Sunday, January 26, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: ENEMIES CLOSER (2014)

(US/UK - 2014)

Directed by Peter Hyams. Written by Eric Bromberg & James Bromberg.  Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Tom Everett Scott, Orlando Jones, Linzey Cocker, Christopher Robbie, Kris Van Damme, Zahari Baharov, Dimo Alexiev, Vladimir Mihaylov, Teodor Tzolov.  (R, 85 mins)

Back in the late '80s, Jean-Claude Van Damme built his fan base and became a star the old-fashioned way:  by working his ass off.  As he graduated from low-budget B-movies that became surprise box-office hits (1988's BLOODSPORT, 1989's CYBORG) to bigger-budgeted A-list fare (1992's UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, 1993's HARD TARGET, 1994's TIMECOP), he became a proven player with a solid track record.  By 1996, he had enough clout that Universal let him star in and direct his pet project THE QUEST, and then it all started to implode.  THE QUEST bombed, followed by tabloid fodder like multiple marriages, stories of drug abuse and being labeled "difficult."  In his memoir My Word is My Bond, THE QUEST villain Roger Moore offered this observation on being asked what it was like working with Van Damme: "I've always believed that if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all.  So I'll say nothing at all." The movies kept tanking (1997's DOUBLE TEAM, 1998's KNOCK OFF), LEGIONNAIRE (1998) went straight to video, and the "Muscles from Brussels" was becoming something between an industry pariah and punchline.  After 1999's last-ditch, desperation Hail Mary UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN, Van Damme's movies started bypassing theaters altogether.  But then a funny thing happened:  he straightened up his act, settled down, and focused on his work, and the movies were often shockingly good.  Much like his earlier days, Van Damme was once more building his career by word-of-mouth: low-budget B-movies like the gritty IN HELL (2003), WAKE OF DEATH (2004), UNTIL DEATH (2007), and THE SHEPHERD (2008) are as good as, if not better, than many of the films from his theatrical heyday.  The 2008 meta/mockumentary/confessional JCVD got some acclaim but didn't open any serious doors for him, and after a few more quality DTV outings like UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (2009) and ASSASSINATION GAMES (2011), Van Damme was invited back to the big screen to play the villain in THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012), and the Van Dammessaince was on.  The brilliant UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING (2012) managed to get raves from serious cineastes, and a recent Volvo commercial became a viral sensation.  Everyone loves an underdog, and once more, after years of hard work and rebuilding his reputation, the 53-year-old Van Damme has engineered the quietest comeback in recent memory, even if some are approaching it ironically.  He never went away--it's just that he managed to accomplish some of his best work when the industry dismissed him and no one was paying attention.

I've been saying for years that Van Damme would make a great Bond villain, and THE EXPENDABLES 2 did a nice job of demonstrating that.  His latest film, ENEMIES CLOSER, again finds JCVD in bad-guy mode, with the initial focus on Henry Taylor (Tom Everett Scott), a ranger at a park near the US/Canada border.  He's the only employee and lives in the ranger station, with only one other resident--cranky old Mr. Sanderson (Christopher Robbie)--living on the other end of the park.  Taylor prefers the solitude after dealing with the emotional and physical scars of time spent in the military, serving in Afghanistan.  After helping stranded hiker Kayla (Linzey Cocker), the two make a dinner date, but it's put on the backburner when Taylor is approached at gunpoint at the ranger station by Clay (Orlando Jones).  Clay has a personal beef with Taylor:  his younger brother was killed in Afghanistan and Taylor was his commanding officer.  Taylor tries to explain that Clay's brother got separated from their group and he was given orders to leave him behind.  Taylor had a breakdown and spent years blaming himself and the ranger job was as far as he could run from the world.  Clay doesn't buy any of it and takes him out to the deep woods to execute him.

