Nowhere To Run

*Originally written in 2003

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Van Damme was on a roll in the late eighties and early nineties, making some of the most fun, simple action movies of the era. His ability to get a laugh while being renowned for his nice-guy qualities have ensured his continued success, even if most of his movies now are straight-to-DVD capers.

In Nowhere to Run, a mid echelon movie in terms of his output, he stars with an established cast as another misunderstood nice guy – an escaped convict who decides to help a young widow and her family who are struggling against a local developer who is forcing them out of their home. There is plenty of action, some strong performances, and some very funny moments. Van Damme plays Sam, a mysterious convict who has escaped from prison. He sleeps in a tent outside a small town where two local young kids find and befriend him. Eventually their mother Clydie, played by Rosanna Arquette, finds out and invites him into their home cautiously. Of course they fall for each other, much to the distaste of local Sheriff and love interest Lonnie, who decides to look into Sam’s background. Franklin Hale, played with typical malevolent relish by Joss Ackland, is the main bad guy, but his side-arm Levine is the main threat. Sam helps the family, foiling Hale at every turn, but all the while his own unspoken past is catching up to him…

Arquette, Culkin, Levine, and Taubman as the daughter are particularly good, and the story tries to be light-hearted yet moral. It’s another attempt to achieve a wider audience for Van Damme, and it is definitely one of his most accessible thanks to the good cast and humour. The various discussions on Van Damme’s naked body are always humorous. Overall another good Van Damme film which will please fans, and may interest a few others.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Nowhere To Run! 

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Lionheart/AWOL

*Originally written in 2001

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Another of Van Damme’s best before he hit the big time, AWOL features a story written by the man himself. Again we have a revenge plot, but this time there is more depth as Van Damme’s character Lyon is trying to help his brother, and his brother’s wife and daughter from eviction. When he hears of his brother’s problems he flees the Foreign Legion, a rather large crime, and goes to America to help. Of course, the Legion sends some tough guys after him who he must constantly evade. In order to earn money for his new family he becomes an underground fighter, managed by a likable bum called Joshua. Lyon and Joshua become close friends and Lyon gains recognition as a talented fighter, rising through the underground ranks. The money is never enough though, and he keeps his way of income a secret. Before long, a rich promoter called Cynthia has noticed his talents and decides to take arrange fights for him, meaning his money increases. Cynthia is ,of course, evil and only in the game for her herself. She pits Lyon against Atilla, the most fierce fighter there is, but she fixes the fight so that all bets will go to her. Lyon must defeat Atilla, but he may lose all his money in doing so.

The fights here are good, well staged and filmed, and there are some good performances. Van Damme is his usual self, but Harrison Page and Deborah Rennard add some skill to the proceedings, raising it above the average 80s martial arts movie. Lisa Pelikan gets our sympathy as the young wife, and Ashley Johnson is okay as the daughter. There are enough simple twists to keep us involved and the plot has its cheesy charm. There is also some good dialogue which will get a few laughs. Another must for Van Damme fans, this one will appeal to a wider action movie audience, but it’s never going to win any awards.

Enjoying my older reviews? Me neither! Let us know in the comments what you thought of Lionheart/AWOL!

Kickboxer

*Originally written in 2001

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Probably the most famous of Van Damme’s early work, Kickboxer is another simple story of revenge and a showcase for his skills as a martial artist. It has some good fights, and some interesting moments showing the arduous difficulty of training and trying to achieve your best while not losing your focus. Although it suffers from some cheesy acting, dialogue, music, and a highly disturbing dance scene, this is a must for Van Damme fans, and those with an interest in martial arts movies who don’t want to stray too far from the West.

Van Damme stars as Kurt Sloane, the younger brother of a flashy American Kickboxer. They train together, but his brother Eric seems to be more interested in looking like a good fighter than actually finding the ability and skill to be one. Eric takes part in a fighting competition and is crippled and almost killed by Tong Po – a fearsome Kickboxer with a great rage and discipline. Kurt decides to avenge his brother, but no-one will train him as they believe Tong Po is too popular and strong. Eventually he finds a wizened old trainer in the middle of nowhere who teaches him to reach his full potential and push through barriers which he never though he could surpass. He also meets Winston Tyler who provides some laughs, and Mylee who provides a potential love interest. Of course it is the fights that matter, and the revenge plot is safe enough to give the fights reason. Rather than cheap montages, we see the tough training regime Kurt goes through, and see Tong Po kicking a cement wall to build up the strength and invulnerability of his foot. Sounds odd yes, but how else would we know he’s a hard lad? Throw in a sub-plot about gangsters and kidnapping and it all builds to a thrilling in ring climax. A good film for fight fans, light-hearted, fast, and worth watching.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Kickboxer – just another crappy action movie or one of Van Damme’s better films?

Universal Soldier – Day Of Reckoning

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Universal Solider is arguably one of the last great films of the action hero era and surely one of Van Damme’s finest. The film was so successful that it spawned a number of confusing sequels, some which seemed to have little to do with prior entries, some which retconed other events, and which were all without exception drastically inferior to the original. You can imagine that when I took a gamble on this, I was hoping for (at best) some Van Damme on Lundgren action, with a few funny one-liners and nice kills. What I got was something I didn’t expect at all, and something much better than I could have ever hoped for.

