Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Desert Heat (1999)

aka Inferno

Eddie Lomax (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a man with a vaguely specified violent past, comes to a miniature town in the desert close to what one must assume to be Area 51 and an Airforce bombing range, to ask his old buddy Johnny Six Toes (Danny Trejo) for his permission to commit suicide - and to give him a motorcycle; it's a manly man thing we wouldn't understand, one assumes. Anyway, before Eddie actually arrives in town, he has an alcohol and depression induced breakdown in the middle of the desert, randomly shooting his gun and talking to a hallucinatory version of Johnny. As you do.That scene is interrupted by the three brothers Hogan (David "Shark" Fralick, Silas Weir Mitchell and Jonathan Avildsen) who steal the bike and nearly kill Eddie.

Fortunately, a non-hallucinatory Johnny saves Eddie and mystically babbles him back to life. Turns out the Hogan's are members of one of two gangs of drug dealing evildoers plaguing the area. Eddie - in what must be some particular manly man logic - decides that killing them all might be a good way to get rid of his guilt towards his own past violence and get the motorcycle back, so off he strides playing Yojimbo light in a small town where everyone who isn't a bad guy is totally bonkers.

Most people who have a theory regarding this sort of thing at all seem to believe the time from about the turn of the century to JCVD to be the moment when Jean-Claude Van Damme hit rock bottom. Going by John G. Avildsen's Desert Heat, that's about half of the truth. Clearly, the film isn't what most people would call a good, coherent movie, but watching it, I found myself having fun for most of the time, which really is a perfectly fine reaction for a cheap action movie to achieve.

Desert Heat is one of those action movies whose handful of action sequences are perfectly decent, but that has a lot of time to fill between the amount of fighting it can afford, and sure as hell can't buy its way into an audience's heart by any depth in the script. Fortunately, what the movie lacks in broadness of action and depth of writing, it makes up for with various silly, often adorable attempts at humour (or sometimes "humour") that mostly work because everyone involved seems to be having fun just playing around in front of the camera. It sure helps that the cast is full of character actors like Trejo, Larry Drake, Vincent Schiavelli, and Pat Morita whose reaction to playing in something often very silly isn't to look bored and cash their cheques but to act just as silly as the material they have to work with. This approach sucks the tension out of the film's more seriously dramatic parts but it sure as hell keeps the rest of the movie highly entertaining. It's a lot like watching a bunch of old friends (and most of these actors are really familiar faces you've seen in basically everything) just hanging around, having fun.

Which, come to think of it, is pretty much not what you'd expect to experience when you decide to watch a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, of this era or any other, but JCVD is as game as everyone else on screen, so why shouldn't I be?

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