After sitting through The Quest earlier this year, I truly thought that Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career was in its death throes. So I was pleasantly surprised with Maximum Risk – a film which demonstrates that the hyphenated wonder is able to bounce back with all the resilience of the punching dummy that his critics say he is.
Van Damme is a French cop drawn into sinister doings when a man who looks exactly like him is killed in his hometown. When he discovers that the man is actually a twin brother he never knew, Van Damme impersonates him and goes to New York City to find out who or what got him killed. The drop-dead beautiful Natasha Hentsridge (Species) checks in as the dead brother’s girlfriend and the pair are suddenly on the run from the Russian mob and an assassin big enough to make Van Damme look puny.
The plot isn’t terribly original, but it doesn’t stop to make excuses and the action more than makes up for the lack of originality. A few moments are painfully cliched (“I want to go with you,” she pleads. “No, it’s too dangerous,” he replies) but the film should be admired more for the clichés it doesn’t fall into. An early confrontation with a few street punks could have easily turned into a warm-up match for Van Damme and a chase through a strip club could have ignited a hackneyed barroom brawl, but both are refreshingly avoided. The action is prodigious and director Ringo Lam presents it with flair and originality.
Surprisingly, Maximum Risk offers some stunning location work in Nice, France as the backdrop for the climactic action sequence at the end of the film. The European setting offers another bonus as well – I swear than Van Damme’s acting improves on the other side of the Atlantic. He looks right at home in France and tackles dialogue with a confidence and credibility not previously seen.
Although Van Damme has strayed from the martial arts films that made him a star (Bloodsport, Kickboxer), he has successfully conquered the mainstream action genre. Maximum Risk is easily one of his best films to date.
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