Van Damme Collection (US - DVD R1)
Gabe is hypnotized by the silliness of Brussels' finest gluteus maximus...
LionsGate home video acquired the rights to Artisan Entertainment's video library in 2003, and in turn acquired the rights to Carolco Pictures, Live Entertainment, Vidmark, Trimark, and Vestron's video libraries. One might assume the horror hungry studio might get going on a special edition of Peter Jackson's Braindead (called Dead/Alive in these parts), or cult favourites like Waxworks, Class of 1999, Life Force, and Lair of the White Worm. I don't know, maybe they could get on that special edition of From Beyond we heard about so very long ago. Maybe an unrated version of Total Recall? Perhaps a widescreen copy of Ginger Snaps? Nope, the folks at LionsGate seem content to just re-release Artisan's Jean-Claude Van Damme DVDs. Lucky us.
Maybe I misunderstand the rights issues for these films, and maybe I misunderstand the supply and demand facts of Van Damme's filmography, but this kind of seems like a waste of time to me. Wouldn't Van Damme's fans already own these discs? I suppose repackaging is a cheap way of double-dipping, and LionsGate doesn't stand to lose any money on the deal, but the whole release strikes me as kind of silly, but that might just be because I'm suddenly stuck watching three of the Muscles from Brussels ‘best’ motion pictures.
When Rocky Balboa's friend and trainer Apollo Creed is killed in the ring by the brutal Ivan Drago, Rocky decides to train even more and beat Drago...what? What's Rocky IV? Oh, oops, my bad. Let me start over. Eric goes to Thailand to take on the country's most brutal fighter. He travels with his lover, Kurt, who looks up to...what? They're brothers? Are you serious? Oh. Jeeze, I'm not doing so well am I? Um, anyway, when Eric is beaten and paralyzed in the ring, Kurt, the raging Belgium decides to train...what?! He's suppose to be an American? No, maybe a Frenchmen or...you swear? An American. Huh.
Kickboxer is exactly the kind of medium budgeted action movie one might expect from the late '80s. It's brutally unoriginal, it pretends to have interest in a non-American culture (but really doesn't), it's crammed full of montages, the characters don't require names but titles (boss bad guy, tough bad guy, second in command bad guy, old man who trains, arrogant 'American', jive talkin' black dude, etc), and can be summed up in a single sentence—guy loses fight, guy's brother trains for vengeance, vengeance is served. Oh, there's some 'spiritual' gobbly-gook thrown in to appeal to the intellectual crowd, but really it's all a big pile of garbage.
But what a joyous pile of garbage. I'm pretty sure I've seen Kickboxer before, but I could very easily be confusing it with just about any other Van Damme flick, or about a million other flicks from the era. I enjoyed the film for this uncanny familiarity, and had fun counting off the numbers a they ticked by. The musical parts are the most entertaining bits (there's an ‘I'm sad about my brother’ musical montage, about three separate training montages, and an unbelievably hysterical dance scene), but the insanely evil bad guys and their hilariously obvious tactics (they rape the girl, they cripple the 'brother', they even stab the dog) are pretty great too. Easily one of the most unintentionally hilarious films ever made. The best part? It took three directors to bring this to the screen.
Add Robocop to The Terminator, divide by Van Damme, multiply by Dolph Lundgren, subtract one studio on the road to bankruptcy, add the square root of Platoon, and divide again by a young German director on his way to superstardom, and you get Universal Soldier, probably the closest thing to a 'good' movie on Jean-Claude Van Damme's imdb.com page.
Before he was making half good movies (usually the first half, where cities are being destroyed) Roland Emmerick was expertly filming JC's naked butt in loving close-up. Universal Soldier shares quite a bit in common with Paul Verhoven's RoboCop, beyond the whole 'recycled soldier' plot. Both films represent the Hollywood débuts of their European directors, and both directors would go onto Sci-Fi/Action super-stardom. Both films were made as studies of American action cinema, and both films were relatively popular. The difference is that one film ( RoboCop) was an ironic comedy in disguise and was a true screen original, where the other film ( Universal Soldier) was a retread, not very good, and wears its sense of humour on its blazing red sleeve.
I coulda sworn I'd seen the movie before, but I must've only caught it in bits and pieces on TV because I know I'd remember seeing Dolph Lundgren chopped to shreds in a hay bailer (and the next person that tells me my favourite Italian horror film is sick better not have this in his or her collection). The film is perfectly entertaining, if not entirely (purposefully?) stupid. It contains plenty of violence, but not enough nudity (at least not of the feminine persuasion, though that may be Emmerich's point). I'm impressed with its vulgarity, but not amazed. Besides spectacular action set pieces (which the movie has plenty of), late '80s/early '90s vulgarity is really the only reason to watch such a film.
My favourite thing about Universal Soldier is Dolph Lundgren. I made fun of Dolph with the rest of them back in the day, but when I rewatched The Punisher and saw I Come in Peace for the first time in a row I had a change of heart. You know what? For an action guy with precious few lines Dolphy is pretty damn good in my book. He's defiantly better than Van Damme, and probably deserved Van Damme's career more than Van Damme did. Not to mention the fact that he's got a Masters in Molecular Biology, had a Fullbright scholarship to M.I.T., he's a real life Karate champion, and he speaks Swedish, English, German, Japanese and some French. And he gets hay bailed to death in this movie! What else could you want?
The final and most brutally convoluted film in this set features Van Damme as a very bad mom and baby killer who has successfully evaded capture for years. In a last ditch effort to catch him, and as a test of new cloning technology, a secret government lab engineers a 'replicant' of the killer, complete with psychic abilities and shared memories. But can special agent Michael Rooker trust this clone, or will the new Van Damme end up a murdering psychopath like his 'brother'?
