Until Death (April 22/07)
Though packaged and marketed as just another schlocky direct-to-video actioner, Until Death slowly reveals itself to be a much more low-key (and distinctly slow-paced) affair - with star Jean-Claude Van Damme tackling a character that's a far cry from those he's portrayed in the past.
Van Damme stars as Anthony Stowe, a dirty, almost ridiculously grizzled cop who is uniformly loathed by everybody around him (that he spends his off hours having rough sex with prostitutes and getting high probably has something to do with this). Left for dead by his villainous ex-partner (Stephen Rea's Gabriel Callaghan), Stowe instead falls into a coma and awakens months later with a thirst for revenge.
Director Simon Fellows generally does a nice job of playing up the more dramatic elements within Dan Harris and James Portolese's screenplay, though there's little doubt that the film's overlong running time is occasionally just a little too pronounced (Stowe's post-coma recovery, for example, seems to go on forever). The inclusion of a few genuinely thrilling action sequences certainly goes a long way towards keeping things interesting, however, with a prolonged shootout within a diner an obvious highlight.
Of course, it's Van Damme's performance that ultimately determines Until Death's effectiveness; the actor, initially trapped within the confines of the most reprehensible character of his career, does a surprisingly nice job of bringing Anthony Stowe to life and essentially transforms the guy into a likeable figure (no small feat considering what a scumbag he is). Van Damme's subtle work is sharply contrasted by Stephen Rea's scenery-chewing performance, which is certainly shocking in and of itself (who could've ever predicted that Neil Jordan regular Rea would be out-acted by the Muscles from Brussels?)