A lot of the classic action stars tended to gravitate towards the same kinds of roles over the course of their respective careers. Schwarzenegger played the superman and the "other." Seagal played the mysterious, mystical badass. Jean-Claude Van Damme, for some reason, played twins a lot.
Ok, maybe not proper twins. But a number of his movies featured more than one Van Damme. There's Double Impact and Maximum Risk, both movies in which he played twin brothers. But there's also Timecop, during which there are two Van Dammes for much of the movie by virtue of the time travel plot (future Van Damme comes back and teams up with present day Van Damme). In Replicant, he plays a pair of clones.
In 1991's Double Impact, Van Damme plays Chad, a pretty boy living in L.A. and wearing neon spandex as he runs a martial arts studio with Frank (Geoffrey Lewis), the man who raised him. Frank tells him they have a job in Hong Kong, but it turns out that the "job" is actually meeting and teaming up with Alex, the twin brother Chad never knew he had. It seems their parents were murdered by the Chinese triad when they were babies; Chad was rescued by Frank, the family bodyguard, while Alex was raised in an orphanage in Hong Kong (this is all shown during the movie's prologue). Now, Alex and his girlfriend (Alonna Sha) are wrapped up in Triad business, trying to take them down from the inside. Chad agrees to team up, and the brothers -- who, believe it or not, don't really get along or see eye to eye -- go on a series of missions to get back at the gangsters who killed their parents.
Van Damme shares both story and screenplay credit on Double Impact with Lettich, marking the second and last time he would actually write the script to one of his movies (the first was Lionheart). It's very telling that Van Damme is one of the writers, as it's actually one of his most personal movies. On the surface, it seems like a vanity project designed to showcase his ability to ACT and create not one but TWO characters. That's 100% MORE acting than he usually does! But there's more to the choice than just getting the opportunity to flex some acting muscles -- or, more accurately, do some acting splits. The chance to play two very different characters in the movie was actually Van Damme's chance to show everyone who he really is.
See, before Double Impact, he had played a couple of villains. He played Frank Dux in Bloodsport: a basically nice guy from humble beginnings who is able to fight and decides to do so competitively. Then he played Kurt Sloane in Kickboxer, who is basically the same guy. Then Lyon Gaultier in Lionheart. Same thing. Somewhere in there is the near-silent slinger in Cyborg (named Fender Rickenbacker!) and the cop in Death Warrant. Along comes Double Impact, which affords Van Damme the opportunity to be both badass tough guy AND pretty boy. The first is almost a parody of the kinds of action heroes guys like Van Damme played over and over, while the second was the star giving the audience a peek behind the curtain. It's a clever performance.
I actually suspect that Double Impact's Chad is the closest onscreen approximation of the real Van Damme -- especially back in those days (though Marcus from the opening moments of Knock Off comes close, too). He was a notorious ladies' man and philanderer, and had a light, easygoing demeanor about himself in real life that was very different than Steven Seagal's "mystique." Chad is fun. Chad doesn't take things too seriously. That was Van Damme, which was at odds with the kind of somber, sincere guys he was usually playing in the '90s. That he had to sneak the character in under the guise of the "twin" gimmick speaks to the image concerns that plagued so many action stars, who were rarely allowed to do anything different or stray from what we had come to expect. And, yet, in Double Impact, Van Damme really is playing with his image. It's hardly a great performance, but it is a fun one. It's unfortunate that the rest of Double Impact couldn't achieve that same success.
Also, the movie ends with a freeze frame on this:
Maximum Risk (1996)
Maximum Risk might be Van Damme's worst good movie. Let me explain.
By the late '90s, the Golden Age of action was over. Sure, all the greats were still putting out movies that actually played in theaters -- the Direct-to-DVD era of action hadn't really kicked off yet -- but the writing was on the wall. Schwarzenegger was doing End of Days and Batman and Robin. Stallone was trying something different with Copland, and when that didn't catch on he went back to mediocre action movies like Daylight. Seagal's best days were behind him, too, and he was already dipping his toe in the DTDVD pool when The Patriot failed to find theatrical distribution.
