Sunday, November 17, 2013

Universal Van Damme: The Quest (1996)

It's the 20s of the last century. After various complications that unnecessarily prolong the beginning of the movie, poor American friend of orphans Chris Dubois (Jean-Claude Van Damme) takes part in a very special martial arts tournament that should provide him with a giant gold dragon that'll keep his kids and him off the streets forever. Because it is that sort of film, the tournament proceedings are also the culmination of our heroes' unwitting quest for moral clarity, so he's (alas, only metaphorically) got con artist Roger Moore (in one of his less smug performances) sitting on his left shoulder, and professional boxer James Remar on his right shoulder, pushing him into the directions of wrong and right, respectively.

Apart from that, there are only various violent encounters standing between our hero and his destiny.

Despite my love for martial arts cinema, I've never been too fond of tournament movies, a sub-genre that generates exceptionally mechanical stories even in a genre not exactly known for its variable plotting. Just take a white guy taking the hero's journey (yuck), let him fight a bunch of national stereotypes in some sort of ring while more or less rousing music plays, and you've got your whole film in the can. Frankly, I just find this boring and lacking in imagination or just simple emotional interest, so only a very few tournament (or tournament-centric) movies manage to not bore me, mostly those that either play around with the sub-genre's too obvious structure, or those who really go all out in the martial arts scenes, either via particularly great choreography (nothing all that easily done when fights happen in a ring) or via batshit insanity.

The Quest doesn't belong to any of these more inspired groups, unfortunately. While the fights are absolutely competent, there's just not enough variety in their set-ups to keep up my interest. The silly national stereotypes for their part are good for one or two laughs and one or two moments of eye-rolling but are not good or unpleasant enough to do anything more in the negative, yet are going too far to be able to provide a different sort of interest - say via characterization as actual people and interesting interactions outside of the ring.

The Film is Van Damme's directorial debut, so I'm not too surprised he went for a very safe structure, but it's exactly these particularly safe structures that need someone with experience or just a lot of talent behind the camera to become anything more than an exercise in rote repetition of clichés. As a director, Van Damme is neither. He's clearly a competent director, even competent enough that it seems a bit of a shame he never really tried to make a career out of it, during which he very well might have become more than competent. At the very least, he's an action director who knows when to step back and just let the martial artists and stuntmen show their stuff, even when it's not himself he's stepping back for, and the stuff they're showing isn't all that great.

One can't even blame Van Damme for not having tried anything with The Quest. Before the whole tournament business starts, there's a long-winded attempt to set up the film as Chris's epic story of growth into a responsible adult, but this too is mired down by a lack of imagination. It's rather as if the film were stating that it is going to explore important ideas about moral growth, and declaring its own epic sweep but doesn't quite know how to actually establish them, instead falling back on the sort of cargo cult filmmaking where a director uses signifiers from other movies whose functions he doesn't really seem to understand.

Having said all this, I do think The Quest is a perfectly watchable movie, just not a memorable one, nor one anyone should go out of her way to seek out.

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