no apparent reason, by Kyle’s cellmate, who fancies himself a poet and philosopher, despite being a murderous psychopath who has offed several cellmates because they talked too much.
It is unrelentingly pish, a sad legacy indeed for Lam’s US sojourn, of which this was the last film, with the director next working on the considerably more successful Triangle, along with Tsui Hark and Johnnie To.
If In Hell has a redeeming feature then it’s that it manages to maintain this episode’s unexpected running theme of ”Jean-Claude Van Damme biting people during fights”. I really am scraping the bottom of the barrel here, but as I now remember that this particular chompy section led to the one time I laughed during this (thanks to Van Damme’s ludicrous post-prandial scream), then it was probably worth getting down on in there. Not that anything else was, alas. Avoid.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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