Wake of Death (January 8/05)
As hard as it may be to believe, Wake of Death is Jean-Claude Van Damme's most enjoyable movie in almost ten years. Van Damme's last halfway decent film remains 1995's Sudden Death, and there's no denying that his output as of late has been seriously lacking (ie Derailed, The Order, In Hell, etc, etc). The biggest problem with those movies has been an emphasis on convoluted storylines, when all one really wants to see is Van Damme kick some butt. Wake of Death finally gives the Muscles from Brussels a fairly straight-forward plot that wastes little time in getting to the action (the film even opens with a car chase!), something that sounds simple but has been oddly absent from some of his more recent flicks.
Van Damme stars as Ben Archer, an ex-grunt for the mob whose wife brings home a young Chinese refugee one night (she's a social worker, you see). As it turns out, said Chinese refugee is the daughter of a ruthless warlord named Sun Quan (Simon Yam). Not surprisingly, it's not long before Sun Quan goes after his daughter - killing Ben's wife and in-laws in the process. Now Ben must embark on a mission of revenge, employing the services of some of his brutal mob buddies in the process.
It's virtually impossible to screw up a film based in revenge - particularly one in which the hero is forced to seek retaliation for the murder of a loved one - so it's not terribly shocking that Wake of Death works as well as it does. Van Damme is at his best here, though it is a little disappointing that he spends most of his time dispatching goons using a wide range of guns - rather than his well-known chop-socky skills. Still, it's hard to deny the pleasure of watching Van Damme eliminate a particularly smug baddie by shooting him point-blank in the face - with a shotgun.
But what prevents Wake of Death from joining the ranks of Van Damme's stellar mid-'90s output (Timecop, anyone?) is director Philippe Martinez annoyingly over-the-top sense of style. This guy makes Michael Bay look subtle; Martinez peppers virtually every single scene in the film with fast cuts, slow-motion photography, and an all-around feeling of slickness that's more distracting than anything else. Fortunately, it's easy enough to ignore Martinez's questionable directorial choices - particularly given the effectiveness of the actors, including Van Damme himself and Yam (who turns Sun Quan into an incredibly menacing figure, spouting sinister lines like, "the only thing you postpone in life is death.")
If you're not a Van Damme fan, it seems highly unlikely that Wake of Death will change your opinion. However, if you've been patiently waiting for a return to form. . .well, this isn't quite it, but it's about as close as we're going to get.