Day Of Reckoning is a nightmare. I mean that positively. It is a horror movie with some genuinely shocking violence and powerful martial arts based action. The film veers into some surreal, dream spaces where the viewer isn’t sure what is real and what isn’t. Van Damme and Lundgren do appear, but are not the focus. Instead, star Scott Adkins and director John Hyams conspire to take the story in a completely different and new direction – removing much of the charm of the original, and instead crafting a snaking revenge movie where the seemingly tenuous links to the series mythology only become more clear and insidious towards the end.

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Scott Adkins wakes from a coma to discover his family has been massacred. He has lost his memory, but with help from the FBI identifies the killer as none other than Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). So far so normal, aside from the twist of JCVD being a killer. It should be noted that the flashback scene of the family being killed is brutal and unforgiving. While Adkins searches for Van Damme, we see another series favourite Andrei Arlovski living a normal life but being suddenly ‘activated’ and going on a murderous rampage. It turns out that (most of) the people he kills are Universal Soldiers, and that Lundgren and Van Damme have been trying to free agents from the control chip or something by which the government has been controlling them with. They are recruiting and forming a separatist army to destroy the program once and for all. Then things get complicated with clones…..

There’s a hell of a lot going on here and it is never easily explained. Rather than finding all this confusing, I think the often dream-like or nightmarish nature of the movie (deliberately or otherwise) covers the flaws in this type of storytelling. We know it is still convoluted, but we are placed essentially in the character of Adkins – he doesn’t know what has happened, and only has the memory of his family being murdered to spur him on. As viewers it is that image which also keeps us watching – to get to the bottom of the mystery. Adkins does well in the role and while he isn’t the most expressive actor, he lets the more physical side speak for itself. And so we get some outstanding and vicious fight scenes – imagine a martial arts version of Saw and you’ll get the idea. The blood and guts flow freely, but it isn’t in a cartoon Kill Bill style or slowed down and stylized like 300. It feels real, even though the combatants are super strong and super fast, the punches, kicks, and everything else connect with a raw force – I was left gaping after a couple of these and wondering why other movies don’t follow suit.

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It isn’t only the fights which are horrific. This is at it’s heart trying to be a horror movie, with Hyams at the very least emulating a Lynchian atmosphere. If you are aware of the series, then you will be aware of the loose political roots – dead soldiers are resurrected, have their memories removed, and are forced to do the Government’s bidding like robots. While the questions about patriotism and control over individualism have been clear throughout, there is a much more personal and angry vein of accusation here. We learn that the older model of soldier performed better when they believed they were fighting for their country, but that the newer models truly exceed when they think it is their family who is in danger. Warriors simply don’t respond to patriotism anymore, and the only way for a government to teach it’s soldiers to kill is to give them a more personal, devastating fear – it’s basically boiled down to kill the enemy or you family will die or even one step further – the enemy has already killed your family, so go do what needs to be done. Echos in current world politics are all too clear.

Day Of Reckoning is not for the faint-hearted. The violence is extreme, and I’m saying that as a seasoned gore hound. I loved it, but I’m aware that others with a low tolerance will be put off quickly. Gone are the japes of the original, and the half-assed crap of the sequels. This is a horrific movie which just happens to exist in the Universal Soldier universe, and it’s one of the most impressive action movies I’ve seen in recent years. Hell, it’s one of the most impressive horror movies I’ve seen in recent years. Let us know in the comments what you thought of the movie and how you rate it alongside others in the series!

Universal Soldier

Definitely a contender for Van Damme’s and Lundgren’s best, Universal Soldier is one of the best action movies of the early Nineties, with plenty of explosive stunts, fights, a decent story, some fine acting, and lots of great dialogue. In the wake of Terminator 2 this and most other sci-fi action movies looked inferior, but still this is a great watch for action fans and may even please a few non-fans as a good slice of entertainment or nostalgia. It’s almost as if the 80s never went away.

Van Damme stars as Luc Deveraux, a marine in ‘Nam. His superior is Andrew Scott, played with menace by Lundgren. Their team stumbles upon a village in ‘Nam where Scott goes on a kill crazy rampage, wiping out men, women, and kids with robotic glee; when Luc tries to stop him, they kill each other. Flash forward to the Nineties and the US Army has managed to save and restore both Luc and Scott, as well as their team thanks to some futuristic Robocop nonsense. They are now part man, part computer – mindless automatons, easy to control soldiers with a much higher physical strength than any normal human could have. The Army has created this race of Super Soldiers to undertake special missions, and they have a flawless success rate.

Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker) is a snoopy reporter who wants to follow the mysterious team, but can never get close. Although the soldiers do whatever they are told and have no memory of their past lives, they inevitably turn against their masters and Luc and Scott begin to have flashbacks. Soon Scott kills Veronica’s cameraman, while Luc saves her life, becoming a renegade from his group, from the military, from the Government. He begins to remember everything, his humanitytaking over, while Scott takes control of his team with the sole objective of killing Luc and Veronica. It is deliberately unclear whether Scott’s evil are remnants of his human half, or merely the computer half gone berserk. The chase begins.

