Being that we don’t have anyone in the few cities that the film is showing (as part of it’s brief theatrical bow), long-time reader and contributor Jonathan Urban volunteered to check out the new Jean-Claude Van Damme/Scott Adkins flick “Assassination Games” for us. This is Van Damme’s first theatrical release (aside from “J.C.V.D”) in many years, so obviously we’re curious – well, Am I anyway – why this one was granted a brief theatrical release while most of JC’s other recent flicks have bypassed the mutliplex and gone straight to DVD/BD.
Without further ado, Jonathan with the answer :
ASSASSINATION GAMES (3/5 stars)
By Jonathan Urban
Van Damme is back and this time he shares the screen with martial arts new kid on the block, Scott Adkins UNDISPUTED II, NINJA and the highly acclaimed Isaac Florentine film, UNDISPUTED III”), and the two of them wreak havoc on Eastern Europe in the new assassin thriller, ASSASSINATION GAMES (formerly known simply as WEAPON, which is really a better name and more fitting due to some lines in dialogue).
The plot is simple and not INCEPTION complex by any means so I’ll just say that you have two rival assassins after the same target for different reasons and there’s much bloodshed. Seem a little too simple? Don’t worry about it as the movie, while not perfect, does a good job elevating itself from standard DTV fare.
Now to the good stuff as that’s what everyone is wondering. How does Van Damme perform and is this a step forward or back in his career? Well, having had the chance to see this on the big screen (which is the first Van Damme movie I’ve seen in a theater since the lackluster UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN) as it is playing in extremely limited (like ten U.S. theaters for about a week), I have to say it was great to see him on the big screen again.
First let’s tackle Brazil (Van Damme), an assassin at the top of his game and at first a man with no heart, just a good business sense. He lives in what at first glance looks like the shoddiest apartment in Eastern Europe, but there’s a secret: there’s a hidden back area that is his real headquarters complete with enough weapons (here we go again—WEAPON was such a better name for the film) to make Rambo cry in envy. To round out his swank abode, he has a pet which is a turtle that he can’t seem to connect with and an affinity for playing the violin. Some might scoff that it is unnecessary as it takes away from the cold-blooded aspect of Brazil, and they may be right, but it does add a few of the movies’ more light moments. The movie starts with him on a mission, in disguise and brings us a pre-credits sequence worthy of a lower-budget Bond movie. He does some really brutal killing as he escapes through a kitchen—perhaps one of the best opening sequences of a Van Damme movie.
Next you have Flint (Adkins) who has a personal tragedy driving him and making him careless and undisciplined. There’s not much back-story on either Brazil or Flint, as to why they became assassins, etc., but Adkins motivation for his role is quite clear with some excellent quick flashback sequences showing what brutally happened to his wife. This is a man living a conflicted life between good husband, taking care of his comatose wife and assassin, trying to get close to the man that did this to his wife. Adkins does a fine job, obviously having had more practice acting dramatically. He’ll always impress with his martial arts prowess, but he’s always been limited in acting. In ASSASSINATION GAMES he won’t win any awards but he shows what he is capable of and with more roles stretching him like this one, I have no doubt he’ll continue to be a DTV favorite.
Supporting cast is a toss up as to their degree of impact and performance skills. Polo, the source for all the hatred and the target that gets between Brazil and Flint, is played stereotypically by Ivan Kaye. Sure, he plays a cold-blooded villain maiming and brutalizing, but he feels like a caricature of a villain. There’s not much depth to his portrayal. Flint’s wife (Van Damme’s daughter Bianca) has little to nothing to do, which isn’t her fault. If someone knows of a clever way to play a comatose patient, I would love to see it. I doubt even Meryl Streep could pull that off. Part of me hoped she’d snap out of it Seagal-style like in HARD TO KILL, but it was a momentary lapse of judgment on my part. Schell (Van Damme’s son, Kristopher) is actually given his largest role yet in a movie and he does a very good job. You can tell his acting is improving and his demeanor and looks in certain scenes show the signs of growing as an actor. His Interpol partner, Godfrey (Michael Higgs) did an okay job, but like Kaye, I felt he wasn’t doing anything fresh and playing a stereotype of a crooked Interpol agent.
