The first 40 minutes of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s latest cops-n-robbers opus, “Until Death” is brilliant in a, “This is so ridiculously strange it borders on goddamn brilliant” kind of brilliant. There’s something obscenely mesmerizing about watching an unkempt, unshaven, and leather jacket clad Van Damme slouch his way through his days as a New Orleans police Detective, busting heads at random, shoots heroin into his veins, and verbally, emotionally, and physically abuse the women in his life. When a justifiably angry cop calls Van Damme names after his fianc’e is killed during one of Van Damme’s botched stings, Van Damme tries to take the grieving man’s head off. No softy moments for our barely interested cop, no sirree. And despite being more crooked than Tom Delay trapped in a bank at night by himself, Van Damme rats out a fellow cop who asks him for a rather small favor. The bastard!
But then the filmmakers had to go and ruin things by introducing a plot (Plot? Who needs a stinking plot?) involving Stephen Rea (of “Crying Game” fame) as a dirty ex-cop who Van Damme is obsessed with capturing. What was wrong with just following the day-to-day activity of a strung-out, ne’er-do-well copper? Did we really have to get all the usual, “You’re out of control!” scenes between Van Damme and his superior officer? Or how about the, “You have no time for me” moments between Van Damme and his wife, who promptly dumps him for the basketball coach at her school (she’s the principal). And oh yeah, the wife is also carrying the coach’s baby, but in his moment of Stephen Rea obsession, Van Damme riotously accuses her unborn baby of being Rea’s.
Much of the silly fun inherent in watching “Until Death” is abandoned after Van Damme is ambushed inside a diner. Well, actually, he was ambushed earlier in the apartment of a male suspect (whose girlfriend he needlessly terrorized, by the way), but was saved by a young cop who — you guessed it — Van Damme had verbally and mentally abused for an earlier foul-up. In the second ambush, Van Damme gets a bullet through the head for his troubles, but in a brilliant sequence, the thug who had discharged the bullet finds himself handcuffed to the grill of a truck seconds after the attempted cop killing, and ends up having to shoot off his own hand in order to make his escape. No, really, this actually happens, and it comes so totally out of left field that you’ll be left rolling in the aisles just as I was.
The second half of “Until Death” is methodical in its plotting, and director Simon Fellows (who last directed Van Damme in “Second in Command”, and the Wesley Snipes actioner “7 Seconds” before that) and his screenwriters try to keep things lively (i.e. keep this a “Van Damme movie”) by intercutting with bloody sequences of Rea as he goes about cleansing the established powers of the New Orleans underworld. This, apparently, involves wholesale slaughter of 100 people, give or take a dozen goombahs or two, shot and edited in a weird ’40s “spinning newspaper” cinematic style. Meanwhile, Van Damme attempts to re-adjust to life post-bullet to the head, which includes staying at his ex-wife’s house (where the basketball coach is also staying, by the way), while a gun-toting physical therapist helps him get back on his feet.
Although it sounds tedious and uninteresting, and not what you would expect from “a Van Damme” movie, the second half of “Until Death” is actually quite fun, especially watching a broken down Van Damme limp from scene to scene, apologizing and making amends as he goes. Although curiously, I don’t remember Van Damme ever apologizing for beating the crap out of those two tow truck drivers who had tried to tow his car earlier in the film, and who Van Damme beat up and then left bloodied on the streets. Isn’t that some kind of crime or something?
“Until Death” is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a lot more serviceable than your average B-action movies. What’s more, Jean-Claude Van Damme continues to impress me with his choice of (for him, at least) very uncommercial film roles. The first film that showed Van Damme to be cut from a different cloth than his action movie brethrens (Seagal, Snipes, et al) was 2001’s “Replicant”. Although he seemed to return to bad B-action movies with lackluster and indeed, typical “Van Damme movies” like “The Order” and “Derailed”, he followed up those two stinkers with the gritty, excellent “In Hell”. A year later saw him tackle another dark role in “Wake of Death”, but he seemed to fall off the wagon with generic actioners “Second in Command” and “The Hard Corp”, a film that seemed to have one movie in mind going in, but seemed to ditch it in favor of another movie altogether halfway through.
So while Van Damme has taken movies for the paycheck (“Derailed” in particular was atrocious), he’s nevertheless proven to be a far more substantial performer than either Seagal or Snipes, two men whose recent string of direct-to-video offerings are so interchangeable that aside from the fact that one man is black and the other white, you couldn’t tell their movies, or their roles apart. Van Damme, on the other hand, has constantly sought out challenging material, and even if you think those material have resulted in poor, messy films, you still have to tip your hat to the guy. At least he’s trying.
But back to our movie.
Unlike a lot of similarly themed films (Seagal’s own “Hard to Kill” comes to mind), there is a brutal, in-your-face quality about “Until Death” that convinces me to give the film a recommendation. Another plus is that Fellows and his writers are not shy about knocking off characters, even ones we expect to last to the end credits. One character in particular, who is introduced, forgotten, and then re-introduced as a possible sidekick to our hero, gets taken out in a most unexpected and deliciously cruel fashion. After a while, as good guys drop dead left and right, you start to wonder if even Van Damme’s ex-wife will be on the chopping block. Or, for that matter, Van Damme himself.
As the villain, Stephen Rea looks terribly bored, and why not? How do you go from big-time Hollywood movies like “The Reaping” and “V for Vendetta” to a moderately budgeted action film like “Until Death”, and not feel the weight of such a precipitous drop in the quality of your projects? One can only assume that Rea took the job because it meant he could do two movies at the same time, but collect two separate paychecks (“Until Death” and “The Reaping” were both set and shot in New Orleans). As Rea would prove near the end of the film, when he gets a chance to wax philosophical about his criminal ways, Rea is a damn good actor. Alas, he’s mostly a non-entity here, and even Fellows seems confused about what to do with his actor, resulting in a long period where Rea’s character simply vanishes except for minor cameos in the ongoing gangland storyline.
At this point in his career, Van Damme is at an unenviable crossroads. He’s become famous because of, and nurtured such a singular personality in cinema and offscreen in the ’80s and ’90s that he must find it incredibly frustrating and difficult to shift gears. As a result, movies like “In Hell” and “Wake of Death” took his audience by surprise, while movies like “Derailed” and “The Order” just bored them. What do to? If Van Damme is listening, I would advise him to continue making the films that he is currently making. Go ahead, Jean-Claude, do one movie to stretch your acting muscles, and do another for the paycheck. And hey, if there are producers willing to pay you to do both, why not?
Simon Fellows (director) / Dan Harris, James Portolese (screenplay)
CAST: Jean-Claude Van Damme … Anthony Stowe
Stephen Rea … Gabriel Callaghan
Stephen Lord … Jimmy M
Gary Beadle … Mac
Wes Robinson … Chad Mansen
Selina Giles … Valerie Stowe
Mark Dymond … Mark Rossini
Alana Maria … Clementine