Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Quest (Van Damme 1996)

(This move is becoming a REAL pain in the ass, leaving me with no time to review. So, here is ANOTHER "classic" facebook and one time Live Journal review I have been meaning to move over.)

The Quest (Van Damme 1996) would be easy to write off as a miserable film not worth any thought. However, if I did that, I wouldn’t have the challenge of trying to write something on the film now, would I? Thus, I have instead invest six hours (and counting) of my life over two days on this write up, in hopes of coming up with something more worthwhile than the film itself.

If Panic in Year Zero! (Milland 1962) is a testament to Ray Milland’s skills as both an actor and director, overcoming content and budget restrictions to forge a thematically and dramatically rich film, The Quest then is the exact opposite: a testament to Jean Claude Van Damme’s failings as an actor and filmmaker in the face of having the necessary budget and resources at his disposal to create a low aiming B-film for a major studio.

The Quest is another in line of martial arts tournament films that populated the 1980s and 1990s, with Van Damme appear in multiple entries in this genre, including Bloodsport (Arnold 1988) and The Kickboxer (DiSalle and Worth 1989) (Interestingly, the Van Damme staring adaptation of the Street Fighter video games eliminated the tournament storyline. Go figure). The film, set during the mid-1920s, follows Van Damme as Charles Dubois, a lousy pickpocket who looks after street kids in New York. Chased onto a boat of gun smugglers, Dubois is enslaved only to be “rescued” by Lord Dobbs (Roger Moore, whose run of James Bond films is still the worst in that franchise’s history), a former British Naval Officer and now full time pirate.

Again sold by Dobbs into slavery to work as a prize fighter, Dubois meets up again with Dobbs six months later with a proposition: buy his freedom, and they can work together to get to a Lost City in Tibet where an annual martial arts tournament is being held to find the best fighter in the world. Beyond the title, the winner will also receive a massive solid gold dragon statue, and Dubois plans to steal it. With the help of a reporter (Janet Gunn), Dubois and Dobbs manage to con their way into acting as the attendants for an American boxing champion (James Remar) who has been invited to the tournament in order to make their way to the lost city. From thereon out, Dubois will learn the meaning of honour and redeem himself by ultimately fighting in the tournament himself.

While the premise is hardly original, all of hard body action hero Van Damme’s films have been derivative at best. What makes the best of these films work are scripts that show just enough of a twist on their respective premises to be interesting, and the stylish direction of filmmakers such as John Woo on Hard Target (1993) and Roland Emmerich on Universal Solider (1992) who know how to take advantage of Van Damme’s physical skills as a martial artist and shoot well executed gunplay. Picking up the acting slack for Van Damme during scenes where he is not required to beat the hell out of people (or is on screen at all) are casts of solid character actors. Would Hard Target be as much fun without Lance Henriksen chewing up all the scenery in sight? Or would Universal Solider have worked without allowing Jerry Orbach to get a paycheque that didn’t have anything to do with Law and Order?

So why does The Quest fail? At its simplest, it’s that Van Damme the filmmaker has crafted a film that undermines his strengths and showcases all of his failings, where none of Van Damme’s various roles are able to compensate for the failings of the others.

First, the screenplay, which is based on a story co-written by Van Damme, is lazy on a spectacular level, failing to provide understandable motivations and coherent logic for events to take place. While hardly great writing, Hard Target at least made basic sense: we know what motivates the villains, we know why the world and the situations the characters face are the way they are. The Quest is unable to even motivate a reason for what appear to be Tibetan monks to hold the tournament and give a large golden dragon as a prize. This repeats itself frequently over the film: when James Remar’s boxer Maxie Devine declares to the monks that he believes that Dubois is a better fighter capable of representing the United States than him, they declare that if Dubois fails in the first round, Devine will have to stay in the Lost City forever. Why? I have no idea.

Unfortunately, the film is structured in such a way that rather than dispersing the action throughout the film, it is saved mainly for the final third, which would be fine if the film wasn’t required to rest of the shoulders of Van Damme as an actor. Unlike the other noted Van Damme films where the supporting cast manages to, um, support the film until the next moment where Van Damme breaks into battle or, at the very least, find a way to make use of his complete lack of acting ability, here Van Damme is stuck having to try and keep up with Roger Moore for charm or Remar for dedication to material not worth his time, constantly reminding the viewer that Van Damme simply can’t act and wishing that the film would have been about Dobbs instead. (NOTE: having seen JCVD since, I take back the "Van Damme can't act" comment.)

But hey, at least once Van Damme gets to play action hero, the film should pick up, right? Unfortunately, Van Damme the action star is let down by Van Damme the director. While his direction has been mainly inept anyway throughout the entire film, the action scenes are particularly awful, staged with all the skill of a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers episode and filmed with even less skill. Each scene is a repetitive set of punching and kicking with no flair, which factored together with the PG-13 rating crushes any hope for well designed action sequences.

I could keep going on with this, but there is little point. Van Damme comes dangerously close with The Quest to becoming the Jerry Lewis of action films, only salvaging himself from that “honour” by the sheer level of sincerity that seems to be on display, rather than the annoying smugness of Lewis. Unfortunately for Van Damme, that same sincerity is what manages to bring the film into Mystery Science theatre 3000 levels of mockery.

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