Sunday, November 10, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Maximum Risk (1996)

Nice, France. A man (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is killed after a semi-spectacular chase through the streets of the town. Curiously, the man looks exactly like local police officer Alain Moreau (obviously also Jean-Claude Van Damme). Alain didn't know it until now, but his mother sold his twin brother off when they were both just babies (times were hard, son), and the dead man is his brother Mikhail.

Understandably, Alain feels a rather pressing need to find out who his brother really was, who murdered him, and why. The trail leads him to New York where he soon learns that Mikhail was a member of the Russian mafia, practically the son of the organization's head Kirov (David Hembleu). Various people, among them Mikhail's girlfriend Alex (Natasha Henstridge), think Alain is Mikhail, which isn't all that horrible (though ethically problematic) in Alex's case, but is really rather unpleasant in case of the people who now think they didn't manage to kill Mikhail in niece, particularly slightly lower Russian mob boss Ivan (Zach Grenier). Add corrupt FBI agents and a list containing details about the Russian mafia's network in the US Mikhail supposedly possessed to the mix, and Alain has quite a few people wanting to kill him for one reason or the other. Fortunately, he is a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie character.

To get this over with right at the start: this, Ringo Lam's first movie made for the US market in the US, isn't as good as the director's best Hong Kong films, but then, a lot of his Hong Kong films aren't as good, either; no director shoots a City on Fire or a Prison on Fire with every film he makes.

However, Maximum Risk is still a film very much worth watching. While Jean-Claude Van Damme isn't Chow-Yun Fat, about 1996 when this was made is about the point when he added a degree of convincing acting to the kicks and the gymnastics, and before the drugs and his various other troubles made his performances erratic. So JCVD actually makes something of the opportunities to portrait a guy driven to uncover the secrets of his brother's past at least partly to understand himself the film gives him between action scenes. The script doesn't provide particularly deep insights here, but it's more than enough to make Alain more than just a deliverer of violence and bad puns, and give the film's action a degree of emotional meaning it wouldn't have otherwise. Maximum Risk doesn't go for lame action hero talk at all either, and so escapes the problem of somehow getting its audience to sympathize with a hero whose reaction to killing someone is a quip.

When he's not letting JCVD look oh so meaningfully into a broken mirror or have a desperate toilet sex scene with Henstridge (who doesn't do much of interest otherwise, unfortunately, but manages to keep her love interest out of the awkwardness zone he more often than not enters in romance scenes), Lam does something he's particularly good at, namely racing through a plot that isn't quite as simple as he makes it look, while providing one increasingly frantic yet clearly shot action scene after another.

Really, looking at the action scenes in what isn't even one of the man's best films is a master class in how to stage and shoot action for maximum visibility and maximum excitement, without using the crutches of ultra-fast cuts or particularly showy camera work. Here, the excitement comes from clever and imaginative staging (which is also what you use when you have to work with comparatively little money), and a director who seems to know instinctively how to shoot shoot-outs, car chases, hand-to-hand fights as well as dramatic scenes. What Lam achieves should embarrass ninety percent of directors making direct-to-video action films right now. I'm not usually somebody to shout "Look, this is how it's done right!", but: look, this is how it's done right!

Friends of JCVD beefcake will be happy to hear that he has a particularly homoerotic (it's all that wrestling) fight scene where he and his opponent are only dressed in towels (and underpants). Maximum Risk is actually a perfect example of how to provide appropriate stimulation for people of all sorts of sexual directions. Some may call it all-purpose sleaze or exploitation, I call it equality.

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