And then there was Van Damme, whose movies got trashier and tackier and crazier as the '90s went on. Knock Off? Double Team? Yikes. On the one hand, we could almost see him spiraling into cocaine addiction and bipolar disorder in real time. On the other, he was continuing to bring Asian directors to America and allowing them to showcase an absurdist style the likes of which domestic audiences hadn't seen in action movies. For 1996's Maximum Risk, Van Damme worked with Hong Kong director Ringo Lam, the guy behind the original City on Fire (and who Van Damme would work with again in two of his better DTDVD movies, Replicant and In Hell). This was Lam's American debut, and the results are about as good as when John Woo made his American debut with Van Damme in Hard Target. Actually, I've got to give the advantage to Hard Target; while I'm still not sure I'm crazy about that movie (I'll revisit it in Heavy Action soon), at least it has a single-minded focus on its premise and shows Woo to be a director of style. There's very little in Maximum Risk to suggest that Lam is anything special. It is merely competent.
On its face, it seems like Maximum Risk is pretty good. It features a lot of things missing from much of Van Damme's late-'90s output. It has good locations and good photography. It has real actors, like Zach Grenier and Paul Ben-Victor. Even better? Dennis Rodman isn't in it. Even a little bit. Plus, it gives us Natasha Henstridge as the female/romantic lead; sure, she's saddled with the thankless eye candy sidekick role (Sidecandy? Should we make that a thing?), but the part allows her to both deliver clumsy exposition and get naked (twice!), two things she does very well. Why she never had a bigger career I won't understand, as she's been good in a number of movies (especially genre stuff) and has to be one of the most beautiful actresses to come out of Hollywood in the last 30 years. She's pretty.
Here, though, she's basically playing the same part as Sharon Stone in The Specialist or Cindy Crawford in Fair Game: the beautiful woman who tags along with the action hero and is put in jeopardy when it's most convenient for the plot. And, like the actresses in those movies, she's required to fuck the hero for no better reason than because she's the girl and he's the boy. Henstridge and Van Damme have about as much chemistry and Stone and Stallone, which is to say they have no chemistry. It's not her fault. Even when they're having sex, Van Damme seems bored and sleepy. That's Natasha Henstridge, man. Get your head in the game.
Like Nowhere to Run, this is one of the few Van Damme movies that feels like an actual movie. It could appeal to and audience outside of the hardcore action fans. Many critics actually called it one of his best films when it was released. The problem with all of this is that the movie isn't actually all that good -- it just seems like it is. It takes away everything we love about Van Damme. It neuters Ringo Lam. It's also kind of boring. Except for a few set pieces, the movie amounts to a lot of Van Damme walking around sleepily and wanting to know what happened. Plus -- and this is probably more a comment on me than it is on the movie -- I've seen Maximum Risk probably four times, and I still couldn't give you a very detailed account of what happens. My mind just starts to wander, like when you're reading a book and realize you've gone through four pages without paying any attention to what the words are actually saying.
The movie isn't all bad. There's a pretty good bathhouse fight that's better than the one in Red Heat but not as good as the one in Eastern Promises (it's nice that there are a few action movies willing to make the homoerotic subtext the text). And did I mention Natasha Hendstridge? The movie finally comes alive in the last 20 minutes or so with a very cool shootout in the street and a climactic sequence in a meat packing plant (characters shoot at one another through sides of beef), but it doesn't erase the drag that much of the previous 75 minutes has been.
So Double Impact showed who Van Damme really was in 1991. In a way, Maximum Risk did the same in 1996 -- except that just five years later (and by the way, it's amazing to realize that there was only five years between the two, since one feels like he's still on his way up and the other on his way out), his star was falling. He was tired and burned out. He was going through a tough divorce and developing a bad drug addiction. He was going through the motions, and it shows. His near total remove from the material torpedoes a movie that was already on shaky ground, and while Van Damme is not entirely to blame for the disappointing results, it's impossible to ignore the fact that had he committed and given it his all, he might have actually elevated the movie to the same level of his more enjoyable efforts -- movies like Double Impact.
It doesn't help that the movie has one of the most generic action movie titles of the '90s. Also, the tag line for Maximum Risk is "The other side of safe." So, not safe? Danger. You mean danger.
Got a movie you'd like to see included in a future installment of Heavy Action? Let us know in the comments below.