Wake of Death (2004) Movie Review

“Wake of Death”, the latest Jean-Claude Van Damme action flick, stars the Muscles from Brussels as a gangster out for revenge against fellow gangster Simon Yam. The film plays out as you might expect, with French gangster Ben Archer (Van Damme) deciding after two decades in the underworld to go straight and spend more time with his family. Meanwhile, Ben’s wife Cynthia (Lisa King), an INS agent, has picked up young Kim (Valerie Tian) off a boat ferrying Chinese illegals to the States. It’s a bad mistake, because Kim’s dad is one Sun Quan (Yam), a homicidal maniac with obsessive paternal instincts who has just made a trip of L.A. to find his missing daughter.

After discovering that the Archers are harboring Kim, Quan murders Cynthia and her foster parents, and later that night tries to knock Ben off as well. What’s a retiring gangster with a chip on his shoulder to do? Why, he goes on the warpath, of course. In short order Ben is putting on a ski mask and raiding brothels with help from a guy named Tony (Tony Schiena), who I think is a gangster too, but then later on Ben mentions something about them being brothers, so you figure it out.

It comes as no surprise that you’ve read this synopsis before. You’ve already seen “Wake of Death” when it was called “The Punisher” and “Man on Fire”. And those are just two big-budget Hollywood films treading the same territory. Can you imagine how many direct-to-video copycats (aside from “Wake of Death”) there were? In any case, watching “Wake of Death” one gets the feeling that this is a 2-hour movie, except someone got scissor happy and cut out 40 minutes of it. The result is a movie that doesn’t quite make sense, with tons of character history lost somewhere in the editing room floor.

Of particular note are the Max and Tony characters, both of who gets very personally involved in Ben’s quest for blood vengeance. It’s all fine and well, but the audience has been given little reason why they’re so personally invested in the Ben’s killing spree, up to the point where they are right beside him when he’s shooting up a brothel and then later when he’s interrogating a victim for information. We are told they were gangsters from Marseille, but being told and being shown the unbroken brotherly bond these guys are supposed to share isn’t the same thing.

Still, “Wake of Death” has what it takes to be a decent revenge film. Making Ben a gangster was a good touch, since at this point seeing another angry cop (or ex-cop) go on the rampage is probably a bit much. It’s too bad that much of the film feels disjointed, and you can never shake the feeling that there was a ton of exposition you weren’t privy to, but if you had been it might have made the film more coherent. As such, “Wake of Death” is probably one of the few movies that I wished was longer, because the film certainly has the makings of a good gritty revenge thriller, if the scene with the drill bit and the bloodletting at the Chinese brothel are any indication.

In many ways “Wake of Death” threatens to defy its would-be reputation as yet another Van Damme straight-to-video actioner, but for whatever reason the film’s more challenging aspects are always roped in before they can be completely unleashed. In a film where Van Damme’s Ben is a gangster who relies on his guns, why have so many of those stylistic fights with high kicks and punches? In a movie like this, characters should simply gun each other down. Men on the bloody trail of vengeance don’t take time out to exchange kicks to the face. Ask Denzel Washington if you don’t believe me.

As the chief villain, the charismatic Simon Yam has so little to do that it’s criminal. Appearing only when the plot requires his character to be onscreen (which is quite few, I’m sorry to say), Yam is obscenely absent for much of the second half. Director Philippe Martinez seems to come from the MTV school of directing, and seesaws between making a low-budget version of “Man on Fire” and an irritating film with an obnoxious soundtrack that goes overboard on the violins for the sad scenes and the loud techno for the action scenes. It’s all a little much, to say the least.

In better directorial hands, “Wake of Death” could have most certainly been one of Van Damme’s better movies. If “In Hell” proved anything, it’s that Van Damme can handle good material if he’s given them. The script, though mostly erratic, has the inklings of a good movie, but much of the film’s potential is ruined by overly pretentious directing (especially in the beginning) and mostly incomprehensible editing during the action scenes. Coupled that with too little screentime for the fantastic Simon Yam and an overly obnoxious soundtrack that makes you want to punch the director in the face, and “Wake of Death” is the film that could have been.

FYI: Rumor had it that Ringo Lam, the Hong Kong director who nearly led Van Damme to the promise land with “In Hell”, was set to direct “Wake of Death”, but left at the last minute over “creative differences”. Too bad, because I’m sure Lam would have done a better job than Mr. Martinez, who can’t seem to decide if he wants to do an artsy-fartsy action film or a mindless Van Damme kick’em-in-the-face movie. He seems to have chosen the halfway point, if you were wondering.

Philippe Martinez (director)
CAST: Jean-Claude Van Damme …. Ben Archer
Valerie Tian …. Kim
Tony Schiena …. Tony
Lisa King …. Cynthia
Simon Yam …. Sun Quan

Buy Wake of Death on DVD