I've already made it pretty clear that I'm not much of a Van Damme fan, so the thought of watching one of his STV films is not one I'm likely to get too excited about. The plot synopsis didn't do much to lift my spirits. The fact that this was a recent film also hurt. When I finally got around to sticking the damn thing in my DVD player three things struck me immediately—Van Damme is playing a shockingly convincing bad guy, Michael Rooker is playing a shockingly convincing good guy, and most importantly, the film is directed by one Ringo Lam.
Lam is the director behind two of Hong Kong action cinema's greatest films, City on Fire and Full Contact, both staring Chow Yun-fat at his very best. City on Fire was the basis for Tarantino's debut [/i]Reservoir Dogs[/i], and Full Contact rivals even John Woo's finest work. Lam also directed Jackie Chan as duplicates in the halfway decent Twin Dragons, so it seems he has the right credentials. I figured I had to give the film a chance, despite the fact that my other Hong Kong directing heroes, John Woo and Tsui Hark, had made nothing but crap ( Face Off being the sole exception) when they finally made the move to the West.
The story is super convoluted (and super lame, not to mention super unoriginal), but Rooker, and again, surprisingly Van Damme (as both the man dog and the villain) are pretty good, and Lam's overall direction solid enough to entertain. Those expecting an action packed stunt-fest will probably be a little disappointed, as will those expecting a serial killer film equivalent to Silence of the Lambs, though that really should go without saying based on stars and budget. An average film overall, and not one to shake any non-fans out of contention, but better than expected.
Kickboxer is presented, curiously enough, in 1.33:1 full frame. I took the liberty of matting the film when I watched it by zooming in on my widescreen television. After doing this I noticed nary a single cropped head. The transfer's biggest problem is that it's washed out. Details dissipate with the background, and blacks aren't very rich. Colours are hit and miss throughout, and there are a few artefacts here and there. In short, not a great transfer, about a good as the average television presentation.
Universal Soldier looks awful at the outset; the studio logos are filthy and riddled with artefacts. Fortunately things clear up a bit after that. The transfer is grainy, and blacks could be a bit richer, but most details are sharp and the film's blue hues look awfully, um, bluey. Blocking is rare, but darker backgrounds are still a bit stifled.
Replicant is the newest film in the set, and not surprisingly looks the best overall. Detail is sharp in spite of some grain. Ringo Lam's neon colours shine nicely, and blacks are effectively deep. During darker scenes things kind of become muddled, but well placed highlights make sure this doesn't become too much of a problem.
To match the bland video Kickboxer features an average surround audio track. Made-for-television Surround is the name of this game. Everything sounds satisfactory, except the music, which is awful. Have you ever noticed that bad electronic pop scores from the late '80s/early '90s are totally tolerable until someone starts singing? Universal Soldier was made around the time of the 5.1 inception, so it sounds pretty good overall. I'm not impressed by the bass levels, but I noticed more than a few surround channel effects, and fidelity is fine. Replicant is pretty aggressive for a STV feature, especially during the bigger action scenes and the more Sci-Fi related scenes. Bass is reasonably heavy and dialogue is centred and clear.
The only special edition here is Universal Soldier, the other two discs are mostly bare bones. Kickboxer is entirely dry, but Replicant has a few extras, which I'll start with. First up is a commentary with JC and Michael Rooker, which has been edited from two separate sittings, so the two actors don't get a chance to bounce off one another. Rooker is a bit talkier, but even with Van Damme's help he seems unable to fill up the film's runtime. Van Damme also has a habit of repeating himself. The disc also houses eight deleted scenes, which are pretty much all easy throwaways. They offer little to the already paltry plot, and would've slowed the already faltering movie to a crawl. The storyboards included on the disc are interesting in that they aren't very well drawn. Factually they're downright difficult to decipher.
Now onto Universal Soldier, which again, is a reprint of the special edition already available. The commentary track features director Roland Emmerich, co-writer Dean Devlin, Dolph, and JC himself all edited together. Only Emmerich and Devlin share a microphone, and they pretty much rule the track, Dolph and JC interject every once and a while. The track is entertaining, as the filmmakers seem to kind of think the film is crap and take the piss out of it over and over, but even with three tracks edited together there's still a lot of empty space.
The making-of documentary, ‘Guns, Genes and Fighting Machines: The Making of Universal Soldier’ is a nice companion piece to the commentary, and covers much of the same ground. Those that don't want to sit through an entire commentary track will end up almost as knowledgeable about the making of the film just watching the brief (less than twenty minutes) doc. The second featurette is called ‘Tale of Two Titans’, and gives us a brief history of stars Van Damme and Lundgren. It's really a lot more entertaining than it has any right to be.
The disc and set is finished up with an alternate ending and trailers. The alternate ending is pretty much the same as the used ending, but slightly less spectacular, and much bleaker.
I'm going to speak the unspeakable and say that I'm simply not that impressed with Jean-Claude's ass. It sits too high on his body, and is too heart shaped, like a woman's ass should look. Maybe I'm not the best judge of dudes’ asses, but I can't live a lie just because it's the 'cool' thing to do.
And I leave you with an excerpt from the best scene in the collection:
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 1st May 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Commentaries, Featurettes, Behind the Scenes, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Mark DiSalle, Roland Emmerich, Ringo Lam
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Alexio, Michael Rooker, Dolph Lundgren
Genre: Action and Sci-Fi
Length: 299 minutes