You can always tell when Jean-Claude Van Damme is going to win a fight by watching for the “Eye Shot.” That’s the tight shot of his enraged eyes as he lies on the ground and looks up at the bad guy just before he jumps up and whoops his ass. What’s good about the Eye Shot is that the end of the movie quickly follows. What’s bad about the Eye Shot in The Quest is that it doesn’t occur in the first five minutes or so.
Told in flashback by Van Damme’s character, The Quest is the story of an ancient martial arts tournament somewhere in Tibet in 1925. Van Damme plays Chris Dubious (once again a lame attempt to explain away Van Damme’s accent – as if anyone cares), leader of a gang of street urchins who gets on the wrong side of the local gangster. He stows away on a boat and somehow ends up with Roger Moore’s character, a mangy sea captain named “Dobbs. Lord Dobbs.” The two set off to fight in the tournament and win a dragon made of solid gold.
Essentially a remake of Bloodsport, but without the edge, The Quest fails at just about everything it tries. Van Damme’s acting is painfully bland, and watching Roger Moore stoop to this level is truly sad (though he looks incredibly spry for his 71 years). There are couple attempts at emotion that go nowhere, and a pretty American journalist is throw into the mix even though she serves absolutely no purpose.
Now, as a martial arts film enthusiast, I’d be willing to forgive all of the above if the martial arts scenes were good – but they’re not. Not even close. The fight scenes before the tournament are the same thing over and over and over again. Van Damme can’t ever seem to hit anyone without the same shot being played fourteen times in slow motion accompanied by a Dolby-enhanced Thwack! There’s nothing even remotely original here.
The fight scenes during the tournament are somewhat redeemed by the variety of martial arts represented. The Capoeira fighter from Brazil and the Kung Fu fighter from China are fascinating to watch, but the whole sequence is ruined as the longest fight scene runs about 40 seconds. The big heavy is from Mongolia, and he looks to be a perfect cross between Tong Po from Kickboxer and Atilla from Lionheart. Bolo Yeung he is not. The final match between him and Van Damme (gee, I hope I’m not giving anything away…) is painfully uninspired, and I found myself waiting impatiently for its conclusion.
The entire tournament sequence borrows heavily from Bloodsport – Van Damme’s 1989 feature film debut, and arguably his best film. There’s the raised fighting platform, the solemn judge (who has to cue someone for his gong), and the combatant who is killed by the big heavy. Van Damme even takes a braided headpiece thingamajig from the dead guy and wears it in the final match to honor him, much like the motorcycle bandanna from Bloodsport.
To it’s credit, the scenery of The Quest is beautiful. The Tibetan landscapes are breathtaking, and Van Damme’s first meeting with Moore takes place amid bizarre islands that look suspiciously like those from The Man with The Golden Gun. There’s also some wonderful period costume work in the city scenes at the beginning. Van Damme directed this film and since I didn’t notice the direction at all, I guess that’s acceptable.
Nonetheless, the good points are mercilessly overwhelmed by the bad and the only thing The Quest did was send me on a quest for the exit.
As a Mainstream Film: F
As a Martial Arts Film: D+