Dir. Robert Harmon
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rosanna Arquette, Joss Ackland, Kieran Culkin, Ted Levine
A perfectly serviceable little action picture from 1993, which again confirms that there was a time when “action” movies were not required to explode a giant robot every few minutes to keep you entertained, and were actually more like dramas with an absurdly overmuscled goofball cast in the lead part. This one has a little more legit action in it than PENTATHLON --including a pretty excellent prison bus breakout at the start and an impressively absurd offroad motorcycle chase at the end -- but is mostly the story of a quiet ex-con finding a simple country family and doing what it takes to put his past behind him and protect them. It kind of reminded me of Seagal’s underrated and poorly named FIRE DOWN BELOW in that if you had cast anyone other than a ridiculous action icon in the lead, people might have reason to take the film seriously.
Honestly, if you cast Viggo Mortenssen, or, hell, even Liam “Action” Neeson in the Van Damme role, it would probably be called a drama, or at least a thriller. You can even keep the motorcycle chase, and people would just assume it’s a metaphor for his inner conflict about escaping from him past. But with two separate scenes of Van Damme’s nude, spectacularly ripped and completely hairless body emerging from a lake, you’ve got no choice but to call it an action movie. Maybe even an action flick.
Still, they treat it pretty much like a drama, and most of the tension comes from the narrative drama and not the fights. There’s a pretty good cast. A young Rosanna Arquette (who’s not going to be outdone by Van Damme in the nudity department) a very young Kieran Culkin, LETHAL WEAPON 2’s Joss Ackland, and Buffalo Bill himself, Ted Levine. They’re all around to have drama with things, and do a pretty good job emoting around Van Damme’s flexing.
Basically, Van Damme is an escaped prisoner (wrongly convicted, though) who falls in with a pretty cattle-farming widow (who it is, exactly, that actually farms the cattle is unclear, since she seems to spend most of her time undressing in front of open windows, being a feisty do-gooder for the neighbors, and reminiscing with her adorable kids about their dead dad). The family is being pressured to sell off their land so evil Joss Ackland can build his evil golf course and ruin their simple country ways. Arquette won’t sell, so Ackland brings in outside muscle in the form of Ted Levine to intimidate her into getting out.
Levine is an actor who’s been in a ton of stuff, but I never really noticed in a non-woman-suit kind of situation. But he’s great here, taking the intimidating henchman role in a different direction than I’ve seen. He’s got a kind of aw-shucks country charm to him, and it seems kinda genuine. Some of his scenes seem to be the usual veiled-menace threatening scenes, but he’s nothing but bright and charming. Like Albert Brooks in DRIVE, he really seems to want to be your friend, even though he knows he’ll have to get ugly if the situation requires it. This is actually a great tactic to cause tension because it makes you unsure exactly how far he’ll go (although less so here, because it’s an action movie. Come on, is he really going to kill Kieran Culkin?)
Van Damme is pretty good too, in his cartoonish, mulleted way. He doesn’t exactly have to do any hard acting, but he does a good job of at first seeming reserved and on-edge, and then gradually warming up. It’s a simple transition, but one which he sells effectively. Plus he religiously eats only steaks for every meal, which counts as character development on his final scorecard I bet. Holy shit, maybe he’s just in it because she’s some sort of cattle farmer and he thinks if he can get in with her he’ll have easy access to all the steak he wants from now on. I ain’t saying he’s a gold digger... but he ain’t messing with no turnip farmers.
Anyway, its pretty much a quiet tale of escalating pressure on small-town American by evil corporate interests (or, if you’re Mitt Romney, a tale of class warfare perpetrated against the job creators by illegal foreigners) where sometimes Van Damme kicks some people or jumps a motorcycle over a truck. Given the realities of today’s world, its sort of a nice fantasy to imagine a helpful kickboxing musclebound stranger will come along and give the little guy the power to stand up to the Joss Acklands of the world. But then again, even this film surprisingly acknowledges that fighting them isn’t necessarily going to make your life easy, either. The villains are annoyed at Van Damme and keep reminding him that they’re only escalating things because he stepped in and changed the balance of power. Isn’t that just what they always do, blame you for their bad behavior just because you didn’t immediately give them exactly what they want. Same everywhere, man. But in the Van Dammaverse, you can actually win. Yeah, it may be a little ridiculous, but these days we need a little action to make the drama go down easier.