Once we accept the Universal Soldier’s abilities etc, the story is simple – we of course know it will end with a final confrontation between the two stars. Before then there is a lot of action, gun fights, bombs, the usual, but it is done with a fair amount of skill and style. Emmerich was already showing signs of the bloated big-budget epics he would later create. Van Damme does well as a cyborg and has little to say, but shows off his martial arts skills which is what we are here to see. Lundgren has even less to say but is effectively sneering. Walker is the standard feisty heroine and gives a fine performance while the rest of the cast range from grunts with guns to comedic parts. There is a good amount of humour which helps to make the film more appealing, and there is the inevitable Van Damme arse nudity. There are some interesting elements involving the Government’s control of mindless soldiers, sending in faceless masses to do their dirty-work, but this isn’t overplayed or particularly important. Overall it is a simple, but effective and well-shot action film, and one of the best of its kind.

This special Edition DVD contains the requisite trailer, as well as a short making of documentary and a few other snippets for the fans.

*Originally written in 2005

Kickboxer: The Muscles From Belgium Kicks Exposed Bums!

Yes, now we’re into the realms of classic masterpieces! One of John Claud Van Damne’s early films, Kickboxer has it all- fighting. Jean Cloud stars as Luc ‘kickboxer’ Deveroux, a fighter who wants to travel to China and enter a deadly Marshall Arts contest. His brother, Luke Deveroux was meant to go but as he was an unknown actor they decided to send Vin Darn instead. Off he goes, wearing nothing as always to make sure the female, gay, and curious portion of the audience get to drool over his well oiled, muscular and inviting buttocks. Soon he is being trained by a wizened old genius in the ways of kick boxing. He kicks empty cardboard boxes, flat packs, dodges boxes filled with ripe fruit and veg, and eats cardboard all day. The middle section of the film is simply various montages of this type of behaviour, showing his skills improving until he can do the splits balancing on top of a hundred stacked milk cartons. We also see him shaking his thang at a local bar, entrancing the local woman and igniting them into a sexual frenzy. Luckily when they approach he snaps their necks with swift roundhouse kicks. Thus he is ready for the tournament. Many fighters from around the globe and beyond have come to fight and win. We have Bolo from China, a sumo wrestler from Japan, a Viking from Norway, a funny little crab like creature from Africa, and various others, each with a unique fighting style. Shaun Claw Damn Van progresses through each round, beating everyone easily. In the final he has to fight a hard looking transvestite who trains by kicking holes in car doors and eating concrete. JCVCDVD beats him after a gruelling ten rounds by punching him in the nuts so hard that she/he becomes a he/she. We celebrate with a fist pumping 80s power ballad, possibly called ‘Don’t Let The Cardboard Box You In (Keep Believing, Little Boy)!’

Best Scene: When the Sumo sits on the little crab man and laughs, and you see all the arms and limbs underneath frantically flailing around, then stretching climactically, then trembling softly, then stopping. Always stopping.

Double Impact

One of Van Damme’s best, and the first in many ‘dual roles’, Double Impact has strong martial arts scenes mixed with some old style gun action, some good performances, and a typical story which works well. With a bigger budget Van Damme was able to hire better writers, directors, and actors, and here it shows. Still, there is nothing new story-wise but it is exciting, explosive, and should definitely be seen by those even with a passing interest in the action genre.

Van Damme plays two twins separated at birth after their parents were brutally murdered by a gang-lord. Chad is raised in Paris by Frank- a friend of his parents, and his old bodyguard, and he has had a quiet, safe life where he is a fitness instructor and martial artist. His lost twin is a small time hood called Alex who lives with his girlfriend in Hong Kong. Alex has been raised alone and has had a difficult life where he has learnt to become street smart, tough, and wary of outsiders. When Chad finds out about his brother he travels to Hong Kong to find him. Alex doesn’t care, especially as Chad is so damn nice and naive, but he becomes paranoid about his Chad’s relationship with his girlfriend Danielle. They find out that the group that killed their parents is in town for a major deal, and soon prepare for revenge. However, the bad guy Griffith has an army of defenders including femme fatale Kara, Raymond Zang, and good old Bolo Yeung (whose appearance at the age of 50 is quite frankly shocking!). The brothers must confront their differences if they are to avenge their parents.

The story and characters are basic, but Van Damme does a good job in portraying the two in a different manner, and is helped by a fine supporting cast. Some of the dialogue is of course funny like most in the genre, and if you are not a fan of the genre you will probably not ever see this. However it has many good fights and strong action, and the actors are likable enough so if you are not a fan you should give it a try before any of Van Damme’s earlier movies. This was a step towards action and away from pure martial arts for Van Damme, and it was his best film so far.

Double Impact
As always, feel free to comment on the movie and review. Is this the best of the dual JCVD films?