The new action movie Enemies Closer, currently playing in very limited release an on VOD, does the unthinkable: it turns Tom Everett Scott of That Thing You Do! into an action star, and a pretty good one at that. He's a hero in the John McClane tradition -- a normal guy (with specific training) caught in the wrong place at the wrong time -- and Scott's nice guy decency serves him well. There's just enough character setup (we see him at work) at the outset that, when combined with Scott's own innate likeability, quickly gets us invested in whatever is coming his way. And boy is something coming his way.
What's coming his way is Jean-Claude Van Damme, reuniting here with director Peter Hyams, who previously directed the star in two of his best movies, Sudden Death and Timecop. Enemies Closer is also edited by Peter's son John Hyams, who has directed Van Damme three times in Dragon Eyes, Universal Soldier: Regeneration, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, the latter two being among the best action movies of the last 10 years. These are all people who have worked together before, always with good results. Enemies Closer isn't as good as any of those past collaborations (Dragon Eyes notwithstanding), but I'm a big fan of enough of the pieces that I enjoyed myself a whole bunch.
By far the best thing about the movie -- the thing that's going to make Enemies Closer a lasting entry in the genre -- is the performance of Jean-Claude Van Damme as the movie's villain, Xander. Van Damme is amazing, continuing what has to be the most interesting third act of any action star in history. While Sylvester Stallone continues to trade on nostalgia to get back in the good graces of the box office and Steven Seagal lazily stays the course, Van Damme has only gotten better in recent years. It's as though something inside him was freed by his revelatory performance in 2008's JCVD and brought him back from the brink. Since then, he's been doing the best work of his career, whether its finding the haunted sadness in 6 Bullets or blowing everyone off the screen as the bad guy of The Expendables 2. His performance in Enemies Closer is very reminiscent of his turn as Jean Vilain in the latter movie; after decades as the hero, it's clear that Van Damme is once again having a blast playing a bad guy. His hair, once again dyed Street Fighter orange, is teased out like a crazy Belgian clown. He announces up front that he's a vegan, and between every act of sadism and murder he literally stops to pick wild berries or preach some environmental message. It doesn't add anything to the plot; it's just some incredibly entertaining color that makes Xander more memorable than the typical Hans Gruber knock off.
I can't decide if the humorlessness of Jones' performance is an asset or a liability. On the one hand, it's more interesting to watch him play different than we've ever seen him do; on the other, it's rarely a bad idea to lean on your actors' strengths. Ultimately, that's going to be the legacy of Enemies Closer: it casts its three main actors totally against type. The guy made famous by playing the action hero is the villain. The hero is played by a guy best known for his work in light comedy, while the comedian plays the antihero. It's like action movie musical chairs, but never succumbs to feeling like a novelty.
Despite taking place on a whole island, the film feels claustrophobic -- everything seems to take place in the same half-mile radius. Characters have no trouble finding one another. They venture out 500 feet into the woods, then come back to the same dock. Out into the woods, back to the dock. Until one character climbs a tree at the very end, the setting has no bearing on anything that happens. That sense of redundancy is all over Enemies Closer -- it's a movie that keeps cycling through the same beats over and over. Henry and Clay escape danger, then immediately launch back into an argument about the past. Van Damme kills someone or orders his henchmen to kill someone, then immediately launches into another speech about living a vegan lifestyle. Characters don't grow so much as repeat.
With the exception of the Van Damme performance, everything about Enemies Closer feels small -- the location, the number of actors in the cast, even the stakes (the bad guys just want to recover some drugs and leave; there's a version of this plan in which no one gets hurt). That's the state of the non-blockbuster action movie these days. Hollywood isn't making the kind of mid-budget actioner in which Hyams specialized during the '90s. Everything costs either $150 million or it costs $5 million (the reported budget of Enemies Closer). I'm much more partial to the latter, as they tend to eschew huge, effects driven set pieces in favor of close combat, characters and relationships. Enemies Closer is that kind of movie. Hyams, Van Damme and Tom Everett Scott all turn in the kind of work that made me such a big fan of all three in the first place. The movie some big issues, but its heart is in the right place.