The next paragraph is all about the true standout character of the film: October (Marija Karan). October is Brazil’s next door neighbor Telly’s (Attila Arpa) girl. I say girl loosely as all Telly does is beat her constantly to within an inch of her life. She’s not really his girl, but more so his employee, if you get the drift. In one scene where he is beating her, Brazil comes out, not so concerned that some girl is getting beaten, but that his violin playing is being disturbed. It plays well as it shows Brazil’s closed-in world that he inhabits. Now October’s continued screaming does seem to affect Brazil, who rather softens too quickly in my opinion. You can’t go from being indifferent to caring so quickly, but he does. October seems to have an affect on Brazil and soon invites herself into his life and bed. Don’t expect rip-roaring close up shots of the two grinding as you won’t see that. What you do see is the two best dramatic performances of the whole movie: Brazil and October, talking about what living life is. She is tough like Brazil, but has a kindness that is infectious and she even teaches Brazil how to connect with his turtle. Some might laugh at it, but I thought it was integral to the changing of Brazil’s personality. At one point he is sharpening a knife (CYBORG flashback, unintentional I am sure) while October rests in bed. It’s a grown-up Van Damme performance with few words, but lots of passion.
Is this the high kicking Van Damme of days gone past? Nope. He does a single kick and that’s about it. He does fight brutally and close quarters, not MMA style, but still realistic. But his character excels at using weapons, so more of the memorable Van Damme moments involve various weapons.
This is the Van Damme of WAKE OF DEATH or IN HELL; the one with a grimace on his face and not afraid to blur the lines between a good guy and a bad guy. In fact, this could be a spiritual sequel to WAKE OF DEATH, as in where his life went after that movie. I joke, but it could. Adkins provides a non-Bokya small dose of martial arts mayhem, but again, weapons are what he uses, so don’t expect a lot of acrobatics. If NINJA was a low point, UNDISPUTED III a high point, this is a step closer to mainstream which may upset some fans. He, like Van Damme, does little of the trademark martial arts that made him popular, but I guess he doesn’t have to when he has a remote controlled gun, that itself, is like a supporting character in the film.
The cinematography is really great for a low-budget movie. In one scene Brazil goes up some swirling stairs and the camera swirls with him. That alone raises this above standard DTV fare. Phil Parmet can be thanked for that. His camera work is done very well, making this movie look a lot more expansive and expensive. The only drawback is the use of a sepia type filter where everything looks rather bland, particularly on a big screen like where I saw it. At first it looks stylish, like JCVD, but it grows tiresome after awhile. It’s too bright in some scene with much of the detail lost. Some of the later scenes where the colors are more natural look a lot better. My only request is less sepia in the future.
The sound design is what you’d expect.
John Hyams pulled out all the stops for UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION and it’s hard to compare anything to that or it will fall short. But the sounds match the weapons and overall are done nicely. The musical score is well done by Neal Arcee. It’s not too obtrusive and not too action packed. In fact, at times you hardly notice it. He has some good melodies and action set pieces that go well. Some were reminiscent of WAKE OF DEATH or even an older Van Damme Movie, MAXIMUM RISK.
Now, let’s talk for a moment about Ernie Barbarash’s direction. Ernie has done films in many genres and is improving every film. ASSASSINATION GAMES is a big step up for Ernie as he was able to take a small budget and make a film that, while flawed in some aspects, was genuinely enjoyable. Some other reviewers mention slow, dragging parts in the middle and yes they are there. I did find myself checking the time, but I am obsessive compulsive and did that probably twenty times in TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. He was given a simplistic script, though better than most DTV movies, and a small budget and overall I think he did a respectable job.
Should there have been more scenes with Van Damme and Adkins? Sure. Was the brief showdown between the two satisfying? Yes, except it was edited rather choppy and it was too brief—it needed to be a long shoot out like in HARD TARGET, to really be effective. Was the bait and switch and the whole multiple betrayals necessary? In a 100 minute movie, no. In fact, it was easy to get confused as to who was betraying who, but then again, maybe that was the point.
In conclusion, this is not the best Van Damme movie. It is a very good one though, which looks a lot bigger than it ever should, knowing how few days and dollars they had. Barbarash seems to be a director who does care and puts everything into it. (I would love to see what he could do with a Michael Bay budget!) As a Van Damme fan of twenty years, I am picky and this one could easily sit on the shelf in a place of honor next to WAKE OF DEATH and IN HELL.
For those watching in theaters, I found this ironic: a blu-ray was used to display the movie. No film was used. I found it ironic as MCPA (the company that made the movie) has ASSASSINATION GAMES set for release in a few months only on DVD. Either way, though, check it out as you’ll see a good flick with potential actually achieved, with just minor gripes.