I am easy to please, which is why I am a sucker for siege movies. Put a group of people in a building and surround them with an army of killers, and you have the foundation for a pretty entertaining movie. Such is “Second in Command”, the new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, about a unit of American Marines stuck inside the U.S. Embassy in a Eastern European country surrounded by an army of faceless “insurgents” determined to get in and get the country’s duly elected President, currently being safeguarded within the Embassy’s walls.
Directed by Simon Fellows, who last helmed the Wesley Snipes vehicle “7 Seconds”, “Second in Command” is an above average entry for Van Damme, who is easily the only quality star in the triumvirate of has-been Hollywood action stars that have found refuge in direct-to-video work. Of the three, there is Steven Seagal, who hasn’t stumbled across a script he didn’t want to star in, and Wesley Snipes, whose career has inexplicably plummeted despite a string of major Hollywood movies. Van Damme has always been choosier than the other two, resulting in films that have some measure of quality to them (see “Wake of Death” and “In Hell”).
In “Second in Command”, Van Damme plays Sam Keenan, a hardened soldier sent to re-enforce the U.S. Embassy when the country becomes unstable. No sooner does Keenan arrive does the country’s President is chased away from his Palace by protestors and masked gun-wielding insurgents, only to take refuge in the U.S. Embassy. (The film’s first 10 minutes or so has a number of winks and nods to the current insurgency “problem” in Iraq . Look for them.) The insurgents pursue, and the siege is on. Joining Keenan within the Embassy walls are reporter girlfriend Michelle Whitman (Julie Cox), her cameraman, CIA asshole Frank Gaines (William Tapley), and your usual group of roughneck Marines ready to rock and roll and all that good stuff.
As siege movies go, “Second in Command” delivers enough on the action quotient to make it a worthwhile effort. It’s no “The Nest”, but then again, few movies can match that one’s raw and relentless intensity. And despite the fact that the insurgents are pressed for time, having to take the Embassy and kill the President before two impending arrivals — one by the President’s astray military and the other by U.S. Marine reinforcements — the film does fail to really generate mounting pressure. The time the film allots itself for the siege is 4 hours, but it feels more like 4 days. Of course it doesn’t help that the country’s military is apparently composed of one tank, two armored transport vehicles, and a couple of troop transport trucks. Seriously, I could knock over this country with a troop of Girl Scouts in a weekend afternoon.
Surprisingly, the film’s biggest handicap is star Jean-Claude Van Damme, who seems to be on Prozac for the entire production. Keenan has almost no energy, seemingly content to walk to and fro, exerting little authority or even any enthusiasm. Certainly not enough for the roughneck Marines to charge headfirst behind him. Fortunately for “Second in Command”, the supporting cast picks up the slack. In particular William Tapley, who is fabulously entertaining as asshole CIA guy Frank Gaines. Razaaq Adoti is also excellent in the limited scenes he’s in, playing a Marine Gunnery Sergeant with the right combination of verve and attitude. Love interest Julie Cox (“Children of Dune”) does okay in the role, but like Van Damme, she doesn’t seem quite into the movie.
Director Simon Fellows engenders some eye rolling early in the film when he continually cuts between various shooting styles in an effort to give the film’s early scenes of mob protests a “documentary” feel. It doesn’t work, and the effect is disorienting and annoying. Thankfully this need for “reality” goes away once the siege begins, although Fellows does continue to shoot the movie like “NYPD Blue”-lite. Whatever happened to the good ol days of just shooting a movie like a movie, instead of trying to make it look like something it’s not? If I want to see a gritty documentary, I’ll rent a documentary, thank you very much.
“Second in Command” is, overall, another good entry by Van Damme, even if the star also happens to be the film’s biggest crutch. There are a lot of signs that “Second in Command” would have been a better movie without Van Damme, including some awkward scenes were the story abruptly slows down to feature the star in a couple of martial arts sequences. Needless to say, there shouldn’t be any martial arts in the film at all. Of course I understand why they put these scenes in. It’s a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, after all, and you can’t call it that unless there’s at least one slow-motion scene of Van Damme kicking someone in the face.
Simon Fellows (director) / Jonathan Bowers, David L. Corley, Jayson Rothwell (screenplay)
CAST: Jean-Claude Van Damme …. Sam Keenan
Julie Cox …. Michelle Whitman
William Tapley …. Frank Gaines
Alan Mckenna …. Capt. John Baldwin
Razaaq Adoti …. GSgt. Earl “Gunny” Darnell
Serban Celea …. President Yuri Amirev