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