Meanwhile, a plane filled with a large heroin shipment has crashed in the lake surrounding the island park.  Just as the skeleton crew of border patrol officers ("It's just us...they only care about the Mexican border!" one officer laments) goes to investigate, they're massacred by Xander (Van Damme), the eccentric, environmentally-conscious, vegan cartel boss who's introduced talking about his refusal to wear leather shoes and the methane in cow farts.  Xander and his crew encounter Taylor and Clay just as Clay's about to kill Taylor.  Shots are fired, and the hunt is on as Xander and his crew start pursuing Taylor and Clay through the massive park, forcing the two men to set aside their differences and work together...

...if they don't kill each other first!

The script by Eric and James Bromberg has a lot in the way of logic lapses--why would Taylor and Clay leave Xander's last remaining henchman merely knocked out instead of killing him like they did all the others?  (this flunky is played by JCVD's son Kristopher Van Varenberg, who's now just cutting the shit and going by "Kris Van Damme"; Van Damme keeps putting his kids in his movies, and it needs to stop, though Kris is a marginally better actor than his sister Bianca Bree). Why, you ask?  Well, so he can pull a surprise appearance just when he needs to, and prompt Clay to grumble "I shoulda killed you when I had the chance."  YES, YOU SHOULD HAVE!  The Sanderson character is absolutely pointless and there's no shortage of trite dialogue when Van Damme is offscreen (at one point, Clay says "I didn't prepare for a war," to which Taylor actually replies "This war came to us").  There's a third-act twist that you'll see coming long before Taylor and Clay do, but for all its predictability and occasional stupidity, ENEMIES CLOSER is entertaining thanks to a completely unhinged performance by Van Damme.  Sporting a bizarre hairstyle that looks like Christopher Walken in a high humidity climate, mugging shamelessly, complaining that Taylor's coffee isn't fair trade, and prone to waxing rhapsodic about a childhood that included a pet goose named Edith Piaf, Van Damme sinks his teeth into this thing, devouring every bit of scenery that he can.  It's a thoroughly cartoonish performance that's engineered to go over the top, and seeing Van Damme do his best "Gary Oldman-in-THE PROFESSIONAL" is impossible to resist.

This is the star's third collaboration with veteran director Peter Hyams (TIMECOP, SUDDEN DEATH), a past master of commercial genre fare, with BUSTING (1974), CAPRICORN ONE (1978), OUTLAND (1981), and RUNNING SCARED (1986) to his name.  Now 70, Hyams was once respected enough in the industry to be entrusted with helming 2010, the surprisingly solid 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), but he's been skidding for well over a decade, hitting bottom with A SOUND OF THUNDER (2005), a complete disaster that was abandoned by its producers and actually released with unfinished special effects after three years on the shelf.  ENEMIES CLOSER is no Hyams classic, but it's his best film since 1997's THE RELIC.  He doesn't really bring any distinct touches (Hyams in his 1974-1986 prime, when he was scripting his own films, had a distinct "Hyams" feel--just check out Hal Holbrook's incredible CAPRICORN ONE monologue), other than having one character named "Spota," a name that turns up in many of his films (it's his wife's maiden name).  Van Damme and Hyams obviously like one another and enjoy working together, and Van Damme has also starred in three films directed by Hyams' son John, including the instant cult classic UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING.  John Hyams served as editor on ENEMIES CLOSER, and the film, shot in Bulgaria and Louisiana, feels more in line with the current crop of high-end DTV fare cranked out by the likes of John Hyams and Isaac Florentine.  It's probably a good bet that a lot of that was achieved in the editing stages with John helping his old man out.  Peter Hyams is more than capable of pulling off a high-intensity action flick, but in the many fight scenes, the influence of John Hyams, who's becoming a genuine action auteur in his own right, is very obvious.

It's too bad Lionsgate and After Dark Films aren't capitalizing on the Van Dammessaince and giving this a bigger rollout than a handful of theaters and VOD, but given the tepid commercial response to the recent string of quality aging action star vehicles that don't feature the word "expendables" in the title, you can't really be surprised.  Sure, Van Damme doesn't have--and probably never will have--the box office pull that he once did, and nobody in 2014 is going to the multiplex to see Tom Everett Scott or Orlando Jones, but it's just a bit disheartening to see the company dump this one off but put I, FRANKENSTEIN on 3000 screens.

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