When seasoned action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme boldly proclaimed that it was time for him to plant his frequently-naked rump into the proverbial director's chair, guess what kind of movie he and collaborator Frank Dux decided to make? Go on – guess! An action/thriller set inside a maximum security prison? Nope. Guess again. The pasty white boy in the back of the room suggested a time-traveling caper involving wonky politics and lots of spin-kicking madness. Wrong again. Since nobody around here seems to have clue one about the big guy's directorial debut, I'll smash the suspense with my answer-filled hammer.
A tournament flick. He helmed a tournament flick. How brutally original and impossibly safe. Insert audible sigh here.
Are you really that surprised? You shouldn't be, since the muscle-bound master of the helicopter kick had already starred in no less than three competition-oriented motion pictures before lending his creative talents to the 1996 psuedo-epic The Quest. Despite the critical lashing it received upon release, Van Damme's directorial debut isn't as bad as the opening five minutes suggests. If you can get past the sweeping melodramatic score and our hero's dodgy elderly accent, you'll discover a visually-stunning martial arts film that is ultimately hindered by a script obviously written by two ten year-old kung fu fanatics. Had it not been quite so redundant and familiar, this could have easily been Jean-Claude's masterpiece.
Our hero stars as Christopher Dubois, a lovable New York City clown who plays big brother to all the little scamps running around the city circa 1925. After stealing some money from a gaggle of heavily-armed gangsters, he suddenly finds himself on the run from both the mob and the law. One daring escape later, Chris is cruising the seven seas as a stowaway on some sort of dusty cargo ship operated by a crew of filthy seaman. Naturally, the big guy is promptly discovered and chained up in the bowels of the boat, where a filthy deckhand threatens him with a gleaming straight razor and a yellow smile. Before they can cut a nifty slice out of their hunky visitor, the crew is assaulted by a band of booty-hungry pirates led by former 007 Roger Moore and his portly sidekick Harry Smythe.
After assisting this piraty Bond in capturing the ship, Dubois finds himself on an island near Thailand with the promise that a boat bound for America will be along shortly to retrieve him. Yeah, right. Dubois spends the next six months there, honing his skills as a Muay Thai fighter. He and Moore eventually cross paths once again, accompanied by a saucy blonde reporter itching to get some sort of story out of her stay in the far east. Mild hilarity ensues.
After an hour's worthy of forgettable antics, this loose collective of opportunistic thieves agree to venture to a secret underground Thai tournament in order to steal a giant dragon made of solid gold. Posing as guides for an American boxer bound for the competition, they venture deep into the heart of this treacherous land to collect their treasure and reap their rewards. However, Dubois’ interest in the dragon begins to falter when he realizes that he may actually have a shot at winning the Ghang-geng. Will our hero emerge from this spiritual and life-affirming quest with the title, the gold, and the girl?
If this all sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because The Quest is essentially a remake of 1988's Bloodsport, which told the story of Frank Dux and his journey to fight in Hong Kong's Kumite tournament. Which is no surprise, really, given Dux's involvement in the story development department. And trust me when I say it’s very familiar, right down to the impossible odds, the silent but deadly rivalry between Van Damme and an unstoppable foe, the sexy blonde love interest, and the exotic locale.
Given the similarities, one has to wonder why the big guy decided to use this premise for his directorial debut. If he really wanted to leave his mark on Hollywood, perhaps something a bit more distinct should have been pursued. Then again, what do I know? Hollywood thrives on formulas and rip-offs, so perhaps everyone thought this was a great idea and a potential box-office smash.
Aside from the opening and closing sequences involving Jean-Claude as an old story-telling gentleman wielding a deadly cane, The Quest is actually a snazzy little picture. The sets are wonderful, the costumes are near-perfect, and Van Damme’s eye for sweeping visuals is definitely worth noting. In fact, all of this impressive eye candy will distract you from the two-dimensional characters and a script that does little to separate this particular outing from the other like-minded films our hero has made in the past.
However, anyone searching for depth and meaning in a film like this should definitely re-evaluate their movie-going options. Though the flick tries to pass itself off as an action-packed journey into one man’s quest to find himself, it’s really just an exercise in martial arts mayhem coated with a thin layer of melodramatic icing. In other words, it's nothing you haven't seen before.
The tournament itself is the core of the story, pitting Van Damme against a number of unique opponents from around the world, each with their own unique style. The fights are suitably brutal and uncompromising, ranging from short and sweet to long and bloody. My only complaint is the frequent use of slow motion, often repeatedly during the same shot. When I sit down with a martial arts picture, I’m more interested in the fluidity of the movements than seeing them slow down, speed up, then slow down again. It ruins their intensity, their ability to thrill. Other than that, the action is top-notch and rather impressive.
If you found yourself dozing in and out of Bloodsport, Kickboxer, and Lionheart, chances are The Quest will do nothing more than provide a good night’s sleep. Van Damme is a fine director with a great eye for beautiful imagery and impressive visuals, which makes his decision to craft yet another tournament film so disappointing. Had he decided to sally forth with an original story, perhaps this wouldn't be the only directorial effort on his resume. That said, if you consider the aforementioned films to be some of Van Damme’s best efforts, The Quest is sure to please from start to finish. Well, maybe not from start to finish, but certainly from 1925 till the end of tournament. Like I said, excising the elderly Jean-Claude sequences would have tightened this film considerably.
After all, nobody wants to see an incontinent Van Damme play with his cane.Powered